|“||I won't force you.||”|
— Ishmael's catchphrase
Ishmael, who prefers the nickname Ish, is the leader of a cult of sorts who, until The End, never challenge his ways. Although he always tells the islanders "I won't force you," it soon becomes apparent to the Baudelaires that his decisions go largely unquestioned and his suggestions are obeyed like orders anyway, due to peer pressure.
In the books, it is revealed that he is a volunteer of V.F.D. As such, he has a tattoo of an eye on his ankle. He tells the other castaways on the island that his feet are injured, and keeps them covered in clay to promote this idea as it supposedly has healing powers, but he is lying so that he does not have to do much work on the island. In the TV series, he wears boots made of clay and walks around the islanders sometimes, although he apparently has his own sleigh, implying he has told them that he is partially disabled in this version.
Ishmael is a very secretive elderly man who dislikes change and uses the "appeal to tradition" argument, a logical fallacy which supports doing something merely because it's been done for a long time. He does not allow anything to happen on the island that will change the ridiculously arbitrary customs and traditions that he has put in place. For example, Miranda Caliban has to learn the backstroke in secrecy, as he claims it is not the customary way to swim.
Ishmael's reluctance for change and new experiences is eventually revealed to have stemmed from his "differences in people cause conflict" mentality, as part of his "safety is more important than free will" opinion. He does not want the islanders to be influenced by anything of the "outside world" beyond the island because he views it as corrupt, treacherous and dangerous.
Ishmael also has an rather cruel and selfish side, willing to endanger the lives of the islanders in order to keep his secrets. When Violet called him out for this, and also endangering the rest of the world by possibly spreading the fungus to other people, all he replied was, "I guess it depends on how you look at it." He also took a jab at the poor survival skills of the Baudelaire parents as he said farewell to the Baudelaire children.
The book version of Ishamel is shown to be rather intelligent and philosophical, and more "humanized". Due to the TV series portrayal of Ishmael being forced into an hour, Ishmael comes off as a bit more one-dimensional in this adaptation.
Ishmael was once a member of the V.F.D., as well as a chemistry teacher in the City. He regards Count Olaf as his personal enemy, blaming him for the act of arson that destroyed his home, although Olaf later refuses this, saying that it wasn't caused by him at all.
He washed up on the island like everyone else, although there is no detail on what circumstances exactly brought him there. Beatrice and Bertrand Baudelaire were already the facilitators of the island before Ishmael arrived. Because of his involvement with V.F.D. and the schism, Ishmael wanted a life on the island as far from treachery as possible.
Ishmael began to spread rumors and doubt throughout the island that operating so boisterously would eventually endanger the inhabitants of the island. Beatrice and Bertrand referred to Ishmael's actions as "fear-mongering". Due to frequent outbursts of concern from Ishmael the construction of a passageway to Anwhistle Aquatics was halted. After persuading the castaways on the island of the need for more policies to keep themselves safe, and to keep treachery from washing up on the shores, the values of Beatrice and Bertrand were abandoned, and those in favor of their teachings left the island with them.
After he became the island's facilitator, he made everything on the island simple and pressured the same lifestyle for everyone in order to avoid future schisms. The same three bland dishes were served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner respectively. Another example is that he did not allow forks because it can be used as a weapon. The other islanders were kept in a submissive form by insisting that they regularly drink fermented coconut milk, an opiate that keeps them from protesting against his customs. He claimed that teaching the islanders how to read is not a good idea, so those born on the island such as Friday Caliban do secret learning with Professor Fletcher. Ishmael convinced the islanders that their island was like a safe paradise and a haven from the evil and treacherous outside world. Ishmael was also the one who suggested that Miranda Caliban lies to Friday and tell her that her father had died.
He is responsible for the upkeep of the arboretum and the secret library within, as well as all of the detritus that washes up on the coastal shelf, pulled to the arboretum by the sheep he trained to do so. He predicts the weather with a tall periscope, although he tells the islanders that it's magic. Because he does not allow the Islanders near the arboretum, they do not know that the apples on the giant tree dilute the Medusoid Mycelium poison. He eats them regularly though, as he fears the eventual threat of the fungus. His frequent eating of the hybrid fruit has made him immune to the poison.
Ishmael welcomes the Baudelaires when they arrive on the island. He has a peculiar reaction when he hears the name Baudelaire, implying he knew of them, or their parents, as he was a V.F.D. member. He allows the Baudelaires and Kit Snicket to live with the island on the condition that they must abide by his rules, while Count Olaf is caged.
After the Baudelaires introduce themselves, Friday suggests a toast to the Baudelaires which her mother, Miranda Caliban, agrees to. Ishmael says, "Let's drink a toast to the Baudelaire orphans!" despite them not mentioning their lost parents, foreshadowing he knows more about the Baudelaires than he's letting on. They toast with the coconut cordial which everybody carries, but which the Baudelaires dislike. Ishmael repeatedly keeps offering the cordial to the Baudelaires, despite that they repeatedly decline because they think it tastes strange. The islanders become annoyed with Ishmael's rules and begin to form a mutiny against him. One night, two of the islanders (Finn and Erewhon) sneak out to feed the children and ask them a favor. A group of discontented islanders are planning a mutiny against Ishmael in the morning, and they ask the Baudelaires to go over to the arboretum where all the contraband items are collected and find or make some weapons to use in the rebellion. Further, the mutineers refuse to help Kit unless the Baudelaires help them.
The children agree and set off for the arboretum. The orphans discover a well-appointed living area before they are discovered by Ishmael. They learn that their parents were once the island's leaders and were responsible for many improvements meant to make island-life easier and more pleasant, but they were eventually overthrown by Ishmael, who believed that a strictly-enforced simple life (combined with the opiate of the coconut cordial) was the best way to avoid conflict. The Baudelaires find an enormous history of the island, entitled A Series of Unfortunate Events, written by the many different people who had served as island leaders, including their parents and Ishmael. Ishmael also makes references to many other people, including a girl with only one eyebrow and ear (the mother of Isaac and Gregor Anwhistle). Ishmael says he learns to drink tea as bitter as wormwood, which, non-coincidentally, is what Kit says tea should be like. He also says he had a very important conversation with a waiter in a lakeside town.
The Baudelaires and Ishmael go back to the other side of the island, where the mutiny is already underway. Count Olaf returns, still in disguise. After a brief exchange, Ishmael harpoons Olaf in the stomach with a harpoon gun, which shatters the helmet containing the Medusoid Mycelium, infecting the island's entire population at once. The wound later kills Count Olaf. The Baudelaires find apples as a cure, although the Islanders have abandoned the mutiny and boarded their outrigger canoe, ready to set sail. Ishmael refuses to allow the apples onboard, though it is clear that he himself has already eaten one to cure himself.
Violet tries to make Ishmael realize that by going to the mainland, he could spread the poison to the rest of humanity, but this does not discourage Ishmael from leaving. He then enters an argument with the Baudelaires about what their parents would want them to do, causing Ishmael to savagely ask, "What do your parents know about surviving?" It is hinted that one apple might been sneaked on board by the Incredibly Deadly Viper to tide them over until they reach the factory.
TV Series Divergent Canon
Several major changes are made to Ishmael's backstory in the Netflix adaptation. Instead of being another Volunteer, he is the founder of VFD, having been a principal at Prufrock Preparatory School who recruited bright youngsters (although this seems to contradict Jacques referring to the organization as "ancient" in earlier episodes, it is claimed in Shouldn't You Be in School? that V.F.D. is simply the current iteration of the group). Ishmael also did not banish the Baudelaire parents from the island, instead begging them to stay and keep away from the world's treacheries; they decide to leave anyway.
He also does not pretend to be paralyzed, though he does wear clay boots. He also takes the islanders off the island before the Baudelaires discover the cure, lessening his selfish choice to endanger the world in order to keep his secrets.
Behind the scenes
He is portrayed by Peter MacNicol in the TV series.
- "Baudelaires, as your facilitator, allow me to give you a piece of advice, as you begin your stay on this island. Don't rock the boat. We've been living by our customs for quite some time. Most of us can scarcely remember our lives before we became castaways, and there is a whole generation of islanders who have never lived anywhere else. My advice to you is not to ask so many questions or meddle around too much with our customs. We have taken you in, Baudelaires, which is a kindness, and we expect kindness in return. If you keep prying into the affairs of the island, people are going to think you're unkind—just like Friday thought Olaf was unkind. So don't rock the boat. After all, rocking the boat is what got you here in the first place."
- "Sooner or later, everyone's story has an unfortunate event or two—a schism or a death, a fire or a mutiny, the loss of a home or the destruction of a tea set. The only solution, of course, is to stay as far away from the world as possible and lead a safe, simple life."
- "You've been wandering this treacherous world since your story began, and you've never found a place as safe as this one. Why don't you stay? Give up your mechanical inventions and your reading and your cooking. Forget about Count Olaf and V.F.D. Leave your ribbon, and your commonplace book, and your whisk, and your raft library, and lead a simple, safe life on our shores."
- "I've read more of the world's treacherous history than almost anyone, and as one of my colleagues once said, this history is indeed little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind."
- Ishmael: "Your mother is right, Friday. You should respect your parent's wishes. It's more than the Baudelaires ever did."
Violet: "We are respecting our parents' wishes. They didn't want to shelter us from the world's treacheries. They wanted us to survive them."
Ishmael: "What do your parents know about surviving?" (before pushing the boat off the island)
- "Nothing wrong with a little opiate for the people!"
- Ishmael regularly asks the islanders to refer to him as Ish, although Count Olaf is the only person that ever calls him that, near to the end of The End. This is an allusion to the famous opening line of Moby Dick, "Call me Ishmael".
- In "The Wide Window: Part Two", a taxi driver says "Call me Ishmael", which may be a dual reference to both Moby Dick and The End. Some fans used to believe that the taxi-driver is the same person as Ishmael from the island. However, this was proven incorrect, as the actors were different.
- Ishmael has been theorized to be some parody of the stereotypical "God", often depicted as an old man sitting in a chair, as well as a protector figure who enacts rules for people to follow. The book describes Ishmael as having a thick and wild beard, and many people envision God as having a beard. The deity of the Bible commanded Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge, similar to how Ishmael attempts to keep the islanders nescient by persuading them not to learn how to read, as well as trying to forbid the islanders from eating the horseradish apples. Ishmael is also a Biblical name that means "God will hear" which may allude to Ishmael's role.
- This symbolism is what made the writers of the TV series want to make Ishmael the founder of V.F.D. as they wanted to portray Ishmael as a "creator", although writer Joe Tracz regrets omitting a line from Ishmael about how V.F.D. has had different incarnations throughout history. Also, him being the principal of Prufrock is a result of them wanted to throw some shade at the "good wizard trope" seen with Dumbledore in Harry Potter and Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.
- In the TV series, Ishmael wields a decorated Shepherd's crook. While there are sheep on the island, one may interpret it as Ishmael being a "shepherd" for the islanders who are like sheep in their herd mentality. Sheep are also mentioned frequently in the Bible, adding to the Biblical themes of The End.