Friday, May 16, 2008

Ishmael: or In the Depths


–verb (used without object)
to persist in anything undertaken; maintain a purpose in spite of difficulty, obstacles, or discouragement; continue steadfastly.

Perseverance is probably one of the hardest qualities for a person to develop, and it yet it is also one of the most rewarding. With enough perseverance, greatness can be achieved, no matter what circumstances, obstacles or hardships stand in in the way. It is this quality that stands at the center of E. D. E. N. Southworth's 1876 novel Ishmael: or In the Depths.


It is into the humblest of circumstances in pre-Civil War Maryland that our hero, Ishmael Worth, is born. Raised in poverty by his maiden aunt, Ishmael must take on many odd jobs to keep them from starving. But it isn't just food that Ishmael hungers for, but knowledge as well. Through his integrity, honesty and thirst for knowledge, Ishmael soon finds himself in one of Maryland's most exclusive private schools. He also finds himself in the company of some of the nation's most prominent families; the Middleton family, whose father runs the school, as well as Judge Merlin and his daughter Claudia. Ishmael soon begins to worship Claudia when she defends him against the school bullies, and while she returns his affection, it is more like the affection that one would have for a dog or a small child.

As the years pass, Ishmael grows into a fine and intelligent young man. His goal is to pass the bar exam without going to law school. Though Judge Merlin sees this as impossible, Ishmael does not and sets to work on his dream. But the cloud surrounding the circumstances of his birth begin to overshadow his successes, and the one thing that Ishmael so deeply desires, Claudia's hand in marriage, begins to slip further and further from his grasp.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

First off, I must tell you that I read the Lamplighter edition of this story, not the original. According to Lamplighter, there have been a few modifications to the story, such as the removal of unnecessary consumption of alcohol as well as unnecessary passion (hehe).

The other thing that you should probably know is that this is not, I repeat, NOT great literature. Most of the characters are pretty flat (Claudia is probably the only one with any variation) and the writing is not the best in the world. Also, virtue is always rewarded and vice never goes unpunished; circumstances which we know don't often happen here on the earth.

Having said that, I do think that this book is worth your time. The plot itself is riveting. Every time that I read it, I have a hard time putting it down, even though I know how it ends. There are also many lessons that can be learned from this story.
  1. The importance of integrity. Many of Ishmael's opportunities come to him because of his honesty and integrity, and it shows that men will respect you if you have these qualities, no matter how humble your circumstances.

  2. The importance of perseverance. There were many times when Ishmael's circumstances seemed overwhelming, and yet he never gave up. He fought on, not for his own glory and achievement, but for God's. "...but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." Philippians 3:13b-14.

  3. God's providence. Considering the tragic circumstances surrounding his birth and early life, Ishmael Worth would seem to be the last person on earth who would rise to greatness. But God had different plans. When Ishmael was born, his Aunt Hannah secretly wished that the tiny, unwanted child would just die and put himself and her out of their misery. But even as a baby, Ishmael fought on and exceeded the expectations of all of those around him. Hannah would one day recognize that it was God who had kept that little child alive when she in her human mind had wished him dead. "But as it is written: ' Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.'” 1 Corinthians 2:9
Despite its literary flaws, Ishmael is endearing for its engaging plot and its encouraging lessons. As you can see, it has even made my Top 10 list. I encourage you to give it a try and introduce yourself to a character that you will not soon forget.

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