Ishmael is an aged gorilla sage, exiled from his home country for mysterious reasons. In the U.S., he takes on a pupil [the unnamed narrator]. Through a series of dialogues, stories, and thought experiments, Ishmael teaches his pupil radical fundamental truths about the nature of human history and evolution. During these sessions, an ever-present question broods over them. Written in all caps across an old, cryptic poster, the question: "WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?" seems a riddle, or a taunt.
Ishmael's pupil is incredibly bright and well-learned. He has a gift for intellectual dialogue. Yet, this abstract intelligence proves more a hindrance than an aid in helping him see what Ishmael is pointing to. Ishmael spends a great amount of time getting his pupil to stop over-intellectualizing. Ishmael wants the narrator to think concretely, and to be literal. So, it makes sense, when asking what the meaning of this question is, to attempt a quite literal, concrete analysis.
We know that Ishmael is among the few of his species remaining. We know also that his species will probably soon become extinct. The question suggests then, quite literally: well, what if man were gone? If man were gone, would there then be hope for the gorilla?
Considered in this light, the question reads nearly as a threat. After all, it is a statement featuring a world with "man gone," written on a prominently displayed poster in the room of a radical, strangely mysterious, telepathic gorrilla. I think it's important to note here that this book is the first of a trilogy. The significance of this question is a theme that author Daniel Quinn returns to in each installment.
The poster, which is reversed in the final lines of the novel, displays part of Daniel's Quinn's message to the reader. This question is one that humans, in Quinn's opinion, should be asking themselves with the extinction of each and every species from the planet. With ____________ (insert most recent extinct species here) gone, will there be hope for man? In other words, Quinn is perhaps reminding readers of the fleeting existence humans live on this planet, especially considering their treatment of the environment and natural resources. The novel ends with the statement, "WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR MAN?" This time, however, the author completes his narrative a bit more literally. Now that Ishmael has died, is his message lost? Quinn challenges the readers to continue this message, especially in the next book in the series, The Story of B.