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If Ivan had a regular column in the New York Times, everyone would read it and quote it. He's wise, funny, modest, self aware and just angst-ridden enough to be interesting and not too perfect. If Ivan were on Facebook, you would see that he has a gazillion friends and admirers. But we're glad he's not because Ivan needs less screen time.
As our narrator and main dude, Ivan has made it his job is to tell it like it is, which he does:
I am a great ape, and you are a great ape, and so are chimpanzees and orangutans and bonobos, all of us distant and distrustful cousins. I know this is troubling. (how I look.18)
Confident though he is about our shared ape status, Ivan also has a bit of an identity crisis going on. So while Ivan is telling us about himself, saying stuff like, "I am too much gorilla and not enough human"(the exit 8 big top mall and video arcade. 27), there's a bit of uncertainty about who he is mixed into his confident storytelling style. Unsurprisingly, then, figuring out who he is becomes a big part of his journey in this book.
Did someone say journey? Yes, as a character he's on a journey. Kind of like a road trip, but Ivan doesn't drive—he evolves (which leaves a much lighter carbon footprint).
Ivan asks some big questions in this book, but not just to show off how smart he is. Instead, his curiosity is driven by his time in captivity and the tension is clues him into between humans and the natural world, the divides people insist on between their realm and the animal kingdom. Ivan says:
I forget what I am supposed to be.
Humans have so many words… Still they have no word for what I am. (my place.705-706)
What is the natural world and how does Ivan fit into it from his cage inside a mall? Ivan wants to locate himself on the map, and his attempts to do so drive the plot.
As you know, gorillas aren't typically found living next to Sears and across the parking lot from Wing Stop. Living in a suburban mall has created a life shrouded by confusion for Ivan. He was born to be a fierce and powerful troop leader, the mighty silverback, a gorilla's gorilla, but Ivan was forced out of that life when he was stolen from the rainforest. So instead of eating leaves, he eats ice cream, and instead of learning how to build a nest and protect his troop, he is used to entertain people. Understandably, Ivan doesn't really know where he belongs.
Perhaps because Ivan doesn't know exactly where he fits in the whole human/animal split, he focuses on the specifics of who he is. Throughout the book, he makes clear declarations about the way he approaches the world. For instance, he says:
I am never angry. (the exit 8 big top mall.41)
I never get bored with my art. (artists.81)
I think about what is, not what could be. (imagination.92)
With enough time, you can get used to anything. (the loneliest gorilla.100)
Amongst so much confusion—and without any other gorillas to compare notes with—Ivan focuses on what he can know for sure which is, of course, primarily himself. Have you ever tried really hard at something and bombed in the end? A great way to pick yourself back up is to focus on what you can do. And this is kind of what Ivan does as well. He keeps his head down and focuses on what he knows and the ways he can impact his caged existence, instead of letting his mind wander into the loneliness and unfairness of his existence.
Art brings Ivan joy and makes him feel proud. Importantly, it's something he's been drawn toward since before he was taken into captivity. In fact, Ivan's birth name is Mud, because he liked to paint with it as a young gorilla in the wild.
It makes sense, then, that art is what Ivan ultimately turns to in order to realize his (and Ruby's) release from their mall prison. After promising Stella he'd make sure Ruby doesn't lead the same miserable life Stella had to, Ivan has his work cut out for him. And work he does, day in and day out, painting away and learning to write home in order to expose the cruel conditions he and the other animals live in at the mall and guide humans toward getting these creatures into a zoo.
His hard work pays off in the end, and not only does he get Ruby released to the zoo, but he gets to go, too. For the first time in decades, Ivan hangs out with other gorillas, walks through grass, and climbs trees. As the book ends, he's out of his shell, his cell, and the chains that bound him. Though it isn't the wild exactly, life is much better for Ivan in the zoo. And when it comes down to it, he only has himself to thank for this. Go, Ivan.