Whale Fall

by Wendy Nikel

‘Whale Fall’ was an experiment for me this semester. I came across it over winter break, read the first few paragraphs, and saw that it was about a person talking to a whale via some kind of communication device. I thought: ‘Cool, this fits. I’ll put it in the syllabus.’

Hahahaha. When I finally read the whole story, I found out how misled I’d been: the communication device is never mentioned again. The whale dies just one page into the story, and we never get to see how a human-whale conversation works.

But the story still fits! It’s connected to our course themes in all kinds of unexpected ways. It’s densely packed with meaning, and our discussion today made me appreciate it even more richly.

Katheryn started us off today by referring to the Book of Jonah, which makes perfect sense: the story after all starts with a quote from Jonah (2:3): You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas.

This line is from Jonah’s prayer to God after he’s been swallowed by the whale. It’s an oddly ambivalent line; Jonah seems to be both admiring and rebuking God. It reminds me of the epigraph to Frankenstein that we talked about, Adam’s rebuke ‘Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / to mold me man? Did I solicit thee / from darkness to promote me?’ (Milton, Paradise Lost, X)

So that’s one way ‘Whale Fall’ fits in our course. Every story we’ve read this semester has been about a human response to some kind of unfairness. The unfairness may take the form of a plague (‘The Easthound,’ ‘Speech Sounds’), a child’s death (‘Story of Your Life’), forced captivity (‘Mazes,’ ‘Elliott Spencer’), isolation and ostracism (Frankenstein), or rigid cultural norms (‘Solitude’). In ‘Whale Fall’ it’s politics: factions waging senseless war and sustaining it via entrenched poverty, ignorance, environmental blight and anti-elite resentment. For people like Jemina, there are ‘no good options’ (p. 124).

Like Frankenstein’s creature, Jemina responds initially with anger. Her fuck-it-all scorn and fury infuse much of the narrative. That scene where her mom’s boyfriend abandons her on the docks is characteristic: we see her grinding up the lollipop in her teeth, leveling a hard gaze at the retreating boyfriend, marching off to enlist (pp. 124-125). And when Jemina finds out later on that the Federation has been exploiting her, she decides she’s ‘angry enough to die’ (p. 128).

That’s…whoa. That’s really angry.

Jonah is also a very angry person. He’s furious when God shows mercy to the people of Nineveh. He insists that he’s right to be angry ‘even unto death’ (4:9), just like Jemina. Disturbingly, Jonah’s anger is rooted in bigotry and tribalism—he wants the people of Nineveh to suffer and feels personally cheated when they don’t.

But to counter Jonah’s anger, we have God. And to counter Jemina’s anger, we have Odonto the whale.

Whales are the other reason why this story fits in our course. Like many of our other stories, ‘Whale Fall’ is about humans sharing time and space with an intelligent but unfathomable other species, trying to communicate and succeeding only partially.

What’s up with whales? Most of us today agreed that we think of whales differently from how we think of other animals. Whales are mysterious. They live underwater, so we don’t get to see them. They’re huge, slow-moving ‘gentle giants.’ They rise and fall, take and give back. We definitely don’t associate them with anger.

They’re also disturbingly like us in some ways: they  have hipbones! and maybe language! They’re smart.

Odonto turns out to be the smartest character in the story. He’s figured something out that Jemina somehow missed, and he’s kept it a secret. When she tells him about the Federation’s plans, Odonto knows immediately what to do, and he does it without hesitation.

Odonto could have told Jemina his intentions—they have that communication device, after all—but he chooses not to. Why? Emilio’s interpretation (which I share): Odonto knew that Jemina wouldn’t be ready to accept his decision—and finally let go of her anger—until he was dead. The best way to communicate his message was non-linguistically.

Jemina’s anger and despair, like Jonah’s, are deeply human. But at the end of the story she finds a different way to be human, another way to respond to the grotesque unfairness of the human condition.

Gods, monsters, aliens… and whales.

We talked about so much more today—please post whatever thoughts you have. Here’s the gorgeous video we watched together that inspired Nikel to write the story: Whale Fall (After Life of a Whale).

One thought on “Whale Fall

  1. Micah Sheinberg

    One of the most interesting parts of Whale Fall to me is that Odono and Jemina are mirrors of one another. You’re point at the end of the post is interesting in that, Odonto could have told Jemina his intentions but she could have done the same. Nikel specifically says that Jemina does not tell Odonto anything until the base is just “a mere dot on the horizon” (127). Similarly, while Odonto has figured out something that Jemina and the Federation did not know, Jemina figures out how the Federation plans to use the whales.

    I also find it interesting how communication is described in the story. On the first page, Jemina describes yellow, orange, and red lights, each being associated with different emotions. I think this is interesting because it is unclear how the conversation between human and whale really works. Jemina’s speech goes into whale song, but Odonto never says anything. It seems to be notable that the only communication we see from Odonto is the lights–the final resignation of Odonto does not come out as words but as sheer emotion translated from being to being.


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