The title of Witi Ihimaera's short story, “The Whale”, will probably lead readers to expect the story to revolve around a whale, either literally or symbolically.
Reading the story, the title is shown to be symbolic, as the action of the story does not focus on the whale until the very end. The story contains references to two different whales. One appears in a Maori legend:
This is Paikea, riding a whale across the sea to Aotearoa. He was told not to let the whale touch the land. But he was tired after the long journey, and he made the whale come to shore. It touched the sand, and became an island.
The legend refers to an ancestor named Paikea who rode a whale to New Zealand, which is called Aotearoa in Maori. When the whale reached the shore, it turned into an island, now known as the island of Whāngārā. The story is symbolic of the Maori connection with marine animals and nature in general. It also suggests that the whale is a symbol of Maori settlements and culture. This symbolism becomes even more obvious at the end: “And as the old one approaches, he sees that it is a whale, stranded in the breakwater, threshing in the sand, already stripped of flesh by the falling gulls” . The dead whale eaten by gulls becomes a symbol of the dying Maori culture in modern days, when the dominant culture in New Zealand is that of the white man, also called Pakeha.
Even though the old man scares the gulls away, it is too late for the whale. The old man therefore becomes a symbol of the keeper of Maori culture, who is powerless and can only observe the death of his traditions.
“The Whale” begins by introducing readers to the setting and main character: “He sits, this old kaumatua, in the darkness of the meeting house. He has come to this place because it is the only thing remaining in his dying world.” We find out the story follows an old man in a meeting house–a cultural centre and sacred meeting place for a Maori community. The Maori word ‘kaumatua’ which means ‘elder’ is a foreshadowing element that the story is set in New Zealand and explores Maori culture.
At the same time, the reference to a ‘dying world’ functions as a narrative hook, getting readers’ attention. The phrase also hi...