“The Whale” by Tim Raymond is about a man and his Korean girlfriend who go out to eat with their parents. The story begins at a sushi buffet. Those important individuals attending are as follows: the man, his American parents, his Korean girlfriend, and her Korean parents. The Korean parents know very little English, and the American parents speak very little Korean (if any).
The narrator attempts to ingratiate himself within his girlfriend’s family through demonstrating knowledge of Korean customs. Often, he fails. The dinners between the two families are awkward, distant. Both the barriers of language and culture cause conflict between them, born of something lost in translation.
In the sushi buffet, there is a whale carcass. The narrator’s parents take notice and then the girlfriend’s parents. They question the waiter about the whale, learning that it is neither for eating nor for decoration. The story repeatedly returns to the sushi buffet, each incident a slightly different experience.
In one vignette, the parents act as if old friends. It is a pleasant outing. In another, the narrator proposes to his girlfriend’s parents the prospect of he and she living together. The parents refuse, and the situation escalates negatively.
At times, the whale becomes the narrator. Interspersed throughout are surreal vignettes about the whale. They all may not involve the same whale, but in them the whale acts much like a human.
The whale had a close attachment with his mother, though as a grownup whale he is distant from his parent whales. As an adult, they are forever separated.
The story ends similar to how it starts with the narrator heading to dinner with his girlfriend and her Korean parents; he now justifies the struggle of living in an unfamiliar place with his love for his girlfriend.
The chronic tension is the narrator’s uncertainty regarding his living situation in Korea due to differences in language and culture.
The acute tension is the series of conflicts the narrator has with his girlfriend’s parents, often stemming from their cultural differences.
The incorporation of the whale metaphor is integral to the story. Important enough to comprise the title, the whale is interesting because of its absurdity. Here is a story that starts rooted in reality; then wham–there is a whale carcass in the middle of a respectable Korean sushi buffet. Who would have expected?
The whale also functions as a way for the author to describe different family dynamics. With the comparison of how whales, when young, inevitably form a disconnect from their parents, Raymond also makes the subtle comparison to humans and their relationships with their parents after a certain age. The narrator is separated, like the whale, from his girlfriend’s Korean parents. However, in the case of the narrator, it is an emotional disconnect born of unfamiliarity rather than a force of nature that draws the family members apart.
Raymond’s choice of second person as the point of view is also significant. As a perspective, the psychic difference is unique in that it is not quite personal yet not impersonal. Caught between first and third person, the author is able to instill a shaky connection between reader and narrator. The use of second person also adds to the surrealness of the piece since we are forcefully brought along for the ride. It is not solely the narrator who sees the whale–for then it would be I–but you see the whale. You have dinner, silent and bumbling, with your girlfriend’s family. You become frustrated with your girlfriend’s seeming unwillingness to fight for your relationship. You are separated from your parents after reaching adulthood as a whale.
The setting of South Korea contributes to the plot in that it produces a conflict. The narrator is in a place far from home. An outsider in the land of the woman he loves, there is something lost in translation. I found this heartbreakingly beautiful, how the two love each other enough to try to make a tense situation work out. The language barrier is another twist in their relationship. Alongside being an ocean away from his family, the narrator is lacking a safety net in his interactions with his girlfriend’s parents. Though she seems to function as a lifeline, even she too turns against him somewhat when he asks her to confront her parents.
- How does the symbolism of the whale shift throughout the story? On what levels does it function to clarify the narrator’s emotional condition?
- How does using a distinct difference between characters (such as a language barrier) introduce a unique form of conflict to the plot? How do we learn more about the characters through this circumstantial shortcoming?
- In the end, why did this piece matter emotionally? Though relatively matter-of-fact in its description of the goings on of the narrator, why is there an emotional chord still struck? Why does his plight resonate despite the specific situation that might be difficult to relate to?