Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish. With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it- would they let me- since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.

By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick  (From Google Books)

In "the great whale", what is this "the"? Is this about Moby-Dick? If this is the same "the" as "the lion is ferocious", I don't think it's grammatical to use an adjective before "whale". Is this assessment correct?

In the first "the whale", is it the same "the" as "the lion is ferocious"?

The last one is also the same as "the lion is ferocious", but this is many whales. So the image you have with the second one is a typical image of a whale, and is singular. But this third one is about many whales. I thought this couldn't be used like this. I think a more grammatical way to say it would be "processions of whales." Is Melville's usage of "the" correct here? If so, could I say, "A group of the lion was there" to mean "a group of lions."?

I would like to hear from someone who has actually read this book.

  • 4
    “The whale” in all three cases is an archetype; the singular concept of an unfathomable beast as a quasi-synecdochal stand-in for all whales. People don’t really talk this way anymore, so I don’t recommend referring to groups of animals (whose names have plural forms) by their singular name. People (well, people unfamiliar with lions’ habitat) do say things like “the lion is king of the jungle” without anyone thinking they're referring to a single lion. It’s worth noting that on dictionary.com and elsewhere, the definition mentions that “whale” can be used collectively. – Tyler James Young Jan 25 '14 at 19:42

Melville is actually playing around with three different usages here.

In the first place, as Tyler James Young says (and as I think you understand already) there is "the" whale as the archetypal or representative whale, "the" whale which is king of the sea as "the" lion is king of the jungle.

In the second place, there is "the" whale as the object of a hunt. There is a very old tradition in English venery of referring to the game one pursues in the definite singular; a sportsman hunts "the" deer, "the" bear, "the" fox.

  • There is no impropriety in attaching adjectives to these nouns: "the proud lion, king of the beasts". Older readers may remember the witty title of outdoorsman Euell Gibbons' book about living off the land: Stalking the Wild Asparagus.

In the third place there is "the" whale as symbol. The endless processions of the whale is indeed an odd usage, but it is a calculated one. For Ishmael, thus early in the book, "the" whale here stands as a symbol of all that is monstrous and exotic, immensely attractive to his overwrought curiosity—which is why he imagines "processions" not of collective whale nor of individual whales but of "the whale". And for Melville, of course, "the" whale, Moby-Dick, will eventually be revealed to be far more than a malignant individual whale but a symbol of obsessive quest—which is why he slips that ominous ‘grand hooded phantom’ into Ishmael’s romantic conceit.

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  • @birdman Fersher. If ferocity is characteristic of all sharks (or all the sharks you want to talk about), then it is characteristic of the representative shark, too. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 25 '14 at 20:28
  • @birdman1234 - Yes! You're catching on :^) The ferocious shark swims silently through oceanic waters. That could be referring to one particular shark, but it could also refer to the species of shark in general. – J.R. Jan 26 '14 at 3:22
  • Is the picture above accurately depicting the scene here? And what does "hooded" mean here? A whale is wearing a hood? What part is he talking about? – user2492 Jan 26 '14 at 7:33
  • An additional question relating to this. Also from Moby Dick, "The permanent constitutional condition of the manufactured man..." From Chapter 46. Is this also the "the" we are talking about here? – user2492 Jan 27 '14 at 17:48
  • The manufactured man is indeed a representative "the"; but the adjective works differently here. Ahab is not saying that all members of the class "men" are "manufactured", as when we speak of "the ferocious shark"; he is speaking of a representative of the class "manufactured man", as opposed to "spiritual man" or "enlightened man". And what that "manufactured" means is very interesting indeed; but it's too long to discuss here, and really belongs to off-topic Literary Criticism rather than English Language. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 27 '14 at 18:50

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