Night of the Whale

by Jerry Spinelli

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Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1100

The central characters in Night of the Whale are Helene Hallewagen, Timmi Romano, Lauren Parmentier, Digger Binns, Breeze Brynofsky, and Warren Umlau. All except Breeze have just graduated from high school in Avon Oaks, Pennsylvania. They are on a graduation trip to Ocean City, New Jersey, where they are staying at a beach house owned by the Hallewagens. All five were on the staff of The Acorn, their high school newspaper.

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Helene Hallewagen, called Wags, is the leader of the group. Paralyzed in a skiing accident during her junior year, she is confined to a wheelchair, but in no way allows her inability to walk to handicap her. She is extremely pretty and resourceful.

Timmi Romano was business manager of The Acorn. She worked harder on the paper than anyone else, and she continues to work during the graduation trip, doing most of the cleaning and cooking. She always wears a No. 44 football jersey.

Lauren Parmentier was girls' correspondent for The Acorn, and she wrote a column called "Beverly on Beauty." She is beautiful, having been named Homecoming Queen, Queen of the May, and queen of everything else at Avon Oaks High School. Her boyfriend, Paul, is a midshipman and is supposed to meet her in Ocean City, but he never arrives, and she knows that he is not coming.

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Digger Binns, associate editor and photographer for The Acorn is the least mature of all five of the central characters. He gets great pleasure from teasing the others, from taking pictures of them in compromising situations, especially Lauren, and from passing gas. The first to sight the stranded whales, he grows considerably in the course of the novel, especially in connection with the attempt to rescue the whales and to keep alive the one whale that survives the beaching.

Breeze Brynofsky is the contributing editor of The Acorn. He wrote a column called "Breezin'" and one of his articles won a medal from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. He did not have enough credits to graduate. He tends to go his own way and do what he wants without concern for conformity. Toward the end of the novel, he walks off in his bathing suit with his towel over his neck and a pillowcase holding his meager belongings slung over his shoulder. He has gone, "for good," as Mouse puts it.

Warren Umlau is known as Mouse because he is so small, weighing only 113 pounds. He is the narrator and the central consciousness of the novel. He was reporter-at-large on The Acorn. He writes the novel in September at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, approximately three months after the narrated events take place. He views his trip to Ocean City as an attempt to prepare himself for college by completing a list of assignments he has made for himself. His list initially consists of seven items: "Pull all-nighter (see the sun rise);" "Chug a can of beer;" "Eat whole pizza (med. or lg.);" "See girl for first time and ask her out;" "Totally lose control;" "Hang around Acme frozen-food section wearing tank shirt for 1 hr. (simulates watching football game in December in T-shirt);" "Optional: moon someone." To these items he adds three more: "Learn to vomit quieter," "Drink the Gallon" (a paper cup as big as a bucket), and "Buy colored underwear." His idea of college consists of "woolen scarves and football weekends, strolls across moonlit quads, trysts in the library stacks," things he associates with the waitresses at the College Grille on the Ocean City Boardwalk, all of whom are college girls. Toward the end of the book he feels that he has accomplished a great deal because he is able to let out a string of burps that, he feels, any college senior would admire. The book in no way indicates that he at any time changes his mind about any of these things being indications of maturity, although he does end up discarding his colored underwear.

Night of the Whale has several important minor characters. Eric Rantley, also known as Rocket, who was with Wags when she had her accident, wants to have a sexual relationship with her. Digger hates Rocket. Sandy and Jim Hennigan work at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center and devote their lives to trying to rescue stranded marine mammals, especially whales. They admit that they are unsuccessful in rescuing mammals as they try to help the beached pilot whales. Also important is a man called Hacksaw who works for the government. He thinks the best way to handle stranded whales is to euthanize them as soon as they reach the beach since they suffer considerably before they die. He carries a hypodermic needle so that he can destroy the whales and a hacksaw so that he can cut off their lower jaws to make their teeth available for examination to determine their ages.

Several themes are central to Night of the Whale, yet all are treated superficially. As Mouse's ideas of maturation indicate, the theme of initiation is treated from a very immature point of view. The character that is supposed to mature most significantly is Digger, yet no real evidence is given that the experience in Nelson's Cove has caused him to change.

Another pervasive theme of the book is humankind's relationship to nature. Wags believes in and preaches a watered-down version of Emersonian unity; and Mouse experiences that kind of unity when confronted with the ocean when Wags sends him to the end of a jetty to watch the sunrise. The book is more sensitive in exploring what the relationship between humankind and nature should be in relation to the stranded whales, although Mouse's narrative weights things very much in favor of trying to rescue the whales rather than immediately euthanizing them. Still, of the twenty-nine whales stranded, the rescuers manage to tow four out to sea, of which two immediately rebeach themselves. A fisherman finds both the remaining whales in a tidal marsh. At the end of the novel, only a baby whale taken to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center remains alive.

Mouse describes in detail the suffering of the beached whales. Also, at most one out of twenty-nine whales survives, whereas the other whales suffer considerably before they either die by themselves or Hacksaw euthanizes them. Even Sandy Hennigan recognizes that the chances of the calf's surviving are so slim that she says of unweaned whales from strandings: "I don't think any have been known to survive." The whales' horrible suffering and deaths seem to contradict the idea that trying to rescue them is the humane thing to do.

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