Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475
A Whale for the Killing presents a time when Mowat was forced to stand up to the people among whom he had chosen to live, people whom he had admired for their rugged individualism, their tenacity in the face of nature’s harshness, and their refusal to give in to adversity. In his attempts to force the townspeople of Burgeo, Newfoundland, to rescue a stranded eighty-ton fin whale, he learns that not everyone has the same reverence for nature as he and his wife and that the Canadian government is less concerned about protecting its natural heritage than it is about public relations.
This autobiographical narrative goes beyond recounting the erosion of the friendships that Mowat and his wife had established over many years in Burgeo; it also becomes a means by which Mowat can offer insight into the destruction brought about over time by the whaling industry. Interwoven in his account of the whale’s inhumane treatment and slow death are sections that explore the decimation of the North American North Atlantic fishing grounds and that give vivid accounts of the slaughter of whales, animals that in earlier times ranged the ocean in vast pods. The behavior of the people of Burgeo—tormenting the whale with speedboats and shooting endless rounds of ammunition into its body, inflicting wounds that would eventually make it prey to infection and great suffering—parallels the rapacious nature of the whaling industry. Mowat’s book thus works on two levels: as a local story and as an account of humankind’s wanton destruction of anything and everything for its own use, without giving thought to the balances that might be upset in the process.
A Whale for the Killing presents what Mowat perceives to be a direct relationship between the destruction of the normal natural balance in nature and the rise of technologically “superior” industrial cultures. The connection that once existed between humankind and the rest of the animal kingdom is broken; the reverence once felt for other beasts is replaced by vicious sport and selfish destruction. Yet while Mowat blames the villagers of Burgeo, he accuses the Canadian government and the global scientific community for failing to come to the aid of the whale, an animal that could have been saved. The tensions that he depicts between the people doing what they please and a greater “good” are interesting because these people have been predisposed by their culture to behave as they do toward the fin whale. Thus, Mowat’s demanding that they cease their behavior is, in effect, asking that they deny the culture in which they have managed to live. His ultimate response to the incidents—the torture and death of the whale and Mowat’s neighbors’ growing hostility and denunciation—is to leave the place that he had formerly considered the embodiment of rugged virtue.
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