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IDEAS

The one where a man gets swallowed by a whale

It’s been a beast of a year. For thousands of years, there’s been a metaphor for that.

Gustave Doré's illustration of Pantagruel for the fourth book in the series by François Rabelais. (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1873)
Gustave Doré's illustration of Pantagruel for the fourth book in the series by François Rabelais. (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1873)Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco/Wikimedia Commons

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A man finds himself inside a whale but makes it out alive, to the astonishment of all.

This is the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. It is also the story of Michael Packard, a lobster diver on Cape Cod. On June 11, a humpback whale took Packard into its mouth; after shaking its head violently, it disgorged its accidental prey back into the ocean. Packard survived with minor injuries.

The trope of whales swallowing humans has deep roots in Western culture. In the story of Jonah, God tells him to preach in the town of Nineveh; instead, Jonah runs in the opposite direction, hops aboard a ship, and is thrown overboard by the crew after allegedly causing a terrible storm.

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There is also the Roman satirist Lucian’s “True History,” in which a whale swallows a ship full of sailors. Whereas Michael Packard describes the inside of the real whale’s mouth as pitch-black, Lucian’s characters alight upon astonishing discoveries. In the monster’s intestines, they find a world made of hills, trees, plants, and birds, remnants of the monster’s meals that have survived. A father and son, sailors swallowed by the behemoth years earlier, have cultivated this “land.” Nonhuman races live in different parts of the whale’s body, and the sailors find themselves at war with flesh-eating eel men and cat people.

The French humorist François Rabelais reprised Lucian’s story in his 1532 novel “Pantagruel.” In one chapter, an unwitting human narrator wanders into the mouth of the eponymous monster. As with Lucian’s whale, the inside of the giant’s mouth contains a fully developed country. Anticlimactically, though, this alternate reality is just a copy of the author’s native France. Nothing more exciting happens there than a farmer planting cabbages.

In Western literature, giants’ mouths are gateways to another world. They remind us that we are subject to larger forces that constantly threaten to swallow us whole, metaphorically or literally. In Lucian’s story, the force is menacing. In Rabelais’s, it turns out to be comfortingly banal. Packard’s experience lands somewhere in between: The threat of being swallowed by a whale adds a new cause for concern to one’s Cape Cod vacation. At the same time, the whale was deemed an innocent and unsuspecting calf, as startled, perhaps, by his would-be meal as Packard was.

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This last year has served as a stark reminder of just how vulnerable we all are to forces greater than ourselves. Perhaps there is no better cap, then, on a time of turmoil than the story of a man being engulfed by a whale. We have all spent time in the pitch darkness of a beast we can’t control; now, at last, many of us are reemerging into the open air.

The plot has been written for thousands of years.

Stephanie Inverso is a lecturer in the Romance Studies department at Boston University.