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I cannot make much sense of a world in the following passage from Moby-Dick:

There’s your law of precedents; there’s your utility of traditions; there’s the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air! There’s orthodoxy!

Thus, while in life the great whale’s body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his ghost becomes a powerless panic to a world.

Methinks Melville referred to the existing world he knew (the world of traditions, of old beliefs, of orthodoxy) and not to an imaginary word (when referring to such a non-existing world the indefinite article is frequently used). Therefore, the definite article would make more sense to me in this sentence, like so:

Thus, while in life the great whale’s body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his ghost becomes a powerless panic to the world.

Would such sentence be incorrect in the context of the passage in question? Why was the indefinite article chosen by Melville?

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    I don’t have the confidence to post this as an answer but I suspect an ellipsis. ... powerless panic to a world {such as has just been described}.
    – Anton
    Mar 23, 2021 at 14:27
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    I think it just means 'the world'. We can talk about 'a world' when we mean the world in which we all live, considered an a particular way (e.g. panic-stricken). The end of the First World War was greeted by a world that was weary of death and destruction. Mar 23, 2021 at 14:33
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    Not the whole world, just a whaler's world. Mar 23, 2021 at 14:43
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    You might get better answers at literature.stackexchange.com
    – Davo
    Mar 23, 2021 at 14:58
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    I’m voting to close this question because it's about wording choice in the context of a specific passage of literature, rather than about English language/usage in general. If you can get this question migrated to Literature Stack Exchange, it would be very welcome there and you might get answers more specific to Melville's usage rather than general word meanings. Mar 24, 2021 at 20:11

3 Answers 3

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OED:

World 5b. A period or age of human history associated with particular cultural, intellectual, or economic characteristics or conditions, or indicated by the character of those living in it.

1849 T. B. Macaulay Hist. Eng. I. iii. 401 These were men whose minds had been trained in a world which had passed away.

1991 R. Ferguson Henry Miller viii. 154 With such gestures he had already begun his obsessive lifelong concern with the ‘unre-enterable’ world of the past.

A world = an example of a world from many possible worlds.

Melville recognises that "the world" changes and at each stage there is "a world" as opposed to "the world" that makes no reference to change or distinctive society.

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  • This is an amazingly accurate answer. As a side note, I would add that by using the indefinite article, Melville is also distancing himself from "that world" - "a world" that he observes, but does not (ideologically) participate in - thereby encouraging the reader to also not participate. It would be some form of hubris to do this with "the world", implying the author is somehow more enlightened than everyone. This would probably alienate the reader, rather than encouraging him or her to remain in a state of logical observation of an illogical "world." Mar 24, 2021 at 15:26
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Melville was free to choose the definite or indefinite article here. In general, it means very similar things either way. It's hard to say why Melville chose the indefinite article, but we can guess at distinct nuances of using the indefinite article here.

A world ~ a kind of world

The paragraph before a whale describes ships avoiding a specific place because of the fear struck by the floating corpse, followed by years of habit where other ships will also avoid the place. This obedience to past habit is compared to precedent, tradition, old beliefs, and orthodoxy. It is this place (where the corpse is) or this world (a world of orthodoxy) that the ghost instills powerless panic in.

It could be that a world makes the literal or metaphorical place sound hypothetical or partial, thereby contrasting an imagined world of orthodoxy with another world ungoverned by orthodoxy. (The world beyond orthodoxy? The real?) The OED documents a few uses of "a world" under "world, n." I.1.c. that seem similar, each referring to a possible world with an implicit contrast to this world now:

c. gen. Any state or realm of existence, esp. one regarded in contrast to that of contemporary human life (sense 1a). Cf. other world n. 2, possible world at possible adj. 4.

a1797 M. Wollstonecraft Posthumous Wks. (1798) IV. lxvii. 3 A world in which self-interest..is the principal mobile.

2007 Washington Post 29 July (Home ed.) (Book World section) 5/1 Among Other Things, I've taken up Smoking is a coming-out novel about a world we don't quite live in yet, a world in which the dividing line between straight and gay looks..faint.

So a world would refer to something somewhat defamiliarized from the usual associations with the world, namely a world under the effects of an apparition.

A world as generalizing something specific

It's also possible to read this as a generalization of the effects of one whale corpse and its memory in one place. In that sense, II.6.b. in the OED fits particularly well, since many things are likened to a world:

b. In generalized sense: any material or other system likened to but usually distinct from the earth. Usually with indefinite article or in plural. Cf. universe n. 3a.

1676 J. Dryden Aureng-Zebe iii. 33 Too truly Tamerlain's Successors they, Each thinks a World too little for his sway.

1822 Ld. Byron Heaven & Earth i. iii, in Liberal 1 181 When the hot sun hath baked the reeking soil Into a world.

1917 A. Quiller-Couch Notes Shakespeare's Workmanship xvi. 294 So he sleeps, and awakes—to be rewarded..with the best earthly thing that could betide in a world he has served worldlily yet well.

In this sense, a world may help specify that this is not literally the world but rather something less definite, that could be taken for many things: a period of time, a spot of ocean, the mind of a ship crew, and so on.

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All the answers so far focus on the meaning of the word "world", ignoring the contrasting context in which it was used in the original sentence. The "world" puts emphasis on the difference between a narrow and a wide influence the whale has; on "his (immediate) foes" and "a (whole) world". In life, the whale only terrified his would-be attackers, while in death its ghost terrifies everyone whoever hears of its story. The "world" is thus a measure of reach, as in, "a person, a family, a country, a world".

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