In The Heart Of The Sea Essay

Have you always wanted to read Moby-Dick but were afraid to dive in? Well, fear not, scaredy-cats, because we've got the next best thing—Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea.

This nonfiction book depicts the mind-blowing Essex disaster: an event that directly inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick. In 1819—at the height of Nantucket's booming whaling industry—the Essex sets off for a run-of-the-mill whaling trip. The ship is meant to spend two to three years at sea, collecting as much whale oil as possible before returning home to critical acclaim. Oh, how we wish it were that easy.

A few freak storms and one whale attack later, the Essex has sunk, leaving its surviving crewmembers to traverse thousands of miles of open ocean to the South American coast. That's more difficult than playing Dark Souls without cheat codes.

As the crewmembers struggle with this completely unforeseen situation—not to mention their increasingly raging appetites—we watch as formerly civilized men sink into cannibalism (oh dear), as they're forced to eat their companions just to survive. It's like the Donner Party meets Deep Blue Sea, with an extra helping of awesome.

Beyond depicting a thrilling tale, In the Heart of the Sea delves in-depth into the socio-political climate of the 1800s. Author Nathaniel Philbrick injects boatloads of insightful commentary on class, racial inequality, and the Industrial Revolution into the book without taking his focus off the intense action that is at its heart.

And hey, if it's good enough for Herman Melville, you can be darn tootin' that it's good enough for you.

Listen, if crazed whale-hunters, brutal aquatic battles, and multiple instances of cannibalism aren't enough to get you interested, then we don't know what will.

But hey, you'll also learn a bit about history from In the Heart of the Sea. The whaling industry depicted in the book is one that literally fueled the modern world—before we were digging wells or fracking, we were draining oil from whale's skulls. We're not making this up.

With this in mind, In the Heart of the Sea can tell you a few things about problems in the modern world. It shows us the value of environmentalism. It reveals the pitfalls of social and economic inequality. It exposes the horrendous consequences of Big Businesses being left to run awry. This stuff sounding familiar to you yet?

Whether you're reading the book to understand these big socio-political issues or simply to enjoy a riveting true-life tale, there's one thing we can guarantee—In the Heart of the Sea will not disappoint.

  • 1

    How does the kleptoparasitic relationship between the hawks and tropic birds on Henderson Island help us to understand the story at large?

    The hawks constantly take advantage of the tropic birds on the island when they are trying to feed their young. The hawks, on the other hand, must be careful not to harass the birds too much, because the tropic birds could abandon the island all together. We can see this same relationship develop between men like Richard Peterson, who refused his daily ration of bread, saying that it may be of use to someone else during his final hours, thereby becoming a lucky tropic bird that is able to feed his young. By this same token, the other men can be considered the hawks.

  • 2

    In what ways are the Nantucketers aboard the Essex at an advantage and in what ways might they be disadvantaged?

    For the most part, the Nantucketers aboard the Essex enjoy an extreme advantage of loyalty among their peers as well as better rations and nutrition. As members or honorary members of the "Society of Friends," they fondly refer to each other as friends and have similar upbringings by the harbor. The disadvantages manifest when their honorable ways incite them to trust in the randomized and necessary casting of lots. Furthermore, their own fondness of each other can incite intolerance of 'otherness' and even ignorance when somebody from outside of Nantucket has valuable information that they find suspect.

  • 3

    What role does race play in this story?

    The African Americans on the ship had a severely disadvantaged disposition from the onset. Back in the states, they suffered from a much lower life expectancy than their white contemporaries due to much diminished access to health care and nutritional food. On the ship, they sleep in the back, which affords them the freedom to sing and talk without worrying about disturbing the captain or mates, but also renders them more susceptible to damage in the case of a storm.

    In a way, 'Nantucketer' also functions as a race, because although some of the men had relations to Nantucket, like Thomas Nickerson, if a person was not of pure Nantucket blood, it made a difference in the way they were treated. For example, Pollard has all the Nantucketers on his whaleboat after the attack so that he could take care of them. He felt personally responsible for the welfare of his "race."

  • 4

    If you were a crewmember of the Essex, would you have stayed on Henderson Island or gone on with Joy, Pollard, and Chase in the boats? Use specific examples to buttress your argument.

    I would have stayed back on the island, because I feel that there was a certain hubris at play in the decision to go on in the boats, ignoring the clearest probabilities of survival. On the island, there is always a chance of finding food because of the vegetation and migrant population. Furthermore, they are more likely to be found on an island than in a tiny ship out in the middle of the ocean. As Philbrick points out, there were over 7 ships in the immediate vicinity of the Essex when it crashed, yet they were all too far away to notice the crash.

  • 5

    What role does the sperm whale play in these sailors' lives? Think outside the box.

    The sperm whale is a symbol for glory and masculinity in the book. If we think about the secret society of women back in Nantucket who will only marry a man who has killed a whale, we can see that the dream of killing a whale stretches far beyond the domain of the Essex. But, like any dream come true, it is not all it is cracked up to be. When they actually kill the whales and extract their spermaceti, it is a gruesome, horrific endeavor. Later on, in the whaleboats after the crash, the men hear the clicking sound that sperm whales make underwater and it does not inspire heroism, but rather brings forth cowardice as the power roles are utterly reversed.

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