In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 13 : Homecoming | Summary



A civil war is going on in Chili when the Indian arrives in Valparaiso. Owen Chase also does not hide that his crew was forced to resort to cannibalism, and the American consul in the city arranges a stay for the Essex survivors in the sickbay of the U.S. frigate Constellation. Captain George Pollard Jr. and Charles Ramsdell arrive in Valparaiso, now on the Two Brothers, on March 17, and they have a reunion with Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, and Benjamin Lawrence. Captain William Coffin of Nantucket and the whaleship Eagle offers all the Essex survivors passage home. Pollard has to stay behind because he is too weak to travel, but the other four leave Valparaiso.

Pollard suffers a relapse, perhaps because he had to deal with the anguish of allowing his cousin's execution and then participating in eating his flesh—which amounted to "gastronomic incest." He is finally well enough to travel after two months and gets passage home on the Two Brothers. Meanwhile a rescue has been arranged for the men on Henderson Island. Thomas Raine, captain of the trading vessel Surry, finds them, even though he was incorrectly told they were on Ducie Island. The men on Henderson Island have been able to scavenge food, but the spring of freshwater disappeared below the tideline, so they have had to rely on rainwater and are suffering from dehydration. Captain Raine says that couldn't have survived another month on the island.

Some news of the Essex disaster has trickled back to Nantucket, but it is incomplete, and people assume Pollard and Ramsdell are the only survivors. On June 11 the town is surprised when Chase, Nickerson, and Benjamin Lawrence appear. Chase now has a 14-month-old baby with his wife Peggy Owen. On August 5, Pollard arrives back home. He goes through a harrowing interview with Essex owners Gideon Folger and Paul Macy. He must face an even worse ordeal when he tells Nancy Bunker Coffin, the mother of Owen who had entrusted her son to his care, the details of her son's death. She doesn't take it well and afterward avoids being around him. The community, however, does not judge Pollard harshly. "The drawing of lots was accepted by the unwritten law of the seas as permissible in a survival situation," the narrator says.

Soon after his return, Pollard is offered the command of the Two Brothers, replacing the retiring captain who recommends him after hearing Pollard's story.

Owen Chase begins working on a book about the disaster, using his own daily log as well as a copy of the notes taken by Captain Aaron Paddack, while he was listening to Pollard's story. Chase likely has a ghostwriter, William Coffin, Jr., to help him write the story. Chase keeps "the most disturbing and problematic aspects of the disaster offstage," thus transforming what happened into "a personal tale of ... triumph." The town, however, is not happy with Chase's displaying what they consider to be their dirty laundry and using his people's sufferings to make a profit. Chase is not hired for a Nantucket whaler for 11 years. Both Thomas Nickerson and Charles Ramsdell shipped out with Pollard on the Two Brothers.


Chapter 13 wraps up the rescue of the men of the Essex. Pollard, who had initially recovered quickly, now has a relapse. The narrator implies that the relapse happens most likely because he knew he had to face Owen Coffin's mother. The five men who survived in open boats were all Nantucketers, while the three men rescued from Henderson Island were off-islanders. Philbrick also implies they were astute enough to recognize early on, either consciously or unconsciously, that their best chance of survival would not have been with the Nantucket men. This is also another vital clue in the long quest for the truth of what really happened.

The news of the shipwreck and the terrible ordeal in open boats that lasted three months for the survivors gets a mixed reception back home. On the one hand, the town is happy to welcome back the survivors, and they also do not judge the men harshly for living on the bodies of the dead crewmen. Owen Coffin's mother does not forgive her nephew Pollard, however, for what happened to her son. She had put her trust in the captain and had expected him to watch out for Owen, not participate in helping engineer his death and then eating his body to survive. The town does not lose their faith in Pollard, however, and he even gets another chance to prove himself. On the other hand, the town is not proud of what happened on the Essex. Philbrick quotes American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who says in 1847 that Nantucketers were "sensitive to everything that dishonors the island because it hurts the value of stock till the company are poorer." Philbrick says "the last thing they wanted placed before the nation and the world was a detailed account of how some of their own men and boys had been reduced to cannibalism." This is one reason people were not happy with Chase's self-aggrandizing tale, who "many believed ... enrich[ed] himself by sensationalizing the sufferings of his own people."

Chase also puts himself in the best light in his story of the sinking of the Essex and turns it into a tale of personal heroism. But when all factors are considered, Chase's survival story is too complicated for him to be considered a hero. In the Heart of the Sea pokes a lot of holes in Chase's account. And it raises more questions than it answers, but no question is as striking as how someone can be a hero if they cause the problem they ultimately fix. Further, Chase's characterization, even though he is a real historical figure, makes it seem as if the ordeal, on some level, is like a game to him, just a challenge, a game he readily plays and chooses over preserving the lives of the other men.

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