In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 14 : Consequences | Summary

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Summary

In February 1823, the Two Brothers and the Martha are sailing west together toward new whaling ground when they run into heavy rain. They are sailing next to a "a deadly maze of rocks and coral reefs to the northwest of the Hawaiian Islands." The Two Brothers, captained by George Pollard Jr., runs aground on a coral reef and is "pounded to pieces." The sailors get into the boats but are rescued the next morning by the Martha, which had escaped disaster. When Pollard returns home, he is branded as an unlucky Jonah—a twice-doomed captain—and he doesn't get another commission. He becomes the town's night watchman and curfew keeper and regains respect in his new occupation.

Owen Chase continues a successful whaling career, quickly becoming a captain, sailing out of New Bedford, and later Nantucket. He is less successful in his personal life. He has four wives, altogether, and a number of children. His first two wives die. His third wife cheats on him, and he divorces her. William Henry Chase, one of Owen Chase's sons, goes to sea and meets Herman Melville, who is interested in the Essex wreck. William Henry Chase gives Melville a copy of his father's memoir, which makes a strong impression on the young writer.

Charles Ramsdell continues his whaling career, becomes a captain, marries twice, and has six children. Thomas Nickerson gets tired of whaling and joins the merchant service, becoming a captain and relocating to Brooklyn with his wife. He eventually returns to Nantucket and runs a boardinghouse.

Benjamin Lawrence sticks with whaling and also becomes a captain and has seven children. The two Cape Codders, Seth Weeks and William Wright, serve as crew on the Surry, the ship that rescued them from Henderson Island. Wright is lost at sea during a hurricane, and Weeks eventually retires to Cape Cod.

Nantucketers continue to avoid the subject of the Essex disaster, not only because of the cannibalism, but also because most of the men eaten were African American. Nantucket prides itself as an abolitionist stronghold and doesn't like to think about its prejudices. The story is immortalized, however, in one of William H. McGuffey's famous readers. The writer Herman Melville makes use of details about the whale attack to write the ending of Moby-Dick. After the novel's publication, Melville first visits Nantucket and even meets Captain George Pollard Jr.

By 1835 New Bedford eclipses Nantucket as America's leading whaling town, and by the 1840s, whaling in Nantucket is in its sunset years. New Bedford has a much superior harbor, but also Nantucketers stubbornly return to the same depleted whaling grounds. In 1846 the town endures a terrible fire and has to rebuild. By 1848 many Nantucketers go west to California for the gold rush. Oil is struck in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, and Nantucket's population shrinks over the next twenty years. The last whaling vessel leaves Nantucket in 1869 and never returns.

Despite the extensive killing, the sperm whale has rebounded. Today there are between 1.5 and 2 million sperm whales worldwide, the most abundant species of the great whales. They have become wilder and less easy to capture, and like the whale that attacked the Essex, more of them are fighting back. In 1851 the whaleship Ann Alexander is attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in the same waters where the Essex was sunk. Five months later the whale ship Rebecca Simms kills the whale that attacked the Ann Alexander. At the time of its death the whale looked old and tired, its sides full of "twisted harpoons and lances," and its head full of splinters.

Analysis

Philbrick spends the last chapter telling the reader how the lives of the survivors turned out. Both Captain George Pollard Jr. and Owen Chase suffer some reversal of fortune. The ship captained by the unlucky Pollard Jr. is wrecked and sunk on a coral reef, and when he realizes the ship is going down, he is temporarily paralyzed, no doubt by post-traumatic stress syndrome. Thomas Nickerson and Charles Ramsdell are on board Two Brothers when it sinks, so they too must relive the previous horror. Not surprisingly, Nickerson gives up whaling. "Captain George Pollard Jr. seemed to stand amazed at the scene before him," Nickerson recalls. The first mate takes over until the captain gets his bearings, but once he returns to Nantucket, he is forever branded an unlucky man. Nonetheless, he appears to have led a good life with his wife and became a fixture about town as night watchman.

The ever-intrepid Owen Chase does not allow his rejection by the town to daunt him, and he begins whaling out of New Bedford, eventually earning his place back among the Nantucketers. While he is successful at sea, he is less successful at home, suffering the death of two spouses and the unfaithfulness of a third wife.

The reversal of fortune for Nantucket, even before the whaling era had come to a close, is at least partially the responsibility of the Nantucketers themselves, who refuse to change with the times. The town's belief in its own superiority becomes its own undoing. In their insistence to stick mostly to their old whaling grounds, Nantucket whalers fall behind their competition in the industry. The cruelties committed against the commodified and objectified whale become an overhanging shadow, as the narrator reveals the outcomes of the survivors' lives. They all went back to exploiting and hunting whales, and whatever lesson is to be learned, about balance between humanity and nature, goes unlearned and unacknowledged by those who suffered the seemingly fateful consequences of their greed—except for Pollard, but he only stops hunting whales because presides over a second shipwreck. Philbrick carefully sets up the narrative to illuminate the sailors' moral hypocrisies and parallels with the whales—to show the poetic justice in the story, and how the men in the story fail to see it for themselves.

The story of the Essex finds its way into a McGuffey Reader, which shows that early on it became a vital cultural story, tapping into something people found important and valuable to reflect upon. William Holmes McGuffey (1800–73) was a college president who wrote the McGuffey Readers, primers for any age, arranged by increasing level of difficulty. At least 122 million copies of these early textbooks were sold between 1836 and 1925.

The story of the Essex also makes its way into the great American novel, Moby-Dick, since Herman Melville uses details from the whale attack in his literary masterpiece. While Melville knew of other whale attacks, there is perhaps something essential in his avenging white leviathan that properly belongs to the sperm whale of the Essex story. When Melville heard of the sinking of the Ann Alexander, he wondered if he had "conjured up the reappearance of a ship-ramming whale" in penning Moby-Dick. He wrote to a friend: "What a Commentator is this Ann Alexander whale ... I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster." Philbrick is not wrong to think about the whaling industry in Nantucket as 19th century America in miniature in its pride, greed, and self-righteousness, as well as in its desire to do good for God and man. Perhaps this is also why Moby-Dick is such a quintessential American story.

The sperm whale, along with many other whale species, has rebounded because of the legal protections they now enjoy in most parts of the world. Scientists are learning more and more about these enormous mammals, who live in family groups and have a sophisticated method of communication that human beings still know very little about.

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