In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Epilogue : Bones | Summary



The epilogue tells the story of how a sperm whale washes up on the beach in Nantucket at the end of 1997. The whale is badly hurt from a collision with either a ship or another whale. After the whale dies, a team of scientists began a necropsy on the animal, taking samples and measuring its size. Then members of the Nantucket Historical Association supervise removing the blubber, meat, and guts from the skeleton. This work is backbreaking and also very smelly. When they puncture the head, they save as much of the spermaceti as they can. The bones are put in a cage in the harbor in the spring, so they will be scavenged and cleaned by marine life. The skeleton eventually makes its way to the Historical Association, where it will become the centerpiece for a new whaling museum.

Nantucket today is a thriving summer resort town. "At the height of its influence more than 150 years ago, Nantucket had led the new nation toward its destiny as a world power," the narrator says. The romantic glorification of whaling brings people to Nantucket these days. The messy tale of the Essex does not quite fit into a picturesque chamber-of-commerce promotion. "The Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. It is a tragedy that happens to be one of the greatest true stories ever told," the narrator opines. The Whaling Museum has a small exhibit devoted to the story of the ship sunk by a whale. But in the narrator's view, it is the new skeleton of the sperm whale, still oozing oil that "speaks most powerfully to the tragedy." Nantucketers cling to the bones of the whale, metaphorically speaking, "reminders of a time when the island was devoted to the business of transforming whales into money."


Philbrick aptly ends with a fishy coda. He provides descriptive detail a 46-foot male sperm whale washing up on a Nantucket beach and dying. He also describes how it is stripped of its meat and blubber so its skeleton can become the centerpiece for a refurbished whale museum. This is the Nantucket Historical Association's new Whaling Museum, which was completed in 2005, five years after Nathaniel Philbrick's book was written. The new museum houses the skeleton of the sperm whale, along with a restored candle factory, since candles were made from the spermaceti wax.

Nantucket continues to profit from the whaling industry, in the sense that it lives off its reputation as the capital of the whaling industry and has become a major tourist destination. The Essex disaster is not what Nantucket highlights, but rather the romance of whaling, which conjures up strong men wielding harpoons and strong womenfolk at home tending the fires and the businesses. Certainly there is something heroic in what the Nantucket whalemen braved year in and year out, along with something dark about the glorification of the mass killing of the ocean's largest mammals. While the story of the Essex disaster is neither a tale of adventure nor a tale of heroism, it is a story of strength and endurance and a cautionary tale about the limits of man's humanity.

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