In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Quotes


Pacifist killers, plain-dressed millionaires, the whalemen of Nantucket were simply fulfilling the Lord's will.

Narrator, Chapter 1

The narrator is taking a sarcastic tone to point out the incongruity of Quaker pacifism and the bloody business of whale killing. These upright Christians dressed plainly because they thought it wrong to show off. Yet they piled up their money. Quakers may champion nonviolence and they may not serve in wars, yet they did not believe that compassion needed to be extended to the largest mammal on the planet—the mighty whale. They were fulfilling the Lord's will since man was meant to have dominion over the earth.


I was alone ... without one ... friend to bestow ... [a] kind word.

Thomas Nickerson, Chapter 2

The young cabin boy sees the first mate Owen Chase in his persona on the whaleship. He seems a hard overseer and a bully, and he curses without end. Nickerson realizes he is now at this man's mercy and must obey him without question. He has no one to turn to, and he is truly alone in the indifferent atmosphere of the whaling ship.


Even the green hands knew ... their lives could depend on ... these fragile cockleshells.

Narrator, Chapter 3

The narrator makes this comment after the ship loses whaleboats. The captain plans to replace one of them with an old and leaky boat. The Essex now has a total of four boats, which means only one spare, since three boats are used to hunt whales. Everyone on the whale ship understands the importance of having enough good whaleboats, since they ride these boats to harpoon the whale. The narrator also foreshadows the fact that the crew will literally depend on these boats to get home once the ship sinks.


It is painful to witness the death of ... [small] beings, more ... [so the great] Whale!

Enoch Cloud, Chapter 3

The narrator is quoting from the journal of an 18-year-old green hand. Unlike the experienced men who view the whale as a "tub of lard," this newcomer is initially horrified at how the whale is killed during the hunt. In seeing the whale "bleeding, quivering, dying a victim to the cunning of man," his feelings are "indeed peculiar." The author uses historical sources to support his commentary about capitalistic greed, and cruelty, greed's by-product.


Nantucketers had developed a system of social relationships that mimicked those of their prey.

Narrator, Chapter 4

The narrator notes that the family networks of the sperm whale are female, while the males simply roam around, moving from whale pod to whale pod to mate without forming attachments. In some sense this is similar to the lives of the whalemen and their Nantucket wives. They leave home for long periods of time, return to their wives and family briefly, and then they are off on another mission. This is the section where the author sets up a distinct connection between the men and the whales, to elicit empathy for the whales and to mold the story into one of poetic justice. The construct forces the reader to consider current trends between human greed and the exploitation of nature.


We could scarcely discard from our minds the idea of her continuing protection.

Owen Chase, Chapter 6

The narrator quotes first mate Owen Chase, who describes the feelings of the crew about their ship. They need time to process what has happened to them. Since the ship has been their safe haven, they cannot so easily discard her. The attitude of the crew shows how reduced their circumstances are in facing the enormity of the unknown sea.


Only a Nantucketer ... possessed the ... arrogance, ignorance, and xenophobia to shun a beckoning ... island.

Narrator, Chapter 6

The narrator is commenting on the captain and mates' decision to not go to the Marquesas, some 1,200 miles away, because they fear cannibalism. In fact, they should know that people had been coming back with good reports of the Marquesas. The mates also nix the idea of going to the Society Islands, some 2,000 miles away, because they know little about them. Instead they plan to sail all the way to South America from the North Pacific. This fateful decision, based on arrogance and ignorance, directly results in the tragedy.


Every spare moment of every day was, in Chase's words, employed in roving ... for food.

Narrator, Chapter 9

The Essex crew has finally made land at Henderson Island. They find food and water, although neither is plentiful. As a result, they spend all of their productive time looking for food—mainly birds and their eggs. Thus is a human being in extreme circumstances reduced to a survival machine.


After sewing Joy up in his clothes, they ... 'consigned him ... to the ocean.'

Narrator, Chapter 10

Matthew Joy, the second mate, is the first man to die. He has been weak and ill for a long time. The burial of Joy at sea shows that the men have not yet lost the veneer of civilization. No one thinks of cannibalism, or even of using his body to catch sharks or other fish.


[E]ither ... feed our bodies ... a little longer, or ... devour our provisions, and coolly await ... death.

Owen Chase, Chapter 10

Owen Chase shows himself to have the necessary leadership abilities to keep the men alive. He does not have to immediately resort to drastic measures, as does Captain George Pollard Jr. Chase cuts half rations by half again rather than have to face the prospect of immediate and nonnegotiable starvation—should he have allowed the provisions to run out.


Hendricks and his crew dared ... [ask] whether they should eat, instead of bury, the body.

Narrator, Chapter 11

This is a turning point for the men under Captain George Pollard Jr. and Obed Hendricks. Provisions are very low because the men who had been under Matthew Joy's command (now dead) stole extra rations when Joy was too ill to notice. Pollard now has to share his own provisions with Hendricks. Therefore, Hendricks and his men raise the possibility of using the dead sailor, Lawson Thomas, as provision. This will allow the hardtack (bread) to last longer.


It was an overwhelming sight: the husband ... she ... thought dead holding their chubby-cheeked daughter.

Narrator, Chapter 13

Owen Chase and two surviving sailors return to Nantucket, much to the surprise of the townspeople who had given them up for dead. The account of Captain George Pollard Jr. and Ramsdell's rescue came to Nantucket first, which is why Chase's wife Peggy is in shock. She must get used to the idea that he is alive, as well as the ordeal he has been through, quite visible on his physical body.


By keeping ... problematic aspects of the disaster offstage, Chase transforms the story ... into a ... triumph.

Narrator, Chapter 13

Immediately before making this comment, the narrator notes that five of the first six men to die were black, although Chase never comments on this fact. Chase tells a story that is self-aggrandizing and hopes to make money from his experience. While he doesn't lie, he chooses to highlight some things and gloss over others. Unanswered questions remain.


No owner will ever trust me with a whaler again ... I am an unlucky man.

Captain George Pollard Jr., Chapter 14

Captain George Pollard Jr. is not held responsible for the Essex disaster. The community maintains confidence in him and even gives him command of another ship. Unfortunately, that ship is also sunk when it runs aground on a coral reef during a particularly bad storm. Luckily, he and his crew are quickly rescued by a whaler traveling with them. But when Pollard gets back to Nantucket, he is labeled as a "Jonah," and his whaling career is ended.


The Essex disaster ... is a tragedy ... [and] one of the greatest true stories ever told.

Narrator, Epilogue

The narrator points out there is nothing romantic nor glorious about the sinking of the Essex and the subsequent ordeal to survive at sea. There are no heroes to extol—only men to feel compassion for. Men who, in the direst of circumstances, attempted to survive while holding on to some shred of their humanity. The narrator stresses the trueness of the story because it illustrates how quickly human beings can be stripped of their civilized nature.

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