In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex Literary Elements



Setting and Context

Nantucket and the Pacific Ocean, early 19th century

Narrator and Point of View

Nathaniel Philbrick narrates this book from the point of view of a well-researched historian. He brings in the sailors' points of views whenever their own accounts can fill in specific images or reflections, and frequently fills in gaps with other tales of whaleships and scientific studies.

Tone and Mood

Awe-inspiring; dramatic

Protagonist and Antagonist

Thomas Nickerson, Owen Chase, and George Pollard, Jr. tell the tale, but the difference between protagonist and antagonist gets blurry as the story progresses.

Major Conflict

A sperm-whale attacks the whaleship Essex, and the crew must survive in the middle of the ocean until they can reach the coast of South America.


The whaleboats are rescued by two ships that happen to be passing by after the men have cannibalized their co-sailors and are suckling on human finger bones. They tell their stories over tapioca pudding.


Philbrick uses foreshadowing in many places to indicate that the men were unaware of the dire circumstances that they would soon encounter. For example:
"The Chili [another whaleship] would not return for another three and a half years, and then with only five hundred barrels of sperm oil, about a quarter of what was needed to fill a ship her size. For Captain Coffin and his men, it would be a disastrous voyage. But nothing could compare to what fate had in store for the twenty-one men of the Essex" (27).


This tactic is not used very frequently in the book, because it does not serve the story very well to overstate or understate. Philbrick's mission is to show this true story in all its real detail.




See "Imagery" in Study Guide Navigation panel on left side.


This book is full of paradoxes. From the paradox that survival in the middle of the ocean should be utterly impossible to the paradox that the men should die of thirst in an ocean of water, the story is practically based on paradox. The worst paradox is that the captain has to decide between agreeing with his crew's idea to travel to the coast of South America, or taking a much better chance of arriving at one of the Society Islands to the east. If he disagrees with his crew, they very well might mutiny, but if he agrees, many of them will surely die. In the end, he chooses his life over theirs.


Philbrick parallels Melville's book, Moby-Dick, with his own throughout. He draws similarities out, but for the most part, he draws distinctions. Whereas Melville's "Captain Ahab" was on a journey for revenge, the crew of the Essex was on a journey of their own survival. What is equally confusing to both crews, however, is the behavior of the sperm-whale that attacked the whaleship. The element of chaos drives both stories.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

Philbrick's straightforward non-fiction approach to this story generally avoids metonymy and synecdoche.


Whereas Melville's book, Moby-Dick, spends much time personifying the whale and its motives for attacking the ship, Philbrick avoids anthropomorphism altogether, although he appreciates Melville's personification of the Pacific Ocean: the "tide-beating heart of the earth" (77).