The hawks on Henderson Island had what scientists call a kelptoparasitic relationship with the tropic birds of the island: they would beat the chicken-size birds with their wings and steal the fish that the birds were planning to disgorge to their young. As the sailors turned toward their most disturbing options for survival, they each wondered who would become the tropic birds and who would become the hawks.
"Like a giant bird of prey, the whaleship moved lazily up the western coast of South America, zigging and zagging across a living sea of oil" (xi) (Simile)
This is the very first sentence in the preface. Indeed the geography of the Pacific Ocean is difficult to grasp, but when we consider its mountainous underwater physicality, the idea of a whaleship soaring far above in pursuit of the juiciest creatures is not so far-fetched.
"Even the most repugnant aspects of whaling became easier for the green hands to take as they grew to appreciate that each was just part of a process, like mining for gold or growing crops, designed to make them money" (65) (Simile)
Whaling really was an incredibly repugnant process. For the men to think of it like mining for gold, they could escape their troubled consciences and feel better about the task at hand.
"Like a whale dying in a slow-motion flurry, the Essex in dissolution made for a grim and disturbing sight, her joints and seams working violently in the waves. She was bleeding from the burst casks within her hull..." (94) (Simile)
Philbrick's use of simile here captures a narrative poignancy: it is fitting and disturbing that the sailor's old whaling ship would die in the same way that the many precious whales they had preyed upon might die.
"Nantucket's Quaker Graveyard was without worldly monuments of any kind, and many had compared its smooth, unmarred sweep to the anonymous surface of the sea. Like that graveyard thousands of miles away, the sea that morning was calm and smooth - not a breath of air ruffled the Pacific's slow, rhythmic swell" (154) (Simile)
This passage follows the death of Joy, a Nantucketer who had been ill for quite some time. With the loss of their second mate, the men felt obliged to give him a proper funeral and consign him spiritually and physically to the sea, which served the purpose of a graveyard.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex Questions and Answers
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Study Guide for In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex study guide contains a biography of Nathaniel Philbrick, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.