"A Nantucket whaleman kept his clothing in a 'chist.' His harpoons were kept 'shurp,' especially when 'atteking' a 'lirge' whale. A 'keppin' had his own 'kebbin' and was more often than not a 'merrid' man, while a 'met' kept the ship's log for the entire 'viege.'"
Philbrick brings us into the era of whaling in a number of ways, but one way that he employs only sparingly is the use of the Nantucket dialect. In establishing it early on, he allows us to imagine the characters of the story before forming false ideas about the way they might talk with one another.
"He was six years younger than Captain Pollard, but Chase felt he had already mastered everything he needed to know to perform Pollard's job. The first mate's cocksure attitude would make it difficult for Pollard, a first-time captain just emerging from the long shadow of a respected predecessor, to assert his own style of command."
The trope of younger jealous leaders, so frequently invoked in Shakespearean and Jacobean drama, manifests in the this true tale as well. Chase, a fiery leader, learns to empathize with his crew and lead three of his men to salvation, while Pollard was unable to stick to his guns, which would have kept them out of the whole mess in the first place. When he should have asserted his opinion that traveling to the nearby islands with the wind would be safer, his tendency to over-empathize with his crew meant that they would be traveling against the wind toward South America, which was much further away.
"Do for heaven's sake spring. The boat don't move. You're all asleep; see, see! There she lies; skote, skote! I love you, my dear fellows, yes, yes, I do; I'll do anything for you, I'll give you my heart's blood to drink; only take me up to this whale only this time, for this once, pull. Oh, St. Peter, St. Jerome, St. Stephen, St. james, St. John, the devil on two sticks; carry me up; O, let me tickle him, let me feel of his ribs. There, there, go on; O, O, O, most on, most on. Stand up, Starbuck [the harpooner]. Don't hold your iorn that way; put one hand over the end of the pole. Now, now, look out. Dart, dart."
A random Nantucket whaler recorded his mate whispering excitedly during the hunt for a sperm whale. This gives the reader a better sense of both the emotion and dialect of these occasions.
"The crew was staring at this legendary sphinxlike sight when suddenly it dissolved in the hazy air. It had been nothing but a fog bank."
The repetition of mirages throughout the book seems to indicate a much larger issue: can the sailors trust what they see? Out in the nearly featureless waters, anything on the horizon can signal a complete change in circumstances, and it often does, so the disappointment associated with a false vision is devastating.
"One naval arcitect's calculations project that if the Essex had been a new ship, her oak planking would have withstood even this tremendous blow. Since the whale did punch a hole in the bow, the Essex's twenty-one-year-old planking must have been significantly weakened by rot or marine growth."
A common problem in the story is that the men were so near to salvation in so many instances. Here, the shipwreck would never have occurred had the shipowners garnered less greed and more prudence.
"The same men who had worked so cheerfully at modifying the whaleboats were suddenly bludgeoned by despair. '[T]he miseries of their situation came upon them with such force,' Chase remembered, 'as to produce spells of extreme debility, approaching almost to fainting.' Even though it had been almost two days since their last meal, they found it impossible to eat. Their throats parched by anxiety, they indulged instead in frequent drinks of water."
Without anything to do, the men fell very quickly into depression. The emotional journey of the men is both exhilarating and exhausting to witness, proving Philbrick's mastery of narrative form.
"The act of self-expression - through writing a journal or letters - often enables a survivor to distance himself from his fears. After beginning his informal log, Chase would never again suffer another sleepless night tortured by his memory of the whale."
These men fought both for their sanity and their lives after the wreckage and when they lost their capacity for speech, they still had to find a way to express themselves.
"That night the officers agreed that if they should ever become separated again, no action would be taken to reassemble the convoy."
The men had spent too much time trying to keep the boats together, and yet they felt an immense obligation to find their comrades when they were lost the next day. This points to a fundamental human feature: to remain part of a social group at almost all costs.
"Before he died, Coffin spoke a parting message to his mother, which Pollard promised to deliver if he should make it back to Nantucket. Then Coffin asked for a few moments of silence. After reassuring the others that "the lots had been fairly drawn," he lay his head down on the boat's gunwale. 'He was soon dispatched,' Pollard would later recall, 'and nothing of him left.'"
Coffin and Ramsdell had drawn the tragic lots and were therefore consigned to the fate of death and murder, respectively. The gore that riddles many of the other passages in the service of preserving the gritty and gruesome reality of their situations has no place in this touching moment. The reader is drawn into the voids of 'silence' and 'nothing'-ness instead. Such is the abysmal depth that the sailors had reached at this point, and for many, they would hardly ever surface from it.
"'[T]here was a sudden and unnaccountable earnestness in his manner,' [Chase] wrote, 'that alarmed me, and made me fear that I myself might unexpectedly be overtaken by a like weakness, or dizziness of nature, that would bereave me at once of both reason and life.'"
Nickerson giving in with their rescue only hours away recalls the lesson learned from a World War II psychologist that if any unit lost over 75% percent of its members in battle, there would be no possibility of carrying on. Although Nickerson does not mention this in his own account of the events, Chase's vivid reaction to the event surely allows the reader to imagine that it may have really happened aboard that small whaleboat in the middle of the Pacific.
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.