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

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

"Just as the skinned corpses of buffaloes would soon dot the prairies of the American West, so did the headless gray remains of sperm whales litter the Pacific Ocean in the early nineteenth century" (65)

This passage relates the 19th century Pacific Ocean to the greater trend of disenfranchising (or massacring, depending on one's conception) species across the world in the wake of the industrial age. This detailed look at the trappings and gore necessitated by whaling in In the Heart of the Sea shows the reader the interiority of an otherwise pleasant economic boost to daily life on land. It attempts to overturn the 'out of sight, out of mind' point of view in favor of a fuller picture. Philbrick's imagery is a big part of its success.

"In an instant the squall slammed into the ship with the force of a cannon shot" (63)

Imagery consists not only of the visual field, but also of aural, olfactory, and everything else that contributes to the sensory experience of being a human. In this case, Philbrick brings the reader into the situation with both the sound and feeling of a cannon being shot at the boat. This image conveys just how treacherous the situation always was on the deck of a boat: when the ship passed into a squall, it really passed into a battlefield.

"Gale-force winds in the open ocean can create waves of up to forty feet. But the mountainous size of the waves actually worked to the men's advantage. The whaleboats flicked over the crests, then wallowed in the troughs, temporarily protected fromt he wind. The vertical walls of water looming on either side were a terrifying sight, but not once did a wave crash down and swamp a boat" (121)

Like the mountainous architecture far below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the waves create equally unfathomable depths for explorers to navigate. Philbrick compares the land features with the waves to demonstrate a vastness in imagery that cannot be understood in any other way. "Vertical walls" remind the reader not of ocean features, but of cliffs and mountain peaks, inciting an even deeper terror through the constant repetitions. This imagery helps the reader to understand just how volatile the seeming calm of the Pacific Ocean could be.

"There is a murderous appearance about the blood-stained decks, and the huge masses of flesh and blubber lying here and there, and a ferocity in the looks of the men, heightened by the red, fierce glare of the fires" (56)

Part of Philbrick's mission in retelling this horrific story is to allow the gory details to paint a fuller picture of reality aboard a whaleship. It is no coincidence that "murderous" is the first word used to describe the appearance of this activity. Accompanied by fire, as the men burn masses of the whale to help loosen the spermacetti, one could easily trace this scene to Dante's vision of hell with its brutality and redness.