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

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

Herman Melville's classic novel, Moby-Dick, was inspired by the attack on the whaleship Essex, and he even makes an appearance at Thomas Nickerson's lodge in the film adaptation of In the Heart of the Sea (2015). Although his book has a very different emphasis from the true tale of the crash, Philbrick brings it into his own narrative several times in order to give the reader a sense of context.

Melville calls Nantucketers "Quakers with a vengeance" (xii), a perfect oxymoron that the reader can witness playing out through this story. Melville's masterful and flowery language adds another layer to Philbrick's telling of the story as well: "[The] darkness was licked up by the fierce flames... which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues, and illuminated every oofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire. The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful act" (57). Philbrick does not suppose any intention on the behalf of the fighting whale or the ship like Melville, though. It is this very ambiguity that this non-fiction account revels in across its 300-odd pages.

Melville's literary contribution to this tale is not limited to anthropomorphism, though. His imagistic sketches of the Galapagos, the Pacific Ocean, and the psychological torment of the sailors aboard the ship came to serve as contributing prose for the reader of this novel as well, as Philbrick frequently cites his writings.

Furthermore, Melville's own scholarly research on the event of the sinking of the Essex helped Philbrick in his research for this book as well. It was Melville who determined that Chase's book had been ghostwritten, that the men could have easily avoided disaster by turning toward Tahiti, and Pollard's motivation in writing his own version of the story after being disappointed with Chase's representation of the events.

Melville even had a little contact with the Chase's son in a gam before taking off on a ship himself. It was there that he was given a copy of Chase's book. Later he would see who he thought had been Chase at sea; he jotted down a literary portrait of him in the copy of this text.