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

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Benjamin Lawrence's Twine (Symbol)

Lawrence created the piece of twine from a frayed rope on his whaleboat after the Essex sank. He kept it with him for the rest of his life. It serves as a symbol for both unconditional hope as well as a reminder to never forget the events that occurred while he created it. Whereas Pollard would lock himself in his room to fast every year on the anniversary of the attack, Lawrence kept the only physical remains of the tragedy, so it is also a symbol of history and the value of primary evidence.

Society of Friends (Symbol)

Nantucketers form many of their social duties and ideals in the Quaker church, which they call the Society of Friends. Philbrick invokes the dynamics of being a 'Friend' in many instances across the novel. This serves both as a literal aspect of the Nantucket-born sailors' bonds to each other, but also in the hypocrisy of their endeavors. It comes into direct conflict with many of the dire options presented to them in their journey. Being a 'Friend' is an ironic symbol of carrying a history and culture on one's back when weighed with the burden of imminent death. Surprisingly, the men who most often led prayer were not the Friends, but rather the off-islander African American men.

Narrativization (Motif)

The three accounts of the disaster provided by Chase, Pollard, and Nickerson vary considerably at times and must be buttressed by the historical accounts of other whaleships as well as scientific studies on the effects of the extreme circumstances that the men faced. Philbrick brings up Melville's narrative many time in the book as well to juxtapose fact with fiction. Indeed, the former is oftentimes stranger than the latter.

Firing of the Gun (Motif)

The gun is fired at various times throughout the book, but most frequently it is used to signal bodily presence. The final use of the gun, which may be most appropriate when considering Chekhov's rule that once a gun is revealed in a narrative it must be used, occurs in what may be the most difficult part of this non-fiction book: when Ramsdell is forced to kill his closest friend after drawing lots. The firing of this gun is both figuratively and literally the salvation of the select few, and the thunderous sound of decision.

Visibility (Motif)

The story's mood and structure depends on visibility. When the men are near the shipwreck, they are gloomy and disheartened, but once it drops from view there is a noticeable shift in their morale. Indeed, it is also the sight of the distant sail and the fog surrounding the far-off island that create the largest emotional reactions for both the sailors and the reader. While they attempt to determine the coordinates of their whalebaots on a map, they are ultimately unsuccessful and bound solely to what is within their visual fields.