In the Heart of the Sea
The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
by Nathaniel Philbrick
The ordeal of the whaleship Essex was an event as mythic in the nineteenth century as the sinking of the Titanic was in the twentieth. In 1819, the Essex left Nantucket for the South Pacific with twenty crew members aboard. In the middle of the South Pacific the ship was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale. The crew drifted for more than ninety days in three tiny whaleboats, succumbing to weather, hunger, disease, and ultimately turning to drastic measures in the fight for survival. Nathaniel Philbrick uses little-known documents-including a long-lost account written by the ship's cabin boy-and penetrating details about whaling and the Nantucket community to reveal the chilling events surrounding this epic maritime disaster. An intense and mesmerizing read, In the Heart of the Sea is a monumental work of history forever placing the Essex tragedy in the American historical canon.
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1. In 1820, Nantucket was a Quaker town. What do Quakers believe? Was it hypocritical of a Quaker community to embrace such a violent occupation as whaling?
2. Given their proximity to the shipwreck, why did the Essex survivors avoid the South Pacific islands? What factors—historical, cultural, and otherwise—contributed to the decision to take a longer route home?
3. With what you've learned about the people of Nantucket and the whalemen in particular, can you explain their fearlessness in the face of nature? And, conversely, their great fear of strange human beings? How is our world different today? Does this account somewhat for our contemporary fascination with tales of man versus nature?
4. The book discusses a few potential reasons why the whale attacked the Essex. What are these and which do you believe to be true? Why was the notion of a vengeful whale so terrifying to Owen Chase? How do you think contemporary views of whaling differ from those in 1820? How would you explain this change in attitudes?
5. There are moments in the book where natural events are viewed by the author as metaphorical to the men's experiences. Choose one or two and discuss how the metaphors illuminate the story. Also, discuss their importance to the narrative.
6. What was the difference in the leadership styles of George Pollard and Owen Chase? Did these differences contribute to the demise of the Essex or the eventual loss of lives? If so, how? Who do you think made a better leader and why?
7. What was the established hierarchy on the Essex? How did this reflect the social stratification of Nantucket?
8. In 1820, what options did a captain have for navigating his ship? Which of these were available to the Essex? How did "dead reckoning" work? How have navigational tools evolved since then?
9. Did race have anything to do with who lived or died on the Essex? How?
10. In the Heart of the Sea has been optioned by a production company to be made into a feature film. Imagine you are the screenwriter chosen to adapt this book. What are the central dramatic situations you would choose and who would be your main character? Is there a clear protagonist? Is there a clear antagonist?
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A book that gets in your bones...Philbrick has created an eerie thriller from a centuries old tale....Scrupulously researched and eloquently written...it would have earned Melville's admiration."
The New York Times Book Review
"Fascinating...One of our country's great adventure stories...when it comes to extremes, In the Heart of the Sea is right there."
The Wall Street Journal
"Nathaniel Philbrick has taken one of the most horrifying stories in maritime history and turned it into a classic....One of the most chilling books I have ever read."
Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm