This semi-in-depth analysis of In the Heart of the Sea does contain spoilers (skip to “was it any good?” to avoid them).

Rhetorical Strategies:

  1. Compare and contrast

On page 19-20, as well as many other points throughout the novel, Quaker ideals are contrasted to the ruthlessness of the whalers.  Although Quakers are supposed to be conservative, oppose violence, and maintain passive, the whaling industry often created bloodlust and required the killing of giant marine mammals.  By including this contrasting image in his retelling of the tragedy of the whaleship Essex, Philbrick most likely hoped to highlight the extreme measures which Nantucket whalers went to.  Comparatively to other areas of the world which practiced whaling, Quakers were intent on winning as much oil as possible; their livelihoods and social status depended on it.  Therefore, it made the tragedy seem worse than average because the people who were stranded had been dependent on whaling their entire lives, and they never believed that what occurred would happen.  In addition, it allows for Chase’s attitude to seem more extreme, since he is a vicious Quaker, somewhat of an oxymoron.

2. Foreshadowing

Another strategy which is employed during the novel is references to Nantucket superstitions that occurred before the final voyage of the Essex.  Through the mentioning of these instances, Philbrick utilizes foreshadowing that makes the reader want to tell Captain Pollard not to send his ship out on the ocean.  One of these foreshadowing techniques is the mention of the comet which was seen the summer before the Essex set out on their journey.  Philbrick writes that, “From the earliest times, the appearance of a comet was interpreted as a sign that something unusual was about to happen” (page 4).  This foreshadowing works to make the reader want to continue, as they wish to discover the unusual thing about to occur.  Another superstition that the Nantucketers had was that of locusts.  Shortly before the boarding of the Essex, a plague of locusts hit the island, adding to the sense of foreboding which the reader was experiencing.

3. Imagery

Throughout the novel, descriptive words are used to captivate the reader and make them aware of the suffering of the Essex crew.  One of the most vivid pieces of description in the novel came from page 160, when Philbrick described the crew eating the 1.5 ounce ration.  “Some of the men attempted to make their portion last as long as possible, nibbling it almost daintily and savoring each tiny morsel with the little saliva their mouths could generate” (pg160).  In addition, the description of the emaciated survivors was very powerful, and caused the reader to easily visualize the pain which they were going through.  Without this strategy, the book would not have been nearly as interesting, as the reader would not have felt the same connection with the starving men.

Potential Discussion Points

Some questions that this book raises result from the fact that the people on Nantucket are Quakers. It makes it clear that their religion was one of pacifism, yet their job was the murder of whales.  Throughout the book, Philbrick debates whether the conservative Quaker religion is what made their whaling business so successful, or if it in fact hindered their ability to function.  Also, the book makes many references to race and culture as a whole.  When the member of the Essex were stranded in the ocean, the people of Nantucket gravitated together, purposefully isolating themselves from the off-islanders and black men.  Of the people who died in the ocean, the majority of them were black.  Of those who survived on the boat, each of them were from Nantucket.  The only off-islanders who survived were the ones who created a separate colony for themselves on Henderson Island.  This raises the question of whether people gain strength through the people who are similar with them, or whether the people simply killed the off-islanders or limited their rations so as to allow the others to survive.  Due to the fact that the men were gone for a significant period of time and the women of Nantucket were allowed to run the businesses and run their own families, it also raises the question of gender roles.  On Nantucket, the women are seen as powerful, and the men defer to them.  This difference from mainland America could have been from their religion, or it could have been brought on because of the way the men earned a living.

Is it any good?

Smiles Rating System: 🙂 🙂 🙂

The only reason this didn’t get a full five starts was that I found the ending to be a bit dull.  Although the final action part was superb, I found the author dwelled on the lives of the individuals after  the event was over a bit too much, as they did not have anything particularly interesting happen to them.  But others may like that.  On the whole, it was very good and kept me interested from the first page until the 30th to last.  Also, I believe that some of the characters could have been described a bit more in detail.  I realize this is nonfiction, which makes it difficult, but I think the author should have added some flair to the piece, or done more research on people who knew the people in the story in order to make the characters themselves more believable.

Despite these flaws, the story was VERY well told, and it had a lot of details that kept the author intrigued.  I loved the way it told the story of the people on the different boats both as one and as three separate ventures.  I highly recommend this story as a nonfiction choice, due to the fact that it was told more as a story than as a list of facts.