Study Guide

In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea Introduction

Have you always wanted to read Moby-Dick but were afraid to dive in? Well, fear not, scaredy-cats, because we've got the next best thing—Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea.

This nonfiction book depicts the mind-blowing Essex disaster: an event that directly inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick. In 1819—at the height of Nantucket's booming whaling industry—the Essex sets off for a run-of-the-mill whaling trip. The ship is meant to spend two to three years at sea, collecting as much whale oil as possible before returning home to critical acclaim. Oh, how we wish it were that easy.

A few freak storms and one whale attack later, the Essex has sunk, leaving its surviving crewmembers to traverse thousands of miles of open ocean to the South American coast. That's more difficult than playing Dark Souls without cheat codes.

As the crewmembers struggle with this completely unforeseen situation—not to mention their increasingly raging appetites—we watch as formerly civilized men sink into cannibalism (oh dear), as they're forced to eat their companions just to survive. It's like the Donner Party meets Deep Blue Sea, with an extra helping of awesome.

Beyond depicting a thrilling tale, In the Heart of the Sea delves in-depth into the socio-political climate of the 1800s. Author Nathaniel Philbrick injects boatloads of insightful commentary on class, racial inequality, and the Industrial Revolution into the book without taking his focus off the intense action that is at its heart.

And hey, if it's good enough for Herman Melville, you can be darn tootin' that it's good enough for you.

What is In the Heart of the Sea About and Why Should I Care?

Listen, if crazed whale-hunters, brutal aquatic battles, and multiple instances of cannibalism aren't enough to get you interested, then we don't know what will.

But hey, you'll also learn a bit about history from In the Heart of the Sea. The whaling industry depicted in the book is one that literally fueled the modern world—before we were digging wells or fracking, we were draining oil from whale's skulls. We're not making this up.

With this in mind, In the Heart of the Sea can tell you a few things about problems in the modern world. It shows us the value of environmentalism. It reveals the pitfalls of social and economic inequality. It exposes the horrendous consequences of Big Businesses being left to run awry. This stuff sounding familiar to you yet?

Whether you're reading the book to understand these big socio-political issues or simply to enjoy a riveting true-life tale, there's one thing we can guarantee—In the Heart of the Sea will not disappoint.

In the Heart of the Sea Resources

WEBSITES

Nantucket's Official Homepage
Itching to learn more about Nantucket? Allow us to scratch that itch in hyperlink form.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society
Personally, our favorite Motley Crue song is Whales, Whales, Whales. Wait... we've been getting that one wrong the whole time? Wow.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
Check out the blockbuster adaptation of In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard and starring heavyweights like Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy (plus Ben Whishaw as Herman Melville).

In the Heart of the Sea Trailer
Care to see some C.G.I. whales smash the crud out of some boats? Click on, friends, click on.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

"Small Island: An Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick"
This compelling interview with author Nathaniel Philbrick provides some great insight into In the Heart of the Sea, as well as his personal relationship with Nantucket.

An Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick
In this interview, Philbrick goes into detail about the books he loves to read. Spoiler: he loves to read history.

"How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Moby-Dick"
This op-ed piece from the New York Times gets into the crux of many readers' uneasy relationship to Moby-Dick, which was inspired by the Essex disaster.

VIDEO

An Evening with Nathaniel Philbrick
We'd love to spend every evening with Nathaniel Philbrick, but this will have to do for now.

Sperm Whale Hunt
This brief segment from the BBC follows modern-day Indonesian fisherman who hunt sperm whales for food: one whale will feed a village for months at a time. Be forewarned: this one gets a tad gnarly.

Mountain, "Nantucket Sleighride (To Owen Coffin)"
Awesome rock band Mountain recorded this awesome track (inspired by the Essex disaster) back in 1971. Awesome.

AUDIO

An Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick
This chat with the New York Times touches on many of the issues at the core of In the Heart of the Sea.

The Moby-Dick Big Read
Want to read Moby-Dick without actually reading it? Look no further than The Moby-Dick Big Read podcast, which features all 135 chapters of the novel read by celebrities and literary figures.

IMAGES

A Sperm Whale to Scale
Want to know how big sperm whales really are? Here's a hint: they make elephants look like grasshoppers.

The Chest from the Essex
This chest, found floating in the Pacific Ocean, is probably the only surviving piece of the Essex still in existence.