Study Guide

In the Heart of the Sea Setting

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Setting

Nantucket; the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea is defined by two very different locales: Nantucket, a small whaling community in the Northeastern United States, and the sea itself. After all, Nantucket might be the Essex's home, but it's the sea where it meets its end.

Nantucket? We Hardly Know It!

All else aside, Nantucket is defined by its tight-knit community. Given that their town is "almost the same distance from the mainland as England was from France," Nantucketers have developed a distinct image of themselves as a "superior people" (1.19). That's a great thing if you're a card-carrying member of the Nantucket Club, but much less so if you're an outsider.

Nantucket does remain blissfully isolated from the mainland for most of its history—that is, until it becomes the whaling capital of the world.

Besides their hatred for outsiders, Nantucketers are united in their love for whaling. Despite the fact that the town is filled with devout Quakers (a religion defined by its ardent pacifism), there's a distinct "savagery about this island, a bloodlust and pride that bound every mother, father, and child in a clannish commitment to the hunt" (1.39). That's a little contradictory, huh? Still, from the day they're born, young Nantucketers—like Thomas Nickerson—are trained to spend their lives at sea.

Under the Sea

As it turns out, however, working on a whaleboat isn't quite as fun as these young 'uns might have thought. Immediately, the Essex gets a first-hand lesson in the unpredictability of nature when a freak storm hits the Essex, which "rolled almost ninety degrees onto her side" like "a fat man on the short end of a lopsided seesaw" (2.53). This is no Amazing Race, friends—this is pure danger. It might be boring to grow up in a small town like Nantucket, but that's a lot better than having a near-death experience every three or five minutes.

Naturally, the sea becomes even more terrifying after the Essex sinks. Now, the crew must deal not only with the unpredictably of the ocean, but also with their own immense feelings of isolation. For example, they practically lose their minds when "flashes of lightning [...] seemed to envelop the boats," shattering "the intense darkness of the night" (7.66). This is a far cry from the narrow streets where Nickerson and his pals would fantasize about being whalers someday.

After their first experience at sea, there's only one thing these kids know for sure—there's no place like home.