He was fourteen years old [...] and like every other Nantucket boy, had been taught to idolize the form of a ship. (1.1)
Whaling is an integral part of Nantucket's culture. Nickerson has been indoctrinated into the cult of the whale since the day he was born, so joining his first crew is a dream come true. Of course, that dream ends up becoming a straight-up nightmare.
Nantucketers had good reason to be suspicious. Their lives were governed by a force of terrifying unpredictability—the sea. (1.12)
Let's be real: Nantucket doesn't seem like the wisest place to found a city. It's isolated from the mainland. The soil is barren. There don't even seem to be many tasty fish nearby. As we'll come to learn, however, Nantucket has something even more profitable going for it—oil.
One of the onlookers nodded toward the whales and the ocean beyond. "There," he asserted, "is a green pasture where our children's grandchildren will go for bread." (1.15)
See, this guy knows what's up. With whale oil being used for everything from street lamps to heavy machinery, Nantucketers discover that they're sitting on a gold mine. The fact that these "mines" happen to be living creatures is beside the point.
Living on an island [...] almost the same distance from the mainland as England was from France, Nantucketers developed a [...] sense of themselves as a [...] superior people. (1.19)
If you're not from Nantucket, then you're no good. These people are Nantucketers first and Americans second—and don't even get us started on how they feel about anyone not lucky enough to be among their "superior" ranks. While we're sure it feels great to be part of such a tight-knit group, it's hard to defend the Nantucketers' passionate hate for outsiders.
Nantucketers took a dim view of off-islanders. They called them "strangers" or even worse, "coofs." (1.31)
Pro-tip: don't call someone a "coof" unless you want to get into a fistfight. They won't know what you're saying, but they'll surely know it's something nasty. Once again, we see the negative side of the Nantucketers' close-knit community come into play.
Women, who on Nantucket tended to be better educated than the island's men, were just as intelligent, just as capable as their male counterparts. (1.51)
In many ways, Nantucket is America's first feminist city. Though this is pretty cool, it's mostly a result of circumstance—with Nantucket's male population spending the bulk of their time at sea, their wives are left with the task of running the city. Still, it's a system that works well for everyone.
Pollard's behavior was fairly typical of Nantucket whaling captains, who were famous for oscillating wildly between tight-lipped reserve and incandescent rage. (3.62)
Most of the time, Pollard acts like the perfect Quaker: kindhearted, sympathetic, and sincerely concerned with the well-being of his crew. At times like this, however, we see his inner tough guy peek out from behind that smiling facade. This reflects the larger conflict between Quaker nonviolence and the brutality of the whale hunt.
It is apparent that the Nantucketers' clannishness, now intensified, strongly influenced the makeup of the three crews. (6.36)
It's true even in the middle of an ocean: Nantucketers stick together. In the end, this "clannishness"—this desire to stay together at all costs—plays a big part in the Nantucketers' high survival rate after the Essex disaster.
The Nantucketers provided one another with support and encouragement that they did not offer the others. (9.45)
This is a big reason why so many Nantucketers survive the Essex disaster. Keeping a positive outlook is a huge challenge after disasters like this one, and that's a lot easier when you have a community at your back.
By 1835 [...] New Bedford had eclipsed the island as America's leading whaling port. (14.52)
And then, a little over a decade after the Essex disaster, Nantucket loses its status as the nation's leading whaling city. Never again will this tiny town reach the insane heights it once did.
English Nantucketers had instituted a system of debt servitude that provided them with a steady supply of Wampanoag labor, (1.16)
From the start, the Nantucket whale industry depends on the undervalued labor of Native Americans. Doesn't that contradict the Quaker Nantucketers' much-avowed opposition against slavery? Absolutely. Is that going to stop them? No way. Not when money is involved.
But for the men who were typically rounded up by shipping agents in cities such as Boston, it was a different story. Instead of the beginning of something, shipping out on a whaling voyage was often a last and desperate resort. (1.87)
For a Nantucketer, the whaling industry offers a lucrative and respectable career path. It's a completely different story for the working-class men hired as low-ranking ship hands—it's not like those dudes are going to be made captains anytime soon.
It wasn't lofty social ideals that brought black sailors to this Quaker island, but rather the whale fishery's insatiable and often exploitative hunger for labor. (1.92)
Once again, we see this squeaky clean Quaker town seem awfully sleazy. Basically, these money-hungry men have replaced their Wampanoag oarsmen with African Americans, paying them chump change simply because they can. Instead of using their wealth to inspire social change, these Nantucketers exploit racism for their own financial gain.
Significantly, Nantucketers referred to the packet that delivered green hands from New York City as the "Slaver." (1.92)
So that just about settles it, right? Not only do whalers exploit racism to gain cheap labor, but they also actively think about their employment practices as slavery. In an irony to end all ironies, they're doing this as their devout Quaker wives write passionate treatises opposing slavery.
The divide between the forecastle and the other living quarters was not just physical but also racial. (2.29)
The class structure of a whaling ship is literally defined by its physical layout. Officers stay in the front; white working-class men stay in the middle; and black ship hands stay in the back.
In bringing the kid aft, the men had dared to violate the sacred space of the quarterdeck, normally reserved for the officers. (3.53)
Naturally, there are consequences to breaking this unspoken class structure. Just look at how the normally chill Captain Pollard freaks out harder than a teenaged girl at a One Direction concert. A One Direction concert without Zayn, that is. Cue horrified gasps.
Their ignorance of the Society Islands, in particular Tahiti, is even more extraordinary. Since 1797, there had been a thriving English mission on the island. (6.22)
Ultimately, the crew of the Essex pays a big price for their racial and cultural ignorance. If only they had been able to get over their misplaced nightmares about cannibalistic natives, they might have been able to avoid becoming cannibals themselves. Ouch—that one's got to sting.
The food served in the forecastle (where the blacks lived) had been a grade below the miserable fare that had been served to the boatseerers and young Nantucketers. (9.44)
Here, we see how the power imbalance between white and black sailors has devastating consequences. It's no coincidence that the black crewmembers are the first to die after the Essex disaster—they were in bad health even before things went bad. When "miserable fare" would be considered an upgrade, you know you've stumbled into a messed up situation.
Since there would be no black survivors [...] the possibility exists that the Nantucketers took [an] [...] active role in insuring their own survival. (11.31)
Even though this might seem far-fetched, it deserves some consideration: after all, the book presents plenty of examples of this very thing happening on other ships. Regardless, it's hard to dispute that the African American crewmembers' deaths can be attributed to their low social status.
In particular, the fact that five out of the first six men to die were black is never commented on by Chase. (13.52)
This shows that Chase and his fellow officers have no interest in delving into these questions. Even if they can't go back in time and change things, it's hugely important to be aware of how these issues affect our lives.
By 1760, the Nantucketers had practically wiped out the local whale population. (1.18)
Well, that was fast. We're halfway through the first quarter, and the human race is already out to an astounding lead, completely annihilating the local whale population in a matter of generations.
Just as the skinned corpses of buffaloes would soon dot the prairies of the American West, so did the headless gray remains of sperm whales litter the Pacific Ocean. (4.11)
Did you know that America was once teeming with bison? Well, you wouldn't know it from driving around these days, because those bison are all gone, either hunted or killed en masse to make way for railroads. In a similar way, whale populations were once obliterated in order to (literally) fuel the Industrial Revolution.
The sperm whales' network of female-based family units resembled [...] the community [of] the whalemen [...] In both societies the males were itinerants. (4.34)
If only they knew, they might be BFFs: Nantucketers and whales walking (or swimming?) hand-in-hand (or hand-in-fin?). Either way, it's clear to educated Shmoopmasters like ourselves that whales are a lot more like humans than their hunters would like to admit.
Some sailors insisted that the tortoises felt no pangs of hunger during their time on a whaleship, but Nickerson was not so sure. (4.45)
Yeah, we're going to have to agree with Nifty Nickerson on this one. While the sailors are just trying to survive, their actions end up having wide-ranging consequences on several ecosystems—not to mention the immense suffering they put these individual animals through. They'll know those feelings of hunger soon enough, however.
Although the crew of the Essex had already done its part diminishing the world's sperm-whale population, it was here [...] that they contributed to the eradication of a species. (4.51)
Case in point. The turtles that the Essex crew gathered by the bucketload (and ended up dumping in the middle of the ocean) were an important part of the Galapagos ecosystem. Their absence (not to mention the crew's short-sighted pyro spree) ends up doing irreversible damage to an endangered species. In fact, the Galapagos turtle population has yet to recover from such calamities.
Chase and his men had good reason to be amazed. Never before, in the entire history of the Nantucket whale fishery, had a whale been known to attack a ship. (5.18)
How dare that whale fight back? Doesn't he know that human beings are the best animals of all time? Suffice it to say that the whales disagree with this assertion, and now that they know what's up, they're not going down without a fight. And trust us on this one: you don't want to be on the receiving end of a whale punch. Ouchies.
If other sperm whales should start ramming ships, it would be only a matter of time before the island's whaling fleet was reduced to so much flotsam and jetsam. (5.50)
The human race has been bullying whales around for a long time, but here's the truth: whales are a lot bigger and stronger than humans. If they can put their brains to it (and let's be real: their brains are pretty huge) they'll be able to devastate any boat they meet with the flick of a tail.
Instead of acting as a whale was supposed to [...] this big bull had been possessed by what Chase finally took to be a very human concern for the other whales. (5.57)
For the first time in his life, Chase confronts the idea that whales and humans aren't so different, after all. Whales are one of the smartest creatures on the planet, after all, and many scientists believe their inner lives to be very similar to those of humans. You might not be able to say the same about, say, sea snails, but whales are some smart cookies.
The intense darkness of the night was [...] "past conception." [...] Making the blackness all the more horrible were flashes of lightning that seemed to envelop the boats. (7.66)
At this point, the crew is pining for the days when they battled sperm whales. As they've come to learn, there's something scarier here than those monstrosities—it's the sea itself. These men are farther from human civilization than they've ever been in their lives, separated even from the manmade ship that made their journey possible.
In 1837 [...] 6,767 sperm whales were taken by American whalemen. (As a disturbing point of comparison, in 1964, the peak year of modern whaling, 19,255 sperm whales were killed.) (14.60)
This is a real eye-opener. After reading the book, we completely expected the whaling industry to have died out soon after the Essex disaster. On the contrary: the whaling industry has only grown in the hundred-some years since that fateful trip. What gives?
With whale-oil prices steadily climbing and the rest of the world's economy sunk in depression, the village of Nantucket was on its way to becoming one of the richest towns in America. (1.3)
And so it begins. To be honest with y'all, Nantucket sort of stumbles into its newfound wealth—it's not like the city's founders knew they were sitting on a veritable gold mine. It would be like waking up one day to discover that you have an iPhone Tree growing in your backyard. Regardless, this stroke of fate defines the course of Nantucket's future.
Nantucket was now the whaling capital of the world, but there were more than a few islanders who had never even seen a whale. (1.21)
This is the perfect representation of the Nantucketers' greed. There was once a point when their waters were filled with whales ripe for the picking. Or stabbing, we suppose. These days, however, there's nothing left except an increasing desire to make beaucoup bucks at any cost.
Instead of building fancy houses or buying fashionable clothes, Nantucket's Quakers reinvested their profits in the whale fishery. (1.24)
This seemingly frugal move actually reveals the whaling industry's immense greed. By reinvesting all of their money into their businesses, these men are forcing their operations to grow at an untenable rate. Ever heard of a financial bubble? Here's the thing about bubbles—no matter how big they get, they always pop.
We know that Nickerson's predecessor, the cabin boy Joseph Underwood of Salem, received a 1/198 lay for the previous voyage. (1.61)
To put this in context, Nickerson will probably make a couple hundred bucks for two years of work. Talk about a low minimum wage. Basically, the whale fishery owners know that "green" sailors like Nickerson are dime a dozen. If he decides to complain, they'll fire him faster than you can say "labor violation."
They might "act the Quaker," but that didn't keep them from pursuing profits with a lethal enthusiasm. (1.66)
The weirdest part about this whole business is that it's run by Quakers. Quakerism, in case you are unaware, is a brand of Christianity known for its strict pacifism, its dedication to social justice, and its passionate opposition to slavery. Those beliefs don't seem to apply to the Nantucketers' business dealings, however.
While it would be unfair to point to Paul Macy as responsible [...] the first step toward that future began with Macy's decision to save a little money in beef and hardtack. (1.69)
We're not convinced this is entirely unfair. It has already been established that the Essex was in dire need of repairs before it launched from Nantucket. And then the bosses undercut them on food on top of that? That's not going to fly. At a certain point, Macy and his peers are just setting up their crews for failure.
Nickerson estimated that [...] he and his fellow green hands would owe the ship's owners close to 90 percent of their total earnings from the voyage. (3.41)
The whaling business basically scams novice sailors into working for free. Sure, it's great to gain experience, but in a field as dangerous as this one, you'd better be earning a pretty penny for your efforts. But that doesn't matter—despite his horrendous experiences at sea, Nickerson will walk away from the Essex no richer than when he started.
"Yet old whalemen delight in it. The fetid smoke is incense to their nostrils. The filthy oil seems to them a glorious representative of prospective dollars." (4.12)
Even the whalers themselves can get a little greedy at times. This image just emphasizes how powerful money can be—even the most disgusting process in the world can become a beautiful thing if mucho dinero is involved. Still, what's the value of all of this money if you never get the chance to enjoy it?
A yellowish slime [...] slopped over the gunwales with the waves. [...] The fluid that only a few days before had been their fortune, their obsession, was now their torment. (6.12)
This is the perfect symbol for the Essex disaster—and the whaling industry as a whole. In their greed to make as much cash as possible, these men stepped headlong into one of the most horrendous naval disasters of all time. In the end, however, the thing that keeps you going can ultimately do you in. And to think—all of that oil is will now simply sink beneath the waves, never to be seen again.
As the strictures of Quakerism relaxed, Nantucketers were free to display the wealth they had once felt obliged to conceal. (14.59)
It's not until the whaling industry is finished that the bosses finally decide to show off their wealth. Pretty ironic, huh? Still, with the whaling industry a shadow of its former self, these men are going to find something else to fuel their garish lifestyles.
There was a savagery about this island, a bloodlust and pride that bound every mother, father, and child in a clannish commitment to the hunt. (1.39)
This irony is one that defines Nantucket. On the one hand, the town is a stronghold for Quakerism: a religion defined by its passionate pacifism. On the other, there's nothing a Nantucketer loves more than murdering some whales. Needless to say, these two mindsets don't necessarily go hand-in-hand.
They all coaxed and cajoled their crews with words that evoked [...] the almost erotic bloodlust associated with pursuing one of the largest mammals on the planet. (3.18)
Yikes. Again, we see the squeaky-clean image of Quakerism sullied by the Nantucketers' love for violence. It's almost as if by committing themselves to pacifism, these Nantucketers have created pent-up aggression that they can only release by stabbing a whale. We usually punch a pillow or something?
When the lance finally found its mark, the whale would begin to choke on its own blood, its spout transformed into a fifteen- to twenty-foot geyser of gore. (3.31)
Wait—are we talking about In the Heart of the Sea or Kill Bill? Because this stuff sounds nasty. After seeing this, it's no wonder novice sailors are so shaken by their first whale hunt: even those who have killed their fair share of animals have never experienced anything as gruesome as this.
"There is a murderous appearance about the blood-stained decks, and the huge masses of flesh and blubber lying here and there, and ferocity in the looks of the men." (3.39)
At times, the whale hunt seems like some sort of dark, mystical ritual, presumably to summon evil whale ghosts from the future. Or something like that. Either way, we see the Essex transformed from a humble sailing ship into a brutal butchery in a matter of moments.
With a tremendous cracking and splintering of oak, the whale struck the ship just beneath the anchor secured at the cathead on the port bow. (5.25)
Suddenly, whales are the ones committing the violence. Holy smokes. This is a pretty big shocker to the crew of the Essex: if sperm whales become as violent as their hunters, then it's not going to be long until every single whaleship is crushed to dust. After all, these whale-dudes are so big that they make Andre the Giant look like Ant Man.
"He came directly from the shoal [...] in which we had struck three of his companions, as if fired with revenge for their sufferings." (5.57)
Well, isn't that something. Unlike the crew of the Essex, the mighty sperm whale only becomes violent when there's just cause—in this case, when his friends and family are in jeopardy. Doesn't that sound a lot more civilized than a gaggle of brutes traipsing about, looking for giant mammals to butcher?
Without their ship to protect them, the hunters had become the prey. (7.44)
This would be like SpongeBob Squarepants trying to take on the Incredible Hulk. Or, to put it simply: "Whale SMASH!"
But when Chase attempted to stab the [shark], he discovered that he did not have the strength even to dent its sandpaper-like skin. (10.28)
In the end, the crew of the Essex becomes so weak that they can't commit violence if they want to. This must be a hopeless feeling, especially for such world-weary warriors. Still, you know what they say—those who live by the harpoon, die by the harpoon.
There is [...] evidence to indicated that even if Chase was not motivated [...] to [...] kill the whale that had sunk the Essex, other whalemen said he was. (14.28)
In case you didn't realize it, this story provides the basis for Moby-Dick, one of the most famous American novels of all time. While Chase might not be seeking Ahab-levels of vengeance, the man is deeply shaken by the fact that his ship was destroyed by an angry whale.
Like the whale that had attacked the Essex, an increasing number of sperm whales were fighting back. (14.61)
It's almost as if the whale that attacked the Essex spread the word to all of his buddies. Good for him, we say. The whaling industry might have been able to catch the whales off-guard at first, but they've got another thing coming to them now.
His first mate, however, disagreed. Chase urged that they continue on, despite the damage. (2.62)
This is the first in a string of very bad decisions made by Chase. Although he's just the first mate, his overambitious nature (not to mention his poor problem-solving skills) directly leads to the sinking of the Essex.
Given the shortage of spare boats aboard the Essex, caution [...] might have been expected, but caution [...] was not part of the first mate's makeup. (5.8)
Here's foolish decision #2 from our main man Chase. Just as before, Chase lets his passion for the hunt overwhelm his rational faculties. This makes us wonder if things would have turned out differently if these guys had had the extra whaleboats, if only to help them carry additional supplies.
Part of him was guilt-wracked, knowing that if he had only hurled the lance, it might have all turned out differently. (5.57)
Ironically, Chase first shows caution at the worst possible moment. While things might have ended just as disastrously if Chase had attacked the whale, it would have at least given them a fighting chance. Instead, they simply got smashed.
"Not wishing to oppose where there was two against one," Nickerson remembered, "the captain reluctantly yielded to their arguments." (6.18)
Time and time again, Captain Pollard is pushed around by his subordinates. The worst part is that, each time this happens, Pollard is actually right. If only the dude had grown a backbone, things might not have ended as badly as they did.
Only a Nantucketer [...] possessed the necessary combination of arrogance, ignorance, and xenophobia to [...] choose instead an open-sea voyage of several thousand miles. (6.28)
The officers' choices are shaped by their personal biases and beliefs. As we see here, their fear of "savage" Pacific Islanders leads them to make perhaps the most boneheaded decision of all time: heading for faraway South America instead of nearby Tahiti. Of course, the irony that their fear of cannibalism leads to their own use of cannibalism is not lost on us.
Pollard had known better, but instead of pulling rank [...] he embraced a more democratic style of command. (6.29)
This is one of those instances when democracy isn't such a good thing. Disasters like this require split-second decision-making, as no one knows what the next moment will bring. This small change of strategy might have made a world of difference.
From the beginning, Chase had strictly, even obsessively attended to the distribution of rations aboard his boat. (10.25)
Although he makes a lot of wrong-headed choices, Chase survives because he shows unflinching determination. In fact, Chase's obsessive attitude toward rationing directly leads to his boat's high rate of survival.
Hendricks and his crew dared speak of a subject that had been on all their minds: whether they should eat, instead of bury, the body. (11.1)
Although this is a choice that no one should have to make, desperate times call for desperate measures. Even so, we can't help but look back at all of the foolish decisions from Chase and Pollard that forced them into this horrifying predicament.
But Coffin had already resigned himself to his fate. "I like it as well as any other," he said softly. (11.43)
This represents a big change for Coffin. Earlier in the journey, he had tried to pull the family card to get out of hard labor. Now, even though he has an out, he willingly sacrifices his life for his comrades.
It is in his account of the decisions made prior to the ordeal in the whaleboats that the first mate is the most self-serving. (13.52)
Chase is never able to forgive himself for his part in this disaster. In fact, this shame leads him to whitewash the true circumstances behind the disaster to make himself look better. It's an understandable impulse, but it doesn't do justice to the men who suffered and died under his command.
New boatsteerers had been known to faint dead away when first presented with the terrifying prospect of attaching themselves to an infuriated sperm whale. (3.22)
That's some scary stuff—frankly, we're getting woozy just thinking about it. For these novice sailors, the experience of killing a whale is more terrifying than anything they've ever done before. As we'll learn over the course of the book, however, these kids have good reason to be scared.
With [...] the legendary dangers of the Horn looming ahead of them, tensions aboard the Essex were reaching a breaking point. (3.45)
Fear has a tendency to spread dissent. This is a bad time for this to be happening, however: traveling around the horn of South America is the most dangerous leg of their journey. Our capricious crew had better keep their wits about them if they want to survive.
As far as Pollard and his men knew [...] they were at the edge of an unknown world filled with unimaginable dangers. (5.4)
Of course, not all fears are created equal. While it's certainly right to fear giant whales or bloodthirsty sharks, it's maybe less useful to fear your fellow man. This fear will eventually come back to bite the Essex's crew in their collective backside.
Some of the men slept and others "wasted the night in unavailing murmurs," Chase wrote. Once, he admitted, he found himself braking into tears. (5.56)
After the Essex sinks, things get hopeless immediately. Saying that they're "up a creek without a paddle" doesn't even begin to cover it—these dudes are in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles away from land without a paddle. This sort of isolation has the potential to drive them mad.
It was terrifying duty—straining to see what threat would next emerge from the darkness. (6.1)
Sometimes, not knowing is the scariest part. These men are trapped in a place without light and sound, leaving them with only their wild imaginations to paint the scene.
Once the crew had been given specific tasks to accomplish, the change in morale was swift. (6.5)
It's a lot easier to manage your fear when you have a goal to work toward. Often, fear is rooted in feelings of powerlessness, so the best way to be brave is to keep your eyes on the prize.
Chase and Joy were disposed to believe that the people of the Society Island practiced [...] the eating of human flesh. (6.17)
This is the irony to end all ironies—thanks to their fear of stumbling upon a cannibalistic society, Chase and Joy spark a chain of events that directly leads to them becoming cannibals themselves. Truth really is stranger than fiction.
None of the men had slept all night. All of them had expected to die. (7.68)
By now, the surviving crewmembers have been in fear for so long that they no longer expect to survive. The only way to avoid this fate is to manage their fear, but that's a lot easier said than done.
"[W]e could distinctly hear the furious thrashing of their tails in the water [...] and our weak minds picture out their appalling and hideous aspects." (10.42)
Chase, in particular, is haunted by the possibility of another whale attack. It's funny—just days earlier, this very sound would have sent dollar signs flying throughout his head. Now, after the disaster, this sound only reminds him of everything he's lost. He's not exactly looking forward to Round Two, either.
Cole [...] declared that "all was dark in his mind, not a single ray of hope was left for him to dwell upon." (12.6)
Living in such debilitating fear is too much for some to handle. As we see here, loss of hope is the first step toward death. It's almost as if these men are merely willing themselves to stay alive at this point.
It has been estimated that sailors [...] were consuming around 3,800 calories a day. It is unlikely that the men [...] consumed even close to that amount. (3.50)
Even before disaster strikes the Essex, her crew is already running on fumes. This is hugely important, as these men will be expected to survive a horrendous ordeal despite not being at full strength when things get started. That's like starting the Daytona 500 with half a tank of gas.
If they did succeed in reaching South America in sixty days, each man knew he would be little more than a breathing skeleton. (7.11)
This is a scary truth. Can you imagine how you'd react if you were told that you'd be stranded on a boat for two months? We know what we'd do: grab a volleyball, give it a name, and purchase a one-way ticket to crazy town. We hear it's beautiful this time of year.
Chase was plagued by [...] a "tormenting memory" [...] forced to relive the trauma over and over again. (7.15)
Chase's suffering is more psychological than it is physical. Unlike his subordinates, Chase knows that his choices caused the Essex disaster, filling him with a shame that eats him away from the inside.
The tongue hardens into what McGee describes as "a senseless weight, swinging on the still-soft root and striking foreignly against the teeth." (8.17)
In case you don't remember, this is what happens when a human being goes too long without water. Just think about that next time you complain about "dying of thirst." In many ways, this feeling seems to mimic the men's helplessness after the Essex disaster.
Their physical torments had reached a terrible crescendo. It was almost as if they were being poisoned by the combined effects of thirst and hunger. (8.40)
The crew's suffering only gets worse and worse. Eventually, these physical strains snowball, creating a situation where rational thought is all but impossible. At a certain point, these guys are not even strong enough to row anymore, no matter how badly they want to.
Survivors typically undergo a process of psychic deadening that one Auschwitz survivor described as a tendency to "kill my feelings." (11.30)
Once you've become so desperate that cannibalism is involved, you know that things have gotten bad. In light of such anguish—both emotional and physical—the crew's only choice is to shut down their feelings. Otherwise, they might be driven stark raving mad after the horror they've committed.
Captain William Crozier was moved to tears at what Chase called "the most deplorable and affecting picture of suffering and misery." (12.39)
Even Crozier, who has surely witnessed some messed-up stuff during his time at sea, is horrified by the suffering that the Essex's crew has endured. These are changed men. No matter what happens to them in the future, they'll always bear the scars (both literal and figurative) of this awful ordeal.
It is not uncommon for castaways who have been many days at sea and suffered both physically and emotionally to [...] exist in a shared fantasy world. (12.45)
Eventually, the only way for Pollard and Ramsdell to escape from their physical suffering is to transport themselves to an imaginary world. Of course, their imaginary world happens to center on the bones of their former shipmates, but hey—when life gives you lemons, you make lemon skeletons.
It was Pollard and Ramsdell—found clutching the bones of their dead companions—who had come the closest to complete psychic disintegration. (13.11)
While Chase's crew certainly had a rough time, their trip was a cakewalk compared to Pollard and Ramsdell's. These two men were force to kill and murder their nephew and best friend, respectively, which is something you can never come back from. There's just one thing we know for sure—the next Pollard family reunion sure is going to be awkward.
"Once a year," Phinney remembered, "on the anniversary of the loss of the Essex, he locked himself in his room and fasted." (14.22)
Pollard will never forget his experiences during the Essex disaster. In fact, he still seems to feel shame for his part in it. The only way for him to alleviate these feelings, however temporarily, is to remind himself of what that suffering felt like.