Study Guide

In the Heart of the Sea Fear

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Fear

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.