Study Guide

In the Heart of the Sea Violence

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Violence

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.