Study Guide

In the Heart of the Sea Visions of Nantucket

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Visions of Nantucket

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.