Study Guide

In the Heart of the Sea Themes

  • Visions of Nantucket

    Nantucket is a tiny town with big ambitions. Stuck roughly twenty-six miles from the mainland of the United States, the town grows from an insignificant, isolated colony into the whaling capital of the world. Talk about movin' on up. Ultimately, however, Nantucket is a city built on contradictions, which is a shaky foundation for any economic empire. Although the disastrous journey depicted in In the Heart of the Sea doesn't directly lead to the city's downfall, it's easy to see it as the first step toward Nantucket's inevitable decline.

    Questions About Visions of Nantucket

    1. Why are Nantucketers so hostile toward outsiders?
    2. Is Nantucket a "feminist" town? Explain.
    3. How does Quakerism shape Nantucket culture?
    4. Why do primarily Nantucketers survive the Essex disaster?

    Chew on This

    Nantucket's status as one of America's first "feminist" towns is, in part, attributable to the nature of the whaling business.

    While Nantucketers' intense sense of community can be positive thing, it also inevitably leads to hostility toward outsiders.

  • Society and Class

    The owners of the whaleship Essex aren't concerned with silly notions like equality and fair pay—just look at how they exploit their employees in In the Heart of the Sea. African American sailors are given wages that make them barely distinguishable from slaves, continuing a tradition that began with the Nantucketers' exploitation of Native Americans. Even the Essex itself is segregated by class and race. Although it may not shock you that American society was so nasty at the time, you'll certainly be surprised about how many of these issues directly relate to the Essex disaster.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How are race and class related in In the Heart of the Sea?
    2. Why do Nantucket whalers employ such exploitative hiring practices?
    3. How do class-based issues after the sailors' survival rate? Explain.
    4. Explain the class system that exists on the Essex.

    Chew on This

    In the book, we frequently see the intersection between race and class, as African-American and Native-American sailors are treated worse than their white peers.

    The class system aboard the Essex causes malnourishment among certain segments of the crew, which directly leads to their deaths after the Essex sinks.

  • Man vs. the Natural World

    Given that In the Heart of the Sea depicts the most brutal whale-hunters who've ever lived, this is one of those rare instances when "Man vs. the Natural World" can be taken literally. In the red corner, you've got the crew of the Essex: humans dedicated to hunting sperm whales to near-extinction. In the blue corner, however, you've got the whales themselves: veteran heavyweights who are tired of being pushed around by these scrawny up-and-comers. Although the human race takes an early lead in this duel to the death, it'll take a lot more than that to put the natural world down for the count.

    Questions About Man vs. the Natural World

    1. In your opinion, why does the whale attack the Essex?
    2. Is whale hunting ethical? Explain.
    3. Does the crew of the Essex commit any long-term environmental damage? Explain.
    4. How is the whaling industry related to industrialization?

    Chew on This

    Although the specific practices employed by whaleships like the Essex are certainly unethical, whale hunting can be considered acceptable in certain circumstances.

    Given that sperm whales are highly intelligent beings, it is unethical to hunt them under any circumstances.

  • Greed

    Scrooge McDuck would feel right at home in the city of Nantucket. Though devoutly Quaker, Nantucketers aren't going to let silly things like ethics or morality get in the way of the almighty dollar bill. Sometimes that means under-supplying their whaling ships to pinch pennies. Sometimes that means exploiting workers for little to no pay. And sometimes it's as simple as wiping out entire ecosystems for a quick cash infusion. Although this greed remains unchecked for the bulk of In the Heart of the Sea, there's one thing you can be certain of—what goes around, comes around.

    Questions About Greed

    1. Does greed contribute to the Essex disaster? Explain.
    2. In what ways do Nantucketers' business practices contradict their Quaker values?
    3. What are the consequences of wiping out the local whale population around Nantucket?
    4. What causes Nantucket's economic decline?

    Chew on This

    The exploitative labor practices employed by Nantucket whalers are completely contradictory to their avowed Quaker values.

    By shortchanging the Essex on both food and repairs, the owners of the Essex made disaster all but inevitable.

  • Violence

    Though this might come as shocker, we're going to drop a bomb on y'all—hunting animals can get a little violent. And that goes double when the animal in question is a skyscraper-sized sperm whale. In many ways, you can read In the Heart of the Sea as an investigation into the brutality of the whaling industry—an industry that quite literally fueled the Industrial Revolution. Although the sailors who dedicate their lives to hunting whales do some nasty things to their prey, it's nothing compared to how nasty things get when the whales start fighting back.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Does the crew of the Essex enjoy violence? Explain.
    2. In your opinion, what causes the increasing frequency of whale attacks?
    3. Does the Nantucketers' love for the hunt contradict their ardent pacifism? Why or why not?
    4. Are there any psychological ramifications of hunting whales?

    Chew on This

    Although they love earning money, the crewmembers of the Essex don't love committing violence on whales.

    Although they use money as an excuse, it's clear that the crew of the Essex feels pleasure while hunting whales.

  • Choices

    Being an officer on a whaleship like the Essex requires fine-tuned decision-making skills. Unfortunately, that's one quality poor Captain Pollard lacks. Still, it's hard to place the blame solely on Pollard for everything that goes on during that fateful trip in In the Heart of the Sea—after all, equal blame must be placed on the shoulders of his ambitious mates, Owen Chase and Matthew Joy. In the end, however, it doesn't matter who actually made the poor choices that led to that tragic day—all that matters are the consequences.

    Questions About Choices

    1. Who makes better choices: Captain Pollard or Owen Chase?
    2. Why is Pollard such a poor leader?
    3. Does Chase deserve to become a captain after the Essex disaster? Explain.
    4. How does Chase's ambition get in the way of making the right choices?

    Chew on This

    Although Owen Chase is blamed for many of the failures leading up to the Essex disaster, the fault for these poor choices rests on the captain's shoulders.

    Although one can blame Pollard for failing to stick up for his beliefs, the fault for the sinking of the Essex rests on Owen Chase and his poor choices.

  • Fear

    In the Heart of the Sea is not for the faint of heart. In this book, you'll witness the awesome power of furious sperm whales. You'll feel the pure terror of being stranded thousands of miles away from human civilization. You'll watch in horror as friends and family are forced in desperation to eat each other. It's like watching Jaws, Open Water, and Silence of the Lambs at the same time. Okay, so maybe we're exaggerating (just a tad), but trust us on this one—this book just might make a Cetaphobiac out of you.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Why does Chase become obsessed with the whale that attacked the Essex?
    2. How is Benjamin Lawrence able to manage his fear?
    3. In what ways does fear contribute to the Essex disaster?
    4. How is Chase able to keep morale high on his boat?

    Chew on This

    Ultimately, it's a fear of the unknown that prompts the crew to head to South America instead of the Society Islands—which is a bad decision with even worse consequences.

    Throughout the book, we see how fear can literally kill a man, sapping him of the spirit he needs to keep trucking along.

  • Suffering

    You thought the Titanic was a catastrophic tragedy? Just wait until you hear the story of the whaleship Essex. After the ship is attacked—and sunk—by a rogue whale, the surviving crew is forced to make a desperate trek across thousands of miles of open sea. That's no easy task. They face starvation. They face madness. Heck, things get so freaky out there that a few guys even end up eaten. For real. More tension-filled than an episode of Breaking Bad, In the Heart of the Sea teaches us a lot about the triumphs—and limits—of the human spirit.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Was it wrong of the sailors to eat their dead companions? Why or why not?
    2. What are some instances of mental and emotional suffering in the book?
    3. Why does Pollard fast on the anniversary of the Essex disaster?
    4. Do the surviving crewmembers still suffer after they return home? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Although physical suffering takes the focus in In the Heart of the Sea, it's emotional suffering that is most powerful.

    Despite being rescued, the surviving crewmembers of the Essex always remain scarred by the suffering they experienced at sea.