Study Guide

Thomas Nickerson in In the Heart of the Sea

By Nathaniel Philbrick

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Thomas Nickerson

It's easy to forget that Thomas Nickerson is only fourteen years old when he joins the crew of the Essex. We don't know about you, but when we were fourteen, the only thing we did was play Pokémon and eat an obscene amount of Twinkies. Meanwhile, this dude was hunting whales.

Boy, You'll Be a Whaler Soon

The thing is, Nickerson has been preparing for this moment his entire life. As a die-hard Nantucketer, Nickerson was indoctrinated into the cult of whaling at a young age, convinced that this profession will be his path to glory. With that in mind, it's easy to understand why he's overjoyed to be a part of the Essex's crew. Still, it isn't more than "a few hours" into the journey when Nickerson feels "a sudden gloom spread over [him]" (2.22). The dream has abruptly shifted to a nightmare.

As it turns out, the reality of whaling isn't all it's cracked up to be. Nickerson has to contend with a volatile sea. He has to manage his almost overwhelming fears. Worst of all, he's forced to deal with first mate Owen Chase, who is so overbearing that he might as well eat drill sergeants for breakfast. All of these factors combine to create a decidedly unpleasant experience for our fourteen-year-old hero.

A New Direction

Nickerson's attitude toward Chase changes drastically after the Essex disaster. Now that he's stuck in a life-or-death situation, Nickerson can appreciate Chase's dedication to his crew, calling "the first mate a 'remarkable man'" and praising his "genius for identifying hope in a seemingly hopeless situation" (11.19). To us, this is a sign that Nickerson is maturing, as he's able to move past his fear and resentment to see Chase for who he truly is.

Ultimately, Nickerson doesn't stay in the whaling business very long after the Essex disaster, choosing instead to join the low-stress merchant services. The Essex tragedy seems to weigh heavily on him, however, which prompts him to visit his fellow survivors and write his own account of the events near the end of his life. Though Nickerson doesn't seem as messed-up by the experience as Chase and Pollard, the Essex disaster was undeniably a formative experience in his life.

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