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Leviathan in the Offing

By (March 1, 2015) 7 Comments

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
By Nathaniel Philbrick
Penguin Books, 2000

The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale: First-Person Accounts
By Thomas Nickerson, Owen Chase, and Others, eds. Thomas Philbrick and Nathaniel Philbrick
Penguin Books, 2000

By Herman Melville, eds. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford
Norton, 2002

IntheHeartoftheSeaThere is something about a whale that drives a man to excess. No manatee has yet caused a novelist to wrestle at great length with his relationship to God. A fur hat is a fine thing, but no beaver pelt ever possessed an otherwise sane human being to undertake a three-year voyage, far from the furthest corners of human society, and constantly at risk of violent death in the jaws of the beaver itself. And no other species, to the best of my knowledge, has induced the crew of the Starship Enterprise to travel three hundred years into the past for the singular purpose of bringing it back with them to the 23rd century. Only the whale can make us do these things.

Ron Howard’s new film In the Heart of the Sea, adapted from a book by Nathaniel Philbrick, tells the true story of the whaleship Essex. Wrecked by one of the sperm whales it hunted, its crew forced to fend for survival across thousands of miles of open sea, the tale of the Essex became one of the most notorious sea-stories of the 19th century. As I write this article, Howard’s movie exists before the public only in the form of two brief trailers, each strikingly different in tone. It is difficult from these brief glimpses to know how Howard has handled this story. But if his film at all resembles the Essex itself, it will not settle into forgettable mediocrity. For the Essex was not merely wrecked but tragically doomed; a floating metaphor for mankind’s cupidity, prejudice, and self-destruction. It is tempting to blame this sorry fate on the violent power of the whale, of course. But that is its way. The whale cannot help but push us beyond our limits.


There are two trailers for In the Heart of the Sea. The second, and most recent, is a tension-soaked thriller. Opening placidly on a solitary ship, its pennant waving in the breeze, we cut to a dark cabin, where a baffled-looking Chris Hemsworth is jolted awake by a sudden collision. He scurries above deck, where he and his crewmates scan the horizon for signs of danger. Abruptly, an unknown form rises out of the water, hurtling toward the ship. Hemsworth dives to protect a comrade from a collapsing mast, a throbbing percussion overtakes the soundtrack, and suddenly everything is chaos. A series of quick-cut images flash by in succession: now a colossal sperm whale barrels toward the ship, its teeth glinting in reflected sunlight; now Hemsworth bids farewell to his wife and child, hurls a harpoon, fires a rifle; now the whale’s huge flukes come crashing down on the Essex, which moments later we see crippled and in flames. “Say it! Say you’re scared!” shouts a young castaway on a drifting lifeboat, but Hemsworth says he will not. By the time the trailer closes, with the hero’s voice-over promise that “we will survive,” the viewer knows exactly what he is in for: Jaws vs. the Pequod, with the Mighty Thor on deck.

Perhaps this is not altogether inappropriate. In Nathaniel Philbrick’s telling, the story of the Essex begins as an adventure. In the Heart of the Sea drops the reader onto the island of Nantucket, pious but avaricious capital of the 19th century whaling industry, just days before the Essex is to depart for its ill-fated voyage. Here, we meet the crew who will be the story’s central figures: George Pollard, first-time captain of a newly-recruited ship’s company; Owen Coffin, Pollard’s nephew now signed intheheartoftheseahowardon as a sailor; Thomas Nickerson, the youngest member of the crew, induced by his friend Coffin to join up for his first trip at sea; and Owen Chase, the bluff, charismatic first mate (soon to be permanently associated with Chris Hemsworth’s face). Philbrick fills us in on some of the colorful details of Nantucket culture and whaling lore, but before two dozen pages have passed, we’re off to sea along with the Essex, and the thrilling hunt for spermaceti has begun.

Philbrick’s book draws from a wide range of modern and contemporary sources, including the posthumously published memoirs of the cabin-boy Nickerson (most of these sources are conveniently collected, along with an introduction from Philbrick and his father Thomas, in a convenient volume from Penguin Classics). But more than anyone, it is the dashing and arrogant first mate Chase who, through the words of his own Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, establishes himself as the central figure, both in Philbrick’s book and on the deck of the Essex itself. Despite what Philbrick tells us is the authorial presence of a ghostwriter, Chase’s voice is vividly audible throughout his brisk and straightforward Narrative, and the sense of the man’s personality is unmistakable: firm, opinionated, and prone to alternating bouts of puffed-up egotism and defensive self-pity. Early in his memoir, Chase informs us with blustery confidence of the unique intrepidness of Nantucket whalemen (a race, needless to say, which includes Chase himself):

A tame man is never known among them, and a coward is marked with that peculiar aversion that distinguishes our public naval service. There are perhaps no people of superior corporeal powers; and it has been truly said of them, that they possess a natural aptitude, which seems rather the lineal spirit of their fathers, than the effects of any experience.

It is thus no surprise to learn, early in Philbrick’s book, that it was Chase, and not the milktoast Captain Pollard, who soon proved the decisive officer as the Essex embarked on its hunt.

The whale hunt itself provides Philbrick with some of his most lively and memorable passages, filled with breathless descriptions of harpoon thrusts and “Nantucket sleigh rides.” But if the Essex’s early goings are a story of adventure, Philbrick never allows us to forget that it is an adventure in pursuit of a singularly violent end. The men of the Essex were not seeking thrills but profit, and those profits were made from the rendered flesh of living creatures. This reality is laid bare to the reader in merciless descriptive passages such as this one, which relates the successful harpooning of one sperm whale:

Beating the water with its tail, snapping the air with its jaws – even as it regurgitated large chunks of fish and squid – the creature began to swim in an ever tightening circle. Then, just as abruptly as the attack had begun with the first thrust of the harpoon, it ended. The whale fell motionless and silent, a giant black corpse floating fin-up in a slick of its own vomit.

The note of righteous judgement in such paragraphs is unmistakable. And so, when the worm inevitably turns, and the Essex finds itself under assault from one of its erstwhile quarry, the attack seems an act of justified retribution. Certainly, that was how Chase himself remembered it: describing the surprise attack as an act of “decided, calculating mischief,” Chase observed that, “He [the whale] came directly from the shoal which we had just before entered, and in which we had just struck three of his companions, as if fired for revenge for their sufferings.” This, he concluded, could only be the work of an “unaccountable destiny or design.”

Viewed in this light, the wreck of the Essex becomes a kind of moral fable; a Christian morality play with the whale in the role of a vengeful God. The Essex, driven by earthly greed to acts of unholy violence, is dealt its due justice by the creature it meant to slay. Although Philbrick takes pains to emphasize the likelihood that the whale’s attack was purely instinctive and free of deliberate malice, in the end he can’t resist the narrative of divine retribution: “It almost seemed as if something – could it have been God? – had possessed the beast for its own strange, unfathomable purpose.” The Essex left Nantucket in search of oil and adventure. It found, instead, a lesson in moral justice.


lossoftheshipessexThe other trailer for In the Heart of the Sea suggests a very different sort of film. Over echoing, unsettling music, we see a series of impressionistic images: a vaguely Turner-esque brewing sea storm; Hemsworth gazing, troubled, into the middle distance; a deserted island; the fearful faces of young men in a ship’s cabin. “We were headed for the edge of sanity,” an invisible narrator tells us. “Like we were apparitions, phantoms. Trust gave way to doubt, hope to superstition. The tragedy of the Essex is the story of men … and a demon.” As the imagery becomes quicker and more violent, we are left to ponder the significance of it all. Our first trailer is mere entertainment. This one aspires to philosophy.

The most famous interpreter of the Essex story is neither Owen Chase nor Nathaniel Philbrick, but Herman Melville, writer of that strangest and least describable of all American novels. Melville, himself no stranger to eventful sea voyages, was fascinated by the fate of the Essex: he owned and heavily annotated a copy of Chase’s Narrative, and eventually paid a visit to meet Captain Pollard himself. Moby-Dick takes the story of the Essex disaster and, filtering it through kaleidoscope of Melville’s mind, transforms it into something rich and strange.

The voyage of the Pequod, then, plays out like a warped retelling of Chase’s Narrative. Where the Essex is destroyed at the outset of Chase’s telling, Melville sinks the Pequod almost as an afterthought at the very end of his tale. Where Owen Chase is all pathos, wavering between oblivious self-regard and mewling self-pity, Captain Ahab is noble tragedy: he strides (or, rather, thumps) across the deck of the Pequod like a character from Shakespeare, and never so much speaks as bellows at crew and reader alike.

And where the Essex is the subject of a moral fable, justly punished by God for its greed on Earth, the Pequod lacks such pious certainties. Ahab, of course, sees himself as modern Job, assaulted by the callous God who took his leg. But unlike his obedient forebear, Ahab unapologetically seeks revenge: to strike through the white whale at God himself. Indeed, Ahab consciously foreswears any motive as base as monetary gain. The violence inflicted by the Pequod is intended as a protest against a savage Jehovah.

And yet, there is a darkness to the the cruelties inflicted by the Pequod’s crew that goes well beyond Philbrick’s descriptions of a whale hunt. Witness one telling scene, in which the harpooner Flask finishes off a particularly infirm victim, over the protests of first mate Starbuck:

“A nice spot,” cried Flask; “just let me prick him there once.”

“Avast!” cried Starbuck, “there’s no need of that!”

But humane Starbuck was too late. At the instant of the dart an ulcerous jet shot from this cruel wound, and goaded by it into more than sufferable anguish, the whale now spouting thick blood, with swift fury blindly darted at the craft, bespattering them and their glorying crews all over with showers of gore, capsizing Flask’s boat and marring the bows. It was his death stroke. For, by this time, so spent was he by loss of blood, that he helplessly rolled away from the wreck he had made; lay panting on his side, impotently flapped with his stumped fin, then over and over slowly revolved like a waning world; turned up the white secrets of his belly; lay like a log, and died.

The agony of this scene is so palpable, the reader’s sympathy so firmly placed alongside the struggling whale, that the supposed nobility of the Pequod’s mission becomes a hollow mockery. This is not violence committed out of righteous protest; it is not even violence committed for monetary gain. It is empty, pointless killing committed out of some inexplicable human urge that even good Starbuck cannot contain.

So perhaps we ought to remember the troubling afterthought of Ahab’s famous early speech on the Pequod’s quarterdeck. Swearing to hunt down Moby Dick to the death, he cries:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough.

“Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond.” Ahab’s comfort is his blasphemy: the reassuring conviction that the death he deals is justified by God’s own violence. But what if the pasteboard mask is all there is? What if the only violence on the sea is his own?


whaleshipessexLook closely at either of the trailers for In the Heart of the Sea, and you’ll catch a glimpse of a curious image. Swiftly, a blade comes down on a pale chunk of raw meat, just before a desperate crewman ravenously devours it. What are we seeing here? Is it the butchered carcass of a sperm whale? Viewers familiar with the story of the Essex know that it is not.

Floating at sea on their remaining lifeboats, desperately short of food and water, the survivors of the Essex were faced with a choice. The nearest inhabited shores were the islands of the Marquesas, about 1,200 miles away but in the direction of favorable winds. Yet despite the promise of food, shelter, and dry land, the survivors of the Essex were inclined to dismiss this option: the natives of the Marquesas were rumored to be of immense size and strength; they were said to practice “ritualized homosexual behavior”; and, most alarming by far, they were believed to be cannibals.

Captain Pollard suggested steering to the nearby Society Islands, slightly farther away but still reachable. But Owen Chase would have none of this. “These islands we were entirely ignorant of,” the first mate records in his Narrative. “If inhabited, we presumed they were by savages, from whom we had as much to fear as from the elements, or even death itself.” At his insistence, and with the acquiescence of the ever-submissive Pollard, an alternative course was adopted: twice the distance across open sea, fighting against contrary winds and dwindling supplies, to the western coast of South America. In a deadpan summation, Philbrick writes of this decision: “Only a Nantucketer in 1820 possessed the necessary combination of arrogance, ignorance, and xenophobia to shun a beckoning (albeit unknown) island and choose instead an open voyage of several thousand miles.”

The darkly ironic consequence was inevitable. Frightened by paranoid suspicions imagined savages, the haggard survivors brought their own fears to life. The tale of the Essex became legendary in its time not as the story of a fearsome whale, but as a bleak warning of desperate human depravity. Eventually, inescapably, Owen Chase and his crewmates became cannibals.

Philbrick’s description of this descent is perfectly chilling in its matter-of-fact frankness. Here, for instance, is his account of the moment when Chase, after long delay, finally permits the members of his lifeboat to submit to temptation:

After separating the limbs from the body and removing the heart, they sewed up what remained of Cole’s body as “decently” as they could, before they committed it to the sea. Then they began to eat. Even before lighting a fire, the men “eagerly devoured” the heart, then ate “sparingly of a few pieces of flesh.” They cut the rest of the meat into thin strips – some of which they roasted on the fire, while the others were laid out to dry in the sun.

moby-dickThe prose here is all the more chilling for its utter spareness. The emotional and moral depths of the scene – the significance of a self-consciously civilized crew’s abandonment of their most deeply held religious principles in the interest of brute survival – is left for the reader to infer.

In contrast to its source material, cannibalism seems, at first glance, remarkably absent from Moby-Dick. Ishmael’s bosom-buddy Queequeg is, of course, a cannibal islander himself. But Melville, who had briefly lived among the natives of the Marquesas (and used the experience as the basis for his novel Typee), puckishly uses the character as an opportunity to subvert moral expectations. Queequeg (of whom Ishmael declares that it is, “better [to] sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian”) is nothing less than the most upright and generous of the Pequod’s crew. There is no one on the ship we could less imagine devouring his friends.

Yet if cannibalism as an overt act is missing from Moby-Dick, its shadows are never far from view. In the chapter “Stubb’s Supper,” one of the most wincingly unpleasant passages of the novel, the “jolly” mate Stubb mercilessly mocks, degrades, and torments the elderly cook Fleece. Dragging the old man to the side of the ship, where a hoard of sharks are tearing up the a whale carcass, Stubb orders him to recite a sermon to the ravenous animals. The cook’s speech applies equally to predators above and below the waterline:

Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don’t blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can’t be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint…

No use goin’ on; de dam willains will keep a scrougin’ and slappin’ each oder, Massa Stubb; dey don’t hear one word; no use a-preachin’ to such dam g’uttons as you call ‘em, till dare bellies is full, and dare bellies is bottomless; and when dey do get em full, dey wont hear you den; for den dey sink in de dsea, go fast to sleep on de coral, and can’t hear not’ing at all, no more, for eber and eber.

At last, he bitterly concludes:

Wish, by gor! whale eat him [Stubb], ‘stead of him eat whale. I’m bressed if he ain’t more of shark dan Massa Shark hisself.

The subject of race deserves mention here, and not only because Fleece’s caricatured dialect makes 21st century readers decidedly queasy. Melville’s decision to portray a black crew member’s victimization at the hands of his white companion reflects more than moby-dickhersheljust the cold-blooded culture of antebellum America; it reflects the tendency of the human crew to turn, shark-like, against its most vulnerable and least protected members.

As in fiction, so in real life: six members of the Essex’s initial crew were black; none of them would survive the return journey. Here, it was largely a case of poorer nutrition and body strength leading to earlier death from starvation on the part of black crewman, but Philbrick reminds us that it was not always so unintentional: the crew of another doomed ship, the Peggy, had deliberately shot, killed, and eaten a black shipmate rather than starve at sea. Extremity at sea reveals, unvarnished, the unmerciful truth of society on land.

Melville again drives home the point with merry Pip, the tambourine-playing “over tender-hearted” young man, described as “the most insignificant of the Pequod’s crew.” Assigned temporarily to Stubb’s boat, and exhibiting a tendency to jump overboard when frightened by the whale hunt, Pip is abandoned for a time in open water, left alone, unlamented in the “awful lonesomeness” of the sea until the Pequod finally arrives to retrieve him. Thereafter, Pip becomes a kind of holy jester, a wise but insane Fool to Ahab’s King Lear.

The episode would risk coming off as cliché if not for the genuine affinity that Ahab feels for the mad young man. In a quiet moment shortly before the climactic battle with Moby Dick, Ahab tells Pip:

Lad, lad, I tell thee thou must not follow Ahab now. The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him. There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady. Like cures like…Do thou abide below here, where they shall serve thee, as if thou were the captain. Aye, lad, thou shalt sit here in my own screwed chair; another screw to it, thou must be.

In madness and suffering, Ahab and Pip are brothers. They have both been the victims of hungry Gods and men.

In the end, as they must, Philbrick and Melville both close their books on notes of disappearance and decline. The survivors of the Essex, such as they were, return home haunted and scarred, never really to recover from what they had suffered and done. The Pequod sinks into the sea, leaving Ishmael alone to tell its tale. The once-mighty island of Nantucket, its whaling fleets long since scuttled, becomes a summer haven for vacationing New Englanders. The tale of Owen Chase and his crewmates becomes a faded ghost story, a Donner Party of the sea and nothing more. The whale, decreased in number from years of whaling and environmental change, survived.

Today, there are an estimated 200,000 remaining sperm whales scattered across the world’s oceans. If we have learned anything at all, we will leave them be.

Zach Rabiroff lives in Brooklyn and works for a consulting firm during his daytime hours.


  • Eileen Sellers says:

    I am excited to go delve into this book. A great way to escape the winter in Buffalo, NY. Hope the book is as thrilling and the writer of this review promises !

  • Alan Berg says:

    What a stunning take on the indisputably complex relationship between the Essex and Melville. I’m forwarding this to my daughter Emily who introduced be to the Philbrick book. So exciting to look forward to the film.

  • Lunaea Weatherstone says:

    I hadn’t heard of the Essex, and I’m sure I would have looked for a book about it after seeing the film (when it comes out), so I appreciate this beautifully written review — in part because I feel forewarned about the more gruesome aspects of the story, which might have put me off at a casual glance. By the way, whales and sea disasters make for enthralling reading, but I’ll bet manatees do have a thing or two to tell us about God.

  • Claudia Reilly says:

    Moby Dick is the classic I’ve never read and am always planning to read SOMEDAY. I was about to listen to it when one of my kids said, “You will learn so MUCH about whaling.” He meant that in a good way. Anyhow, you make me want to read the book — if only to meet Pip. And I love how you open this piece: “There is something about a whale that drives a man to excess.”

  • Claire LaZebnik says:

    Brilliant, fascinating piece. Thanks. Am sending on to the Melville lovers I know. (Did you hear the Ted Radio Talk about fear? The speaker talks about this voyage and how our colorful fears–being eaten by cannibals in this case–always outshout our more realistic fears–starving to death. Really interesting stuff.)

  • annie samuels says:

    Several years ago, on a visit to Nantucket I read, Ahab’s Wife, (by Sena Jeter Naslund). It was a fitting read to our stay on the island and I enjoyed it very much. I vowed that I would follow it with Moby Dick. Alas, I never did. Your piece has reignited my interest. Thank you, Mr. Rabiroff.
    I will be forwarding this to my son, an English teacher.

  • Irene Davenport says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful, fascinating, well written piece.

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