Captain Keeney is a respected and successful whaler who is the captain of a steam whaling ship called the Atlantic Queen. He has been on a trip for two years, leading a group of sailors to find whale oil (known to them as 'ile' in their New England Dialect). They have been trapped in ice for the past year and it is beginning to wear on the crew. The play takes place on the day that the sailor’s contract is up--exactly two years from the day they embarked on their journey. The crew is ready to mutiny if the captain won’t let them go home, but the captain threatens them with violence if they dare to try. The crew backs down in fear but the captain’s wife, whom he brought along after she begged him too, persuades him that she will go mad if he doesn’t turn the ship towards home. His love for his wife and the clear slipping of her wits breaks him down until he can’t justify waiting any longer. However, the moment he agrees to turn back for her, the ice in front of them breaks and he must make the choice whether to chose his love for his wife of his love for his reputation.