Few novels reach the illustrious status of “Great American Novel,” still fewer novelists know they’ve achieved it. Upon release, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a failure… But today it’s a turning point in the literary canon.
Melville captures the American zeitgeist onboard the Pequod — a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities; ideas and religions!
The novel is divided within itself, switching from narrative to historical facts; from philosophical ideas to short stories; from scripts to biology lessons on whale anatomy.
Yet, while the mammoth text may be divided, the novel is no less united. The changes in the narrative occur after Ishmael and company have set sail, reason being they are on a multi-year voyage (3 years) and if Melville adapted the narrative faithfully, there would be chapters upon chapters of nothing much happening — an opinion, but the majority of sailing is tedious. However, sailors spin yarns, share beliefs, and discuss previous voyages gone by (to pass the time); it’s a collective of ideas, pooling from the melting pot of America.
It’s not simply a good book, it’s a great book; the great American novel.
So it’s pretty bold for Sena Jeter Naslund to deconstruct it.
As an idea, Ahab’s Wife deserves praise. The one unexplored American value in Melville’s Moby Dick is feminism. No doubt this is why some critics apply queer studies to Queequeg and Ishmael — to compensate for a lack of femininity, but I digress.
There were seldom women aboard seafaring vessels in the 1800s (for good reason, lest you want the ship to sink [myth] or more sons of guns). And the secondary title, The Star-Gazer aptly summarizes this, as Naslund states to believe space as the only arena wider than the ocean. Naslund, thereby explores the last American value with the final (final) frontier.
Of course, none of this would be possible without one line in Melville’s Moby Dick about Ahab’s (then, nameless) wife. Literary seconds before the chase, Ahab almost resigns to return home when Starbuck reminds the Captain of a life unlived on shore and he turns to remorse, “I married a widow.” I don’t believe any of us thought this was a literal widow, but a conceptual one, as Ahab recognizes his absence in the good woman’s life.
After countless reproaches from mates and crew members — and even a mutinous assassination attempt from Starbuck, the Brutus to Ahab’s Caesar — the mere mention of Ahab’s wife causes his monomania to falter. And why wouldn’t it? On the boat, there’s a hierarchy, so who Ahab is could very well be fake; the “Captain” is an affectation to maintain order among the crew. So if he was not honest with the reader or men in Moby Dick, assuredly he’d be true to his betrothed.
Naslund exploits this to deconstruct Ahab and subsequently, the novel, by way of feminist kenosis.
Onto the first task: deconstructing Ahab. Again, the mention of Ahab’s wife is enough to make him falter which means she must be a powerful woman — to command Ahab — but compassionate as he does want to return.
As such, Naslund spends the first half of the novel building this character (Una) from the ground up. Una does not believe in God and rejects her own father for his beliefs. Thus begins her slew of daddy issues as she’s sent away to live on an island to work in the lighthouse with her aunt, uncle and cousin.
She grows a knack for exploration and yearns for more, using busy work as a means to traverse the globe (and stars) in her mind. Of all the feminist ideologies, this one poses the strongest defense for all women of the era — does a woman not travel as many miles in her head or with a needle and thread as a man on sea? Maybe more.
However, it would not do for her to taste one side (womanhood) without the other, so Una, the first chance she gets, stows away onboard the Sussex disguised as a cabin boy. Here, she performs the duties of a man, but yearns to be a woman. Two suitors, from her lighthouse days, are onboard the ship and she wishes to come out to them and be treated like a woman.
Their rendezvous does not last long however as the Sussex proves to be an allegorical tale for the Essex; in other words, based on the very tale Moby Dick is based off of (retold accurately with strong evidence to support conjecture by Nathanial Philbreck in In the Heart of the Sea). After their boat is stove by a whale (black, not white), Una and her two would-be suitors survive by way of cannabalism (again, as on the Essex). However, this does not so much pay homage or build character as it does unravel Ahab and Moby Dick.
“Monomania” and Ahab go hand-in-hand, but now Naslund has created a world where whales regularly bash boats to pieces out of vengeance – terrifying and something never fully explored. This means that Ahab’s obsession is not with The Whale – as the alternative title would suggest – but with A Whale. His fixation on the white whale when there are innumerable whales that have proven to be vengeful, is truly monomaniacal, and subsequently, kind of petty as it could have been any whale.
(And by “innumerable,” I mean at least 3, as Naslund’s doesn’t simply pay homage to the Essex but “Ishmael” references the very ship and Captain Pollard before the novel is through.)
Ultimately, this makes whales attacking ships so commonplace that Ahab’s obsession seems misplaced. Others were stove by whales and held no grudge. Of course, Naslund must’ve realized this and takes her deconstruction of Ahab further as he must have more of a reason to pursue the whale beyond revenge. Naslund’s reason? The whale left Ahab impotent.
Ahab promises Una that he will never set sail without leaving his betrothed with child, however, after the whale takes his leg, upon his return, he says, “It did not pierce the groin—no. But mocks me freshly to incapacity all the same.”
In so many words, the Captain of one of the Great American Novels has been rendered impotent – perhaps to evince more symbolism in harpooning a sperm whale? – and the truth is, she does this to make sure Moby Dick is not chosen above Una. Una, after all, marked Ahab’s hesitation in Moby Dick, but still he pursues. Why? Because he couldn’t be a procreating husband anyway; he’s not man enough.
From there, we find that Una was responsible for ALL of Ahab’s choices and even his eventual demise.
For instance, Ahab didn’t choose Pip to be his protégé, his wife asked him to take him aboard. And, late at night, when Ahab needed to board the Pequod (for the last time), he needed his wife’s help getting aboard, “He had used my shoulder like a crutch that evening. He would board the ship under cover of darkness so that none of the crew would see him come a-limping down the street.”
Most damning of all, it is Una who spots the whale (Moby Dick) long before Ahab ever encounters the beast. After Una’s ordeal on the Sussex, she boards Ahab’s vessel and serves as lookout. She spots the white while but defers to say nothing. Her silence is what causes the whale to nFot be claimed then, and thereby take Ahab’s leg later.
“I thought of the long white shape that, as a girl dressed like a boy in the rigging, I had seen sliding like ice under the frigid northern waters and how I had not cried out. Had that lookout’s betrayal led to this bloody stump, the face contorted in pain, the fever that left only to come again?”
She takes full responsibility for Ahab’s predicament and even his monomania. However, whereas she was able to walk away from the whale (i.e. not call it out), Ahab cannot because his mind betrays him. Whereas Una, having traversed great lengths in the skies and in her mind, is cognitively stronger to resist. Her femininity is what saved her.
To a lesser extent, it also says something of Una’s character that she too was charged by a whale and shipwrecked, but whereas Ahab loses a leg (or dies), Una survives relatively unscathed.
Una Spenser controls Ahab’s fate… and yet Ahab is the very reason the book fails.
Deconstruction of the Feminist Kenosis
Although subjective, it’s worth mentioning that the most interesting — and I use that term loosely — portions of the novel are those that take place before she meets Ahab and those after his demise. Otherwise, the narrative struggles to find any sort of tension or footing while the wife waits at home for Moby Dick to happen.
It’s the critical problem with the kenosis approach, at least in the case of Ahab’s Wife, since the whole narrative suffers from post hoc ergo propter hoc. Naslund cannot and does not disregard Moby Dick in the least bit; worse, Una never suffers morality or with interpersonal flaws. Una is singular and perfect. Occasionally, bad things happen to her (like the loss of her child and her mother), but she’s never tried or tested. As a result, she’s detached from human emotions and human agency, so she chooses to define herself against Ahab.
The first line in the novel is “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” and this is a lie. As far as titles go, it doesn’t make much sense seeing as how the novel is titled Ahab’s Wife and not say, Ahab’s Widow, but even in the context of the story, Ahab is literally her last husband.
Una “marries” Ishmael when he returns – oh, but Ishmael outs himself as David Pollack (no significance) – only she makes it very clear that by “marry,” she doesn’t mean “marry.” At the beginning of the last chapter, she writes, “We are not legally married by even so liberal an institution as the gold-domed Unitarians, but united by our natures.” She says it herself.
So, realizing this, Una backtracks, saying “[t]hink how Shakespeare distorted, compressed, rearranged historical events in his history plays. Such license would be mine, if I wrote” and “[t]he father of American poetry, Walt Whitman, posed the question within a poem: ‘Do I contradict myself? Well then I contradict myself.’ Part of the pleasure of writing this novel has been to have enough space and time in which to contradict myself, to embrace the ebb and flow, to seek a passionate balance.”
Rather than change the first line of the novel – admittedly catchy – Naslund has Una lose all credibility. In fact, she’s lost all credibility. She’s an unreliable narrator in the first degree which recalls the entire story into question.
In the beginning of the novel, Una reads and references how women travel far and wide in novels or by sewing. Likely, feeling trapped on an isolated island, Una placed herself into the novels she was reading. We can infer this since she leaves no symbolism for the reader to interpret, she openly references her life with her books.
- Giles (her first suitor) tells her that Una is a character in Spenser’s Faerie Queen. How convenient that she would have the full name Una Spenser.
- Her father’s name was Ulysses and she attributed their disagreements to him being born of The Odyssey, but she prefers The Iliad.
- Later, Giles falls from the boat called – and I kid you not – the AlbaAlbatross. As he plummets into the depths to his death, she can’t help but reference Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.
- When she stows away as a cabin boy, she mentions Shakespeare’s ladies and how they must have struggled to maintain their identity.
- When a dwarf guides her to her next destination, she references Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales and they too swap stories (of dwarf incest, no less).
- A slave escapes and Una helps her escape, stealing a scene straight from Uncle Tom’s Cabin when she jumps across the ice to freedom. Interestingly, she even includes the plagiarized scene as a quote before the novel begins.
- Then, of course, she steals directly from Owen Chase’s account of the Essex where Captain George Pollard’s young cousin, Owen Coffin, resigns to be killed and says “It is as good a fate as any,” except Una makes up her own characters: Captain Fry and his nephew Chester. The quote is identical – it is plagiarism.
- Una also literally meets Nathanial Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson for tea.
Furthermore, Ahab’s influence abolishes her femininity. When Una was a child, she tackled questions on life, death, the church and God. Oddly, once she becomes pampered by the ostentatious Ahab, she grows superficial. She gossips with the judge about townsfolk, she namedrops Emerson and Hawthorne, and then she meets Frederick Douglass for another status-boost. She stops questioning God and tickles the idea of the Unitarian church. Ahab is all that Una is, just look at the title.
The title of the novel remains Ahab’s Wife – as opposed to Ishmael’s – because even in death, she’s still bound to him. Ishmael and Una only meet because of Ahab; Ishmael only exists as “Ishmael” – and not Pollack – because of Ahab.
Then there’s the novels themselves. Una credits Ishmael with authoring Moby Dick, however when she mentions that she’s writing a novel, she says, ““Do you mind we write the same book? … The Star-Gazer seemed to be my title.” The Star-Gazer is a title that stands on its own, which means that when she (Una) released the book under the name, Ahab’s Wife, she did so for one of two reason: 1) because Moby Dick was more successful and therefore she needed people to read hers with that in mind or 2) because the people in Nantucket would know Ahab and therefore be more inclined to read about one of their own. Both of these, of course, are fictitious scenarios since Una is not the author, but Naslund and we can infer that the title was made into Ahab’s Wife to sell copies.
“Perhaps it was for me to embody Ahab—in words,” ergo, all her words are Ahab – she’s not a woman, she’s a slave, chained to an idea of man (her anchor), which is so ironic since the novel pushes the abolitionist movement. But by marginalizing herself, making herself a slave in her own home (and a slave to fiction), she marginalizes true slavery, which isn’t a stretch as she treats imaginary travels akin to geographic travels. This marginalization of slavery makes the modernization of Una’s thinking anemic at best.
She stole the story of the Essex, a story that many were dodgy about repeating, not because of the cannabalism, but because the black sailors were the first to die and the first to be eaten. It’s likely that this was because the black sailors were placed in the forecastle and ate different meals — different conditions and segregated unquestionably — but they were not murdered.
In fact, according to Philbreck’s aggregated accounts in In the Heart of the Sea, there’s evidence that Melville intended to tell the aftermath of whale attack, and tell the cannabal story. However Melville did not due to his reputation as a man who “lived among the cannabals” and because he didn’t want to hurt the abolitionist movement. Naslund’s lack of restraint and omission of the black sailors being eaten first, while simultaneously promoting freedom of slaves is not just egregious but hypocritical.
And the reason she does this is to give her life perfection, because she’s imagining the world, a world without struggles or tragedy, a world of black and white (text), not gray.
The sad truth is, Ahab’s Wife is a cautionary tale of a girl with no imagination; she has no means of inventing stories, so he must borrow from the esteemed. For all that supposed mind-traveling, she never goes anywhere.
It’s possible then, by questioning her validity, we may just have to question her association with Ahab as well. Towards the end, she has a moment of elation, “Ahab possibly alive! But what was the sequel?”
Ah, but had she read Moby Dick, she’d know “[d]eath is the only desirable sequel to a career like this.”
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