Literary Wives: I Could Barely Finish Ahab’s Wife

Today is the next installment of the Literary Wives series (click to see details).  I will get right to the book for today, Ahab’s Wife or, the Star-Gazer (2000) by Sena Jeter Naslund.

I hated it.  With a passion.

Ahab's Wife cover

I must qualify that by saying that my life is crazy-hectic right now.  I am taking four graduate classes at a university over an hour away from my home, I have two children, and I unexpectedly got hired to do research on historical women’s speeches at my church’s history library.  This internship will also count for six credits toward my Ph.D., so it has to be done at some point but I didn’t expect it to be at the same time as my busiest and most stressful semester ever.  On top of that, my nanny is ill with mono, so things are a little out of control here.

What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t give Ahab’s Wife the attention it deserved (and neither did Ahab!) because it is almost 700 pages.  I couldn’t enjoy it, because each time I sat down to read it, I felt guilty for neglecting my children or my housework or my homework.

With that, let’s get into the details.  Ahab’s Wife is about the wife of Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  Fittingly, one of the first scenes features the wife, Una, in labor alone in a cabin.  After intruders come looking for a runaway slave, Una realizes that the slave girl is hiding under her mattress and that she is sharing a bed with a strange bedfellow.  This echoes one of the first scenes from Moby Dick in which Ishmael must comically share a bed with Queequeg.

I wanted to see what would happen from there, but the novel then moved back in time, telling us, in flowery and overly descriptive language dotted with references to poetry and Shakespeare, about Una’s childhood.  It turns out, she has been previously married to a man named Kit.  She loved Kit and his friend Giles, but after the three of them were stuck on a lifeboat in the ocean for months and cannibalized the other surviving crew, it was hard for them to live and look at each other.  Giles killed himself, and Kit married Una, but then Kit went mad and ran off.  It was all very strange, especially the cannibalism, but I realized the “importance” of this cannibalism to the plot once Una marries for a third time.  We learn that dear Ishmael from Moby Dick survived the sinking of the Pequod; he comes back to marry Una.  He survived by cannibalism as well, so they are kindred spirits.

Let’s get back to Una’s marriage to Ahab, which occupied the mid portion of the book but isn’t much fun because Ahab is always gone whaling and then madly chasing Moby Dick.  From the times they are together, we learn that marriage is about sex.  That is pretty much their relationship.  This surprised me since I’ve always considered Captain Ahab to be a crotchety old man who probably wouldn’t be much fun for a young girl to marry.  Also, Ahab gives her a large house and lots of money to furnish it with, so marriage is also about money.  I guess that’s the only way crotchety old men (like Donald Trump) can get young women to marry them.

Overall, marriage is about waiting.  The job of Una, in all of her roles as wife, is to wait.  She constantly waits for Kit and/or Giles to visit her at her childhood home of the lighthouse, and she waits for them to love her.  She must then wait for Kit to recover from madness.  She must then wait for Ahab to return from sea, which he does infrequently.  Once he dies, she must wait for news of this death.  It is exhausting, this wife business, and the waiting and waiting that a woman must do.

It echoes the traditional role of wife, at least historically.  Women are “meant” to wait for and wait on men, even when they are physically present.  In that sense, Una is a mostly traditional wife despite the extremely non-traditional circumstances that make the novel interesting.

In bucking tradition, Una runs away from home as a teenager to follow Kit and Giles to sea.  She cuts her hair and sneaks onto a boat and sails with the crew pretending to be a boy.  This was a fun twist in the plot, but it reinforced her female role as constantly waiting on men.  She did it to follow Kit and Giles and to make one of them fall in love with her.  As it turns out, they were gay lovers.  What a twist!

Despite these gay men (and another gay couple later on), slaves treated as people, girls running off to sea, and rejection of religion, all of it is boringly traditional.  The narrative attempts to be fresh, exciting, iconoclastic, and new, especially with the backdrop of literary characters such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, but it boils down to traditionalism and the fact that Una, despite her wandering spirit and seeming spunk, is not an iconoclast but an enactment of the myth of gender roles.

I do not recommend this book, but my co-hosts for the Literary Wives series might.  To see what they have to say, please click over to their blogs.

Ariel of One Little Library

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Carolyn O. of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Cecilia of Only You

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

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35 thoughts on “Literary Wives: I Could Barely Finish Ahab’s Wife

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  1. Very interesting to read your take on it, Emily. I read it under similar circumstances (busy schedule + long book + seemingly pointless story = resentment) and I did my best in highlighting passages and trying to pay attention but the story is a sprawling one and for a long time I was wondering where the book was going.

    I like what you said about Una constantly being in waiting mode, and how in the end this book tried to be modern and fresh but was ultimately very traditional. It was difficult for me to put my finger on the meaning of wife in this book and I think that is why. The story didn’t feel real enough to me – like a breezy chick lit posing as high literature. Everything comes easily to Una and she never really experiences any real conflict nor does she undergo any personal growth or change.The world always welcomed her with open arms. Even in difficult situations, like the cannibalism scene, Giles kills the crew members in order to save Una. She is always being rescued at the most opportune times. And Ahab basically forking over his house and bank account to Una so she can go furniture shopping reminded me of the dress up scene from Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts.

    1. It is like Pretty Woman! I think the book felt more like it was trying to be serious literature, but it didn’t cut it. It was forced and there was no plot. I’m glad to hear that you had a similar experience with reading it. I may have liked it more had I been on a beach vacation…

  2. Thanks for the caution. I have a real dumb question – why would someone write a novel about Ahab’s wife, someone married to an unsufferable man? I could sum up the book for people by saying “God bless her.”

  3. Now I feel bad for recommending it!

    I think your emphasis on waiting is really interesting; I think I glossed over it because it seemed that Una was always doing something while she waited (going to Kentucky, hanging out with the judge, raising a child, etc.).

    Also, I don’t read Giles and Kit as gay. Giles maybe, with the veneer of chivalric romance to cover his orientation, but Kit is clearly attracted to Una, physically speaking. Maybe I’d read him as bisexual, given his intense attachment to Giles.

    1. I think the great thing about this book club is that we get to see different people’s readings and views of the same book.

      Reading the different interpretations I realized that I had gone into Ahab’s Wife with very specific expectations, based largely on the 2 questions about wives that I knew I needed to answer for this post. I went in hoping to read a lot about Una’s marriage to Ahab and also to get insight into 19th century marriage. I think I would have had a different experience had I not gone into it with these expectations.

      About the waiting, while reading the book I also thought about the analogy to our present day military wives. I think there is some version of that kind of marriage throughout history. I had the same interpretation of Giles and Kit’s relationship.

  4. It sounds to me that it has everything I don’t like about contemporary literature: the plots seem like a stretch to begin with, twists at the end that seem forced, retellings that don’t really resolve anything from the original it is based on, etc. I think I will pass on this one. I would rather reread “Moby Dick”!

      1. I enjoyed Moby Dick. I have been thinking of rereading it. I just meant that it would be worth rereading a dense book like Moby Dick then reading Ahab’s Wife, from the way you described the plot.

  5. I don’t think you should feel bad about recommending it, Carolyn. I actually enjoyed it, but I can certainly see why someone else might not like it. It has literary pretentions to be a sort of feminist rewrite of Moby Dick.

  6. Remember asking you a month or so ago if you had read this book or not, and if so, what you thought of it. Guess I have my answer, haha. I have heard mixed things about it. Based off your review, I don’t think I’ll be giving this a read anytime soon.

    Keep up the great work.

  7. I’ve been curious about this book, because what kind of woman could love a man like Ahab? I so loved Moby Dick, I was really excited for more in that saga, but this seems to fall well short of Melville. So Ahab’s wife wasn’t so in love after all and I suppose wifehood in that time period wasn’t about love anyway but it’s a modern romantic notion to want it to have been. I love that you hated it and all your reasons why. I read some of your cohorts’ reviews also and it is a relief to satisfy my curiosity and not need to delve into the mess myself.

    1. Among the six of us we certainly cover a myriad of topics and reactions. I hate to think that I may have spoiled this for somebody or that somebody who would enjoy the book will now skip it because of my review, but I have to be myself and this was my experience. I probably would’ve appreciated it more and had more time to tease out themes and quotes if I had tackled this during one of my breaks from school.

  8. Your point about waiting is really interesting. I hadn’t really seen Una as waiting because I felt that she was always off to Boston shopping and visiting Margaret Fuller and having tea with the Judge and star-gazing with Maria. I thought for sure she was wrong when she had that *feeling* that Ahab was dead and she moved on so quickly! I was really annoyed with all of the sex with Ahab. She just kept going on and on about how handsome he was and how she hardly noticed his age at all! Hmph. As if!

    1. She did live her own life during those times, but I just felt like she was always waiting for “real” life to begin, especially at the lighthouse when she longed for Giles and/or Kit. I guess childhood can seem that way, like a big long wait to be an adult, but I felt like she was never really an adult until the very end. Maybe that is another theme in the book, of her growing up through the marriages.

  9. I read this a few years ago. It was on my daughter’s summer reading list and I was curious. Yes, the book was too long, but I did enjoy it. I’m a New Englander so I appreciated the setting.

    Your comments made me think of a book I’d like to recommend: Waiting by Ha Jin. Fabulous, with a twist at the end.

  10. Huh, this has been recommended to me a few times. I need a little more distance from Moby-Dick first though, I only finished MD this summer.

    Love the Literary Wives idea!

  11. This is the best book I ever read in my life. I enjoyed this so much I read it twice, then designed and hooked a rug depicting the storyline. Sent a photo off to the author who wrote back immediately. It was a love fest. Which book did you people read? Clearly not Ahab’s Wife.

    1. 😂 Sorry to disappoint you! I love hearing that you enjoyed it and found ways to honor it. I guess people have different reactions to books. I am impressed with the hooked rug!

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