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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