Ahab’s Wife, or the Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund

The scope of this novel is as vast as the ocean and as immense as the night sky the main character Una Spenser contemplates from the Lighthouse tower. From two short references in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, one at the beginning in Chapter 16 “The Ship” and again at the end in Chapter 132 “The Symphony,” Naslund creates her novel in which Ahab’s wife narrates in first person how she came to live in Nantucket and marry the old sea captain.  And what a marvelous yarn it is, showing how great literature inspires other great books.  In choosing to name her heroine Una from Edmund’s Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, Naslund makes clear she intends to write a book of epic proportions. And she does. The style, the language, the poetic grandeur, the seriousness of the topic, Una’s epic voyage and return to Nantucket all contribute to this aim.  She succeeds so well that in my mind she has written a book as grand as Moby Dick and as distinctively American in its range.

The question arises whether the reading of Ahab’s Wife can or should be tackled without first reading Melville’s classic of American literature. Naslund’s  novel can be enjoyed and her message understood without having read Melville’s Moby Dick, or The White Whale, but much of the nuance and grandeur of Ahab’s Wife will be lost. This was no problem for me, because I am one of those strange birds who was carried away on a sea of imagination reading Moby Dick, not once but several times, while others only read it because it was an assigned book in a course, and then found it too ponderous to bear.  Moby Dick was not even a popular book in its day; its only been rediscovered by literary types in the twentieth century.  I first read Ahab’s Wife not long after the paperback edition came out in 2000.  Now upon the second reading I am still swept away by the power of Una’s voice telling her story.

Naslund patterns her book in many ways on Moby Dick. Both books begin with inscriptions; both have subtitles respectively the star-gazer and the white whale; both name the book’s chapters as well as numbering them. Naslund takes characters and events from Melville’s novel but also is wonderfully inventive in the creation of new characters and situations, bringing in the escaped slave Susan, the dwarf slave hunter David Poland, and a cast of other intriguing characters. In addition, Una is developed as the female counterpart of Ahab’s rebellious, defiant nature; but instead of being cast down into revenge and bitterness by the vicissitudes of life, Una’s spirit soars to embrace the universe and the power of love to heal all wounds. Both novels wrestle with the issue of predestination versus the will to choose the course of one’s life. At one point in the book, Una muses: “Is our life determined for us, or do we choose? Some of both–the answer came clear and simple to my mind.”

The depth and expanse of Ahab’s Wife astound. This is definitely a literary novel that subsumes a knowledge of American literature and history. Familiarity with these subjects certainly enhances the reading. The themes touch upon all the eternal questions not only of philosophy, but the story treats of that defining period in American history when the incompatibility of the institution of slavery with liberty, equality, and justice become insupportable. It is not a coincidence that slavery, the abolitionist movement, and such historical figures as Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Frederick Douglas are woven into Una’s story. The fight for women’s equality grew alongside the abolitionist movement. It is no coincidence that Una repeatedly finds solace and consolation in the company of female friends and relatives. Una carries the burden of good and evil; she has committed a heinous sin in order to survive, but she does not let guilt subdue her indomitable will. Unlike Ahab, she does not see nature as a malevolent force, even as many Puritans did, for she tells her friend Giles that the wind has no volition and advises Ahab to forgive the whale for taking his leg because it had no evil intent.  Through the novel other characters reveal their dark secrets, their sins to her; she listens and knows that she carries one too. She forgives them as she has forgiven herself.

Passage after passage in this novel illuminates, scintillates and delights as only highly charged poetic language can. Because Naslund writes so poetically–her book brims with symbolically evocative flights of prose–I searched for poetry books she may have published and was surprised that I found none.  In the following passage, a sample of her poetical language, Una describes ships in New Bedford harbor:

When the Camel came into New Bedford port, I was swept with sorrow for the forests, for here, it seemed, in the multitudinous masts of ships, stood all the straightest, tallest, most majestic trunks of North America. But their branches were all broken off and stripped away, their roots planted only in the barren pots of boats. Sails might have suggested the cloak of leaf-filled branches, but sails were furled, and the nakedness of the timbers stood in jumbled display. The standing rigging was in place, to be sure, but would you drape the mighty spine of a tree in cobwebs and call it clothed? Bare as crucifixes, the ships at rest seemed nothing like the unfurled fairy-swans that skimmed the oceans.

Is there always, under the glory of white wings and graceful speed, the scaffolding of a cross? This is not a Christian question but one applicable to India and China and Africa. If you meet a woman of whatever complexion who sails her life with strength and grace and assurance, talk to her! And what you will find is that there has been a suffering, that at some time she has left herself for hanging dead.

The voice of Una in Ahab’s Wife exactly suits an independent, free-thinking woman at mid-nineteenth century.  Her Quaker mother in their Kentucky cabin has read her the great romantic poets–Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Shelley. She has learned the Bible from her father who has been driven mad by the vengeful Old Testament God the Father, that Una soundly rejects. Madness is a motif throughout the novel and Ahab is not the only one to be crazed by a fixed, unbending idea. Her friends, Giles and Kit, succumb to madness in their own way.  Ahab’s wife, the mother-goddess figure who embraces the light, wills not to go mad.

And that familiar voice at the beginning of Moby Dick pronouncing “Call me Ishmael” makes his way into Una’s tale at the end, adding one more delight when I think Una’s narration has fully sated my appetite for rich literature.  It seems the right note on which to end her story, with both narrators, Ishmael of Moby Dick and Una Spenser of Ahab’s Wife–two survivors–meeting and writing their stories together on Nantucket Island.  I say this novel will endure alongside the novel that inspired it.  Ahab’s Wife is one of those memorable books that will remain on my shelf until some unfortunate has to come and clean out my house after I am dead.

 

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carole Mertz on February 11, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Olivia, your review of Ahab’s Wife reaches a depth and breadth I could wish to emulate. I’m so happy I discovered your beautiful blog site.

    Reply

    • Carole, thank you for your comment. Have you read Ahab’s Wife yet? If so, what are your thoughts about the novel? I am very happy that you discovered my site, too, and hope you’ll find some of my future posts of interest also. Welcome!

      Reply

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