Hello! Today we’re continuing the Literary Wives series with Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund. We kicked the series off in May with American Wife, and we’ve had some awesome conversations. I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone has to say about this one. Don’t forget to check out the reviews of my fellow Literary Wives bloggers: Emily, Audra, Cecilia, Carolyn, and Lynn.
Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund; published 2005 by William Morrow & Company
First off, I should say that if you haven’t read this book, that’s ok! If you know anything about the classic Moby Dick, you’re already a step ahead. Personally, I’ve never read Moby Dick and the only thing I knew was that there’s a man chasing a whale. Seriously. I didn’t know who Ahab or Ishmael was. But I quickly learned!
For those of you who are like me and don’t know who Ahab is, well—he’s the captain of the Pequod, a whaling ship, and he’s the one chasing a great white whale known as Moby Dick. This book is about Ahab’s wife (duh), the much, much younger Una.
Essentially, this book is her biography. I was shocked and still am very puzzled as to why the book is called Ahab’s Wife, since Ahab is Una’s husband for a very short amount of time, and they are only together as husband and wife for a handful of pages. If you want to know more of what I thought about the book’s plot in general, you can read my Goodreads review and I will try to keep the sarcasm here to a minimum. But that doesn’t mean this book had nothing to say about wives, since, as Una notes from the first line: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.”
We’ve been using two questions to guide our discussions about literary wives, but I just want to focus on one:
In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?
Una believes a true marriage exists between two people in complete accord.
I couldn’t possibly begin to adequately summarize everything that happens leading up to Una’s first marriage, so you’ll have to forgive me for jumping straight into it, much like Una did, with a young sailor named Kit. Through a horrific experience, they bond and even though Una can see that Kit is losing his mind because of it, she agrees to marry him.
“The universe prepared us for each other,” she says. And this seems to be her justification for putting up with Kit’s madness and abuse—and for her future marriages as well. Even though Kit privately and publicly humiliates her, she will not leave him. I understand that she wants to be kind to him because he’s certifiably insane, but she absolutely forsakes the wonderfully brave girl full of gumption we knew in the beginning of the book. She feels that she must sacrifice her personality and lifestyle to Kit’s desires, even though she knows they are foolish and come from an unstable mind.
It isn’t until Kit wanders off and deserts her that she allows Captain Ahab, who married them, to dissolve their marriage. A few days later, Ahab and Una are married.
Una’s relationship with Ahab is strong from the moment they meet. Even in the short glimpses of Ahab’s diary, we see that he feels, “There’s something of me in her.” Repeatedly, they seem to commune without needing to talk. Una calls him “a male version of myself.”
One of the most frustrating points of the book was that I continuously felt that Una was justifying her relationship to Ahab. She went on and on about how absolutely perfectly they were suited for each other:
Of our pasts we seemed to know all we needed to know. Nothing was concealed, and though nothing was overtly revealed, all was known. In guilt and in forgiveness we counted ourselves equals, and always had. The sun himself envied us.
Call me cynical, but I have a hard time believing that a weathered captain over fifty and a troubled girl of eighteen can have such pure unity in their relationship. There is absolutely no reason they should have so much in common, and Una’s insistence that they did have everything in common was exasperating to say the least. With no shared experiences and only a few days of marriage, I just could not find such intimate communion credible.
After Ahab is killed by Moby Dick, Una meets Ishmael, the famed narrator of Moby Dick. He talks with the same “ye” and “thou” obnoxiousness that Ahab did, and—no surprise—he and Una again seem to share an instantaneous bond. But this time, Una will not go through the formal ceremony of getting married:
From the first night in my bed, we had known the depths of each other; my body had whispered to me as his had to him: This is marriage. It needed no courtship.
My worst nightmares are made of such hyperbolic droning. (I’m not very good at the no-sarcasm thing, am I?) While I do agree that the formal ceremony does not make the marriage, I don’t believe for a minute that true unity exists when two minds are exactly alike.
I’ve learned personally that marriage takes huge sacrifice—something I am absolutely terrible at. But I’m a better person for it. My husband challenges me and inspires me to change. With each of Una’s marriages, she does not become more loving, but more selfish. She seems to only know of her own desires, and she finds a companion who perfectly mirrors herself. Personally, I don’t see any beauty or inspiration in a marriage like that.
What did you think?
Our next book will be The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon. Join us on December 1 for the review!