Ahab’s Wife

Ahab's WifeFrom one brief mention of Ahab’s wife in Moby-Dick, in the manner that God fashioned Eve from Adam’s rib, Sena Jeter Naslund has fashioned Ahab’s Wife:

[W]hen I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before—and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare—fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!—when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts—away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow—wife? wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive? Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!… I see my wife and child in thine eye (Moby-Dick, Chapter 132 “The Symphony”).

And what sort of a woman would be a match for Captain Ahab? Naslund’s Una Spenser is Ahab’s feminine counterpart — where Captain Ahab is consumed by vengeance, Una learns forgiveness for all; Ahab is destroyed by his hate for the white whale, while Una survives and prospers because of her love. This, then, is a woman to marry Ahab.

You do not need to read Melville’s Moby-Dick in order to appreciate Ahab’s Wife, but I would strongly recommend that you do so, for your appreciation will be much deeper. Una begins her story in medias res, as memorably as Melville begins Moby-Dick: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Una is pregnant and decides to travel to Kentucky to have her child. She recounts the two most horrible moments of her life, then takes us into her past when she was twelve and first moved to the Lighthouse home she shared with her Aunt Agatha, Uncle Torchy, and cousin Frannie.

At the age of sixteen, Una runs away to sea as a “cabin boy,” and encounters horrors as her ship is destroyed by a whale and she is forced to survive on an open boat in the water. She endures a disastrous marriage and is forced to use her sewing needle to support herself. She feels immediate attraction to the elemental Ahab, and the two are happily married until Ahab encounters Moby-Dick in the Sea of Japan.

Una crosses paths with many luminaries of her age: astronomer Maria Mitchell, writer and transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Naslund’s many literary allusions, from The Odyssey, to Shakespeare, to The Faerie Queene, and many more will delight book lovers.

Naslund has a gift for language, and she breathes life into Una — I wished as I read that I could have really known her! — and makes her setting so real, I felt I was there. I have read some enjoyable books, but this might be one of only a handful that transcend other literary fiction to such a degree that I feel sure it will have a place in the canon of Literature with a capital L one day. And Una Spenser is a remarkable character and proper soulmate for Ahab.

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[tags]Ahab’s Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, Una Spenser, Captain Ahab[/tags]

A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One's OwnWhat might women writers accomplish, given the freedom to create enjoyed by men? Virginia Woolf’s thesis in her classic A Room of One’s Own is that if women were given £500 a year and a room of their own, they might then be able to reach the genius previously the purview of men alone.

As I read this essay, I mostly felt disgust and anger. In many ways, women are still second-class citizens, and what’s worse is the acceptance of this status. When I was considering careers for myself, I didn’t think about traditionally male careers such as engineer or even physician. It wasn’t that I considered myself incapable or unintelligent. I just didn’t consider those options.

The other night on Saturday Night Live, Chris Rock was discussing the possibility that Hillary Rodham Clinton might be president. He insisted that white women have not struggled, and he attempted to develop this idea with examples of black men hounded by racists, executed, tortured, silenced. And it is true that these atrocities happened. But he is forgetting the quiet desperation of birthing thirteen children, losing perhaps half of them before they reached adulthood, spending days working in the kitchen and in the fields, sewing by candlelight, teaching children, helpmeet to a husband, always owned by some man from birth to death, whether father, husband, or son. Who is he to belittle the suffering of women because it is different from the suffering of black men?

Woolf says,

Young women … you are disgracefully ignorant. You have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. You have never shaken an empire or led an army into battle. The plays of Shakespeare are not by you, and you have never introduced a barbarous race to the blessings of civilisation. What is your excuse? It is all very well for you say, pointing to the streets and squares and forests of the globe swarming with black and white and coffee-coloured inhabitants, all busily engaged in traffic and enterprise and love-making, we have had other work on our hands. Without our doing, those seas would be unsailed and those fertile lands a desert. We have borne and bred and washed and taught, perhaps to the age of six or seven years, the one thousand six hundred and twenty-three million human beings who are, according to statistics, at present in existence, and that, allowing that some had help, takes time. (112)

While it is true that women have made strides since Woolf wrote this essay in 1928, I was rather dismayed by how little we have actually moved in the grand scheme of things. We actually debate issues such as whether America is ready for a woman president (or a black president, for that matter)? Why? Why are women still paid less for the same work as men? Why are little girls sold dolls who tell them “math is hard”? Why is one of the worst insults a man can deliver to another man a pejorative term for a woman’s reproductive organs?

A feminist is someone who believes that men and women should be equal, but you will find that many people in our world today are loathe to call themselves feminists, even if they believe in equality for the sexes.

I am glad that I am living today rather than in the time of our earliest women writers. Did you know that Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, tried to drown herself? Her skirts buoyed her up and saved her life. Wollstonecraft’s thesis was much the same as Woolf’s: women are not intellectually inferior to men; women have not had the same opportunities for education, and (Woolf deduces by extension) time, sufficient quiet, and freedom from worries about money in order to create. Nowadays, more families share the workload traditionally borne by women alone. Women have more opportunities for education. But Woolf is right to point out our late start. Our first major writers did not arrive until the nineteenth century — Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, George Sand, Kate Chopin, Louisa May Alcott. Who were their models? As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. When men writers have had several millennia to develop and refine their craft, women have really had a scant two hundred years. How long have we potentially had a room of our own and money enough to create? Perhaps fifty years? Clearly we have a large task before us. Especially when one considers, as Woolf so aptly points out in her essay, that the subject matter dear to women is undervalued by men.

A Room of One’s Own is a valuable lens through which to look at women’s writing. I can’t claim to understand all of Woolf’s argument, but I wish more men — and women — might read this essay with an open mind.

Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word [Shakespeare’s sister] and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; the need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so … and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape the common sitting room … then the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. (113-114)

[tags]Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Shakespeare’s sister, feminism, writing[/tags]

The Myth of You and Me

The Myth of You and MeLast night I finished reading Leah Stewart’s The Myth of You and Me. My mother loaned me the book thinking I might enjoy it, and while we both agree that our reading tastes don’t usually converge, this time she was right. I wasn’t sure I would like it at first, but I did get into it.

The Myth of You and Me is the story of the dissolution of a special friendship. Cameron and Sonia became best friends when they were fourteen, and they had one of those special friendships some people never have, and those lucky enough usually have only once in a lifetime. They seemed inseparable. What could go wrong? Years later, Cameron is assistant to noted historian Oliver Doucet in Oxford, Mississippi. When Cameron receives a letter from Sonia announcing her marriage, Oliver is intrigued. After he passes away, he leaves behind a special package and insists that Cameron deliver it to Sonia in person.

The novel is written in a zig-zag line, moving back and forth from the present to the past as Cameron makes her way to Sonia’s house in Boston and recollects their friendship. It isn’t hard to follow, for Stewart’s transitions are clear. I liked the characters because they were realistic, but I’m not sure I’d have liked to have known them — except for Oliver. I found Sonia’s mother to be so over-the-top as to be unbelievable. I think writers are treading dangerously when they paint a character as almost completely good or completely flawed — those types of people don’t really exist. I had trouble believing her character.

This novel was written for my generation. There are indeed so many cultural references specific to people of my generation — acid washed jeans, Dirty Dancing, and Swatch watches — that I fear the novel may become somewhat dated over time. I think people from around age 30 to 40 will appreciate this novel directed right at their generation, but I wonder if it will have wider appeal to others.

All told, I enjoyed the book. It is not without its problems, but it is certainly worth a read. I think most people can relate to the ache of loneliness that you can never feel after that very special friend is no longer in your life, whether you drifted apart slowly or made a sudden break.

[tags]Leah Stewart, The Myth of You and Me, literature, reading, review[/tags]

A Thousand Acres

A Thousand AcresIf you read Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres, I recommend that you read Shakespeare’s King Lear first. Several versions of the play are available, including a subscription in forty parts from DailyLit.com, but I recommend the Folger Shakespeare Library’s edition for portability and explanatory notes. You will enjoy Smiley’s novel all the more if you realize what a loving, painstaking homage it is to one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. You will enjoy it in its own right, but it’s power is diminished, I think, without the side-by-side comparison to King Lear.

Smiley’s version centers around Larry Cook (Lear), a farmer in Zebulon County, Iowa, and his three daughters Ginny (Goneril), Rose (Regan), and Caroline (Cordelia). Larry decides to divide his thousand-acre farm among his three daughters, insisting he is saving them an inheritance tax. The daughters do not want him to do this, but Larry possesses a single-mindedness that will not be crossed. When Caroline objects more firmly, she is cut out of the deal. The family gradually implodes under Larry’s seeming madness, a suit to get back his land, and Ginny and Rose’s competition for the affections of neighbor’s son Jess Clark (Edmund).

Smiley’s story deviates from Shakespeare’s in providing Ginny and Rose with reasons — physical and sexual abuse — to hate their father. I have to admit that they seemed almost saintly in their accommodation of him after what he had done to them. Shakespeare’s Goneril and Regan were simply, as Lear put it, “unnatural hags.” Thus, I felt that Ginny and Rose had depth of character and complicated layers that Goneril and Regan lacked.

As this is told from the viewpoint of Ginny, Larry’s portrayal is never sympathetic, and though he cuts an imposing figure from Ginny’s point of view, he never quite reaches Lear’s stature with the reader. I was impressed, however, by how Smiley was able to take plot elements from the play and seamlessly incorporate them into A Thousand Acres without making the story seem stilted or forced. In the back of my mind, until Part Four or Part Five of the novel, I was sure she wouldn’t find a way to incorporate some part or other of the King Lear story, but she managed to do it every time. The story differs in the end, but not substantially so, and I suppose one could argue the difference is moot — the family is no less destroyed in Smiley’s One Thousand Acres than in Shakespeare’s King Lear, but in either case, you’ll enjoy two well-written works and explore timeless themes of “truth, justice, love, and pride,” ultimately making a universal story “profoundly American.”

The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the RingAfter a marathon viewing session of all three Lord of the Rings films several weekends ago, I began re-reading the books. I purchased The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books in a nice boxed set. I first read the books about 15 years ago while I was in college at the behest of my friend Kari (who would become my roommate the following year). I really enjoyed them. It is an interest I shared with my father, who has re-read his pristine paperback copies with Tolkien’s artwork on the covers countless times over the years. He seems to be able to recall the smallest detail from any of the books. I decided the time had come for a re-read. I may have re-read the books some time in the last 15 years, but if so, I can’t recall it. And exactly how many times have I read the Harry Potter books? Don’t ask. I can’t remember. It’s been that many. And The Lord of the Rings definitely merits a re-read.

The first thing that struck me once again was how fully realized Middle-earth is. Tolkien invented places that became real, languages that became real, people that became real. Tolkien’s books were the first adult fantasy fiction I had read. I thought, wow, fantasy is great stuff! I’ll read more! I tried other books and quickly came to discover that Tolkien outstrips them by a wide margin. I never did finish that Terry Brooks novel I picked up. Now it’s years later, and my daughter Sarah is in love with fantasy fiction.

I really love Frodo after seeing Elijah Wood’s portrayal of the character. And let’s face it — Orlando Bloom just made Legolas cool. Gandalf was always my favorite character. Some of the humor in the novels is left out of the movies. I did love the landscape and the costumes in the movies, however. The old adage remains true — the movie is never as good as the book.

Warning: Spoilery stuff in the next paragraph. Skip it if you need to.

One of the things that strikes me most is how intelligent Merry is in the novels. He isn’t given much credit in the films, but he’s really not as blundering as he’s portrayed. It really bothered me that the movies gave away that Eowyn was Dernhelm so early. In the books, this isn’t revealed until she and Merry kill the Witch-King, and I like it better that way. I found it interesting to read again about what became of Merry and Pippin later in their lives (there are bits of this information in the prologue of The Lord of the Rings).


It has been throroughly enjoyable to go back to Middle-earth, and I advise any of you who haven’t been there to take a trip soon.