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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Third Web Paper
Sena Jeter Naslund's novel, Ahab's Wife, charts the sorrows of people who have lost loves. Ahab's Wife is about the healing process after trauma and loss. Naslund's novel speaks to the imperfect, wounded, restless part of humans, the part that is ever questioning the meaning of existence. It teaches healing that is a reaction to this essential imperfection, this essential doubt. Naslund's novel is written as a response to Herman Melville's Moby Dick: about a wounded sea captain who seeks revenge against nature, against "the ungraspable phantom,"1 the "heartless immensities"2 for wounding him. Ahab seeks to overthrow the power in nature that inflicts such pain by leaving the land, leaving the domain of humans, leaving "that young girl-wife."3 In contrast, Naslund's character, Una, responds to the inflicted sorrows of life by turning toward people, by returning to land, by binding herself closely to those she loves. While Melville's novel charts the lives of those who have been cast out by suffering, those who leave society in response to pain, in a search for meaning, Naslund's novel offers an alternative reaction to hardship; Naslund suggests that the essential healing after pain, the meaning of life is provided by other humans.
The first love that Una looses is her husband to be, Giles. Immediately after Una sees Giles die she goes to her best friend (and Giles' best friend), Kit. Naslund describes the scene immediately after Giles' death,
He (Kit), too, had consolation to offer, but I felt numb as stone. The ship rocked us, sometimes my weight bearing toward Kit, sometimes his body leaning into mine. Only my skin was alive. I was a rock covered with a tissue of flesh. Kit put his hand under my skirt and touched my thigh through the cloth of my drawers. When he said, 'May I?' I said 'Yes,' and unloosed the drawstring and lifted my skirt so that we might be more together.4
This scene describes the desperate need of Una and Kit to counter the great absence left in the place that Giles used to occupy. They demand a physical closeness to each other. Giles' death leaves both Una and Kit with vast vacant spaces within. The love they had for Giles suddenly has no function, festering, it has nowhere to be placed. Una and Kit's coming together is an attempt to relieve the unbearable lightness of Giles' vacant space, the absolute lacking of human physicality left in the space that Giles used to occupy. In this passage the reader witnesses the undulating sway of Una entering into Kit's physical space and then Kit's movement into Una's space. Both are physical enactments of filling a lacking space.
Later in the novel Una describes this same lacking sensation after her mother dies: "It was her absence, not her death, that seemed real. The way the walls of the cabin did not hold her. The vacancy in the air."5 Again Una develops a sexual relationship with a person to counteract the lacking space, the space empty of her mother. This time the sexual relationship is with another woman. Una thinks, "when we cuddled together in sleep, I dreamed I was a mother cat with rows of nipples up and down my body, and she was my only kitten... here was Susan to unburden me of love. Not to be loved but to love lightened my load of grief and gave value and direction to my life."6 Like her interaction with Kit after Giles' death, Una's relationships with people after pain are often interactions of intense physical encounters. Sex, in Naslund's novel, is a response to the painful physical lacking in life, it is used as an unloading of unused emotion onto a body that is present.
In stark contrast to the intimate sexual scenes in Ahab's Wife, Melville's characters seek solitude when they are in pain. Melville opens his novel with Ishmael saying,
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet ... I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can ... meditation and water are wedded for ever.7
Melville opens his novel with Ishmael's admittance to depression. As a response to this pain Ishmael seeks solitude and personal meditation. He finds the appropriate place for this to be at sea. Ishmael does not seek companionship in his depression. Instead, he leaves civilization and all human inhabited portions of the earth.
Similarly, Ahab, in his crazed sorrow, leaves his new wife to search for his revenge at sea. Toward the end of Melville's novel, while Ahab is being entangled in the gnarled hemp of the fates there seems to be a glint of hope that he might leave Moby Dick, leave the sea, leave his solitude, and return to saneness, his wife, and land. This moment is found when Ahab intimately gazes into Starbuck's eyes. The last hope of the novel is when Ahab says to Starbuck, "Stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God."8 But, hope is lost when "Ahab's glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil."9 When he pulls his gaze from Starbuck's eye he looses all hope of healing, he succumbs to his madness and solitude.
Naslund writes an interpretation of Melville's Ahab into her novel. In one scene Ahab and Una have just returned from hearing a sermon about Jesus. Ahab says,
I wish that he had preached of Judas ... it may well be that in the heart of man there is a goodness that is divine, that we are Jesus-kin. But that is only half ... the other half is the Betrayer, the Liar, the Murderer, the Fornicator, the Cannibal, the Prince of Darkness. And I know, by thunder, that I have kinship there. It's that half of me that wants to be called brother.10
Naslund writes of Ahab's desire for this companionship. He wishes for companionship in his incompleteness. We are told that our positive attributes are accepted and loved by Jesus and society, but Ahab speaks from a different part of his soul, the part that is cast out, the unaccepted, restless part. Naslund's Ahab recognizes an inherent flaw in his own character. This self-criticism causes Ahab great pain; he feels that it is a flaw that he does not control, but rather has been inflicted into his being. Ahab seeks self justification by leaving Una. He believes that he will find acceptance, or mend this broken part of his being, by going to sea. Naslund's Ahab refuses the healing company that Una offers her husband.
Naslund recognizes that Melville's characters seek answers from non-human sources: either from direct encounter with the unknown, the whiteness, or, not knowing what will offer consolation, they go to the place away from human habitation: the sea. Naslund offers another kind of healing, a healing offered by humans to each other. Naslund's healing comes in the form of forgiveness and companionship. David, another hurting character in the novel, shares his painful story with Una. Later, Una wishes she had offered him company in his solitude. She says to herself, "I could have whispered to him, You are not alone in you infamy."11 Later, Una tells David her restless story and the two are able to coexist in their fractured worlds and in so doing provide each other the needed comfort.
David, too, offers Una healing. David's healing comes in the form of forgiveness. Naslund writes, "He embraced me, around the thighs, as a child might hug his mother. He looked straight up at me, his beard pressed against my dress. 'I forgive you,' he said in his mellow male voice that seemed to blend God and nature. His short arms were strong as tongs about my legs. 'And I you,' I replied."12 Here, David takes on the power that is traditionally attributed to God. David takes control of that which is usually considered a power of otherness, the power of something non-human. David takes on the power of healing.
This relationship, this encounter between David and Una marks Naslund's greatest revision of Moby Dick. Moby Dick is a story in which humans seek meaning in of their existence, they fight for this meaning, grappling with the forces of nature in a futile attempt to claim their great power of assigning meaning. Melville charts the tragic outcome of this battle. Humans are too small, too weak, too mortal, to stand a chance at claiming this power from the powerful allies of time and nature. Melville concludes his epic of the human search, "Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."13 Time and nature are unaffected by the human struggle. They deal sorrows and pain and are unchanging to the throbbing fight of humanity.
Naslund refutes Melville and suggests that there is hope in the search for meaning. Our clutching to the notion of meaning in life is not futile. She argues with Melville across time by responding to Ahab's statement in her novel, "'There is a tragicalness in being human. In the mere being-' Yes, I wanted to say, but that is only one way. There are many ways. We choose."14 Naslund suggests that instead of searching for meaning and comfort in the undulating restless sea, we can find meaning on land, in people, in the space between people, in touch. Human touch fills the absence of meaning.
1 MD 20
2 AW 663
3 MD 405
4 AW 244
5 AW 406
6 AW 410
7 MD 18-19
8 MD 406
9 MD 406
10 AW 343
11 AW 438
12 AW 439
13 MD 427
14 AW 509
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