Una was my kind of woman in many ways, or perhaps the kind of woman I would like to be... I've often stated that if not for my grandmother actually serving as my main caregiver, I would probably have been a runaway by age 16, had I been forced to live with only my mother. As with Una's father, Ulysses, my mother was very rigid regarding religious beliefs, disregarding any virtues such as kindness, generosity, or respect. Her main parental goals? Fairly simple: to control and manipulate. However, unlike Ulysses, she was rarely physically abusive. Kudos to Una's mother for doing something to stop the abuse being heaped upon her daughter. Though I cannot imagine willingly relinquishing my own daily parental rights to simply accommodate an abusive man whom I happened to have married, and then remaining loyal to him! But at least she was proactive enough to protect Una, though in my opinion sacrificing so very much--credit given...
And now (for me, at least) the overarching theme of this epic work: spirituality. The definition I assign this word is "of or relating to a person's spirit" (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, m-w.com); my preference is to assign NO religious connotation to this word. I am deeply spiritual, but organized religion or belief in a deity of any sort no longer holds any attraction for me. My spiritual beliefs are very practical and pragmatic--easily demonstrated in my daily interactions with others and my attitude and behaviors. I believe every human being's intention, thought, and action enters the Universal flow and makes its own contribution to the positive (or negative) energy that encompasses us all. Each bit of energy we contribute then influences others in either a positive or negative way. I believe this is fairly close to the interpretation Ms. Jaslund depicts in this book overall.
Una and her mother Bertha discuss religion and God (in the Christian/Biblical sense)...
Una: "It might be quite a different thing about God."
Bertha: "If it makes you happy, believe it."
Una: "But I want to know the truth."
Bertha: "The truth about the unseen makes little difference to me."
Una: "It would make a difference to me. But I do not believe that a man was God."
Bertha: "Perhaps we each adopt or create our truth."
Bingo! [Picture me ringing a very large bell! :)] That is exactly what I believe; we humans have created our own understanding of our world as we know it, hence, the large variation and diversity of "religious"/spiritual belief systems around the world and throughout our history on this planet. Una's Aunt Agatha contends we each should believe what we will. Una attends both the Universalist and Unitarian churches and compares these two belief systems, preferring the latter. Jaslund also interjects Margaret Fuller's feminism and transcendentalism, but once Una moves to 'Sconset her spiritual beliefs seem to culminate in the stars and universality of the human experience. Jaslund also interjects scientific knowledge and process through the Mitchell family, particularly Maria who was an astronomer herself who embroidered the message "We are kin to the stars" on baby Justice's dress. Finally Una believes that the fact that she is alive and can see the stars' (to my mind the Universe's) glory is her purpose. "'Little scrap, little morsel,' the stars sing to me, 'we are the same.'" Rather ironically, I just heard on a TED talk last week, a scientist claim that some scientists have discovered humans and stars have developed from the same materials/energy. And among the findings of the high-energy physics colliders (CERN, Fermilab, etc.) is that there truly are no static "particles" as we delve into the ever smaller bits of energy, but rather this energy appears to be in a constant state of flux, alternately taking the shape of two different forms, but NOT remaining in one form or another. So...our world is literally constructed of nothing more or less than ever-changing energy; so what, if anything, is truly "permanent" in the world in which we find ourselves?
As Kit says to Una, "That's the way it is in life. You let go of what is beautiful and unique. You pursue something new and don't even know that the wind of your own running is a thief." Much to ponder...
Now for the "wifely" questions!
1) What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
As stated above in my review, it appeared to be quite easy to become a wife with little to no legal process involved. With life expectancy so limited compared to the present-day, it was not uncommon for spouses to die and another to take their place very quickly: Mr. Hussey, the tavern owner, had at least three wives; the Gaoler had at least three women as partners, though Frannie (the second one), Una's cousin, refused to "marry" him while she cohabited with him and his children and bore a child with him. In effect, it seemed as if a woman could be a wife in a variety of ways, and she could basically choose how she played that role, based upon her husband's needs/guidelines, however. For example, any wife of Mr. Hussey's MUST cook chowder and tend to the tavern. The relationships appeared to be based upon geographic availability moreso than choice in my opinion, which makes sense given the lack of transportation and portability in the mid-nineteenth century. Being a wife appeared to involve doing for your husband and being what your husband expected. However, Frannie seemed to defy these traditional roles. Una was the traditional wife to both Kit and Ahab, but it seems as if she may be more independent with her relationship with Ishmael at the end of the book.
2) In what way does this woman define "wife"--or in what way is she defined by "wife"?
Upon meeting the Judge, "You must take tea with me, Mrs. Captain." This connected directly with Anne Morrow Lindbergh's claim that any wife would only be known by her association with her husband: "Mrs. Doctor," "Mrs. Lawyer," etc. I believe Una was defined by her role of wife to Kit, though it seemed she was truly dedicated to him simply as a result of her love and compassion for him. Everyone else certainly referred to her as his wife. I believe that many times, society identifies a person within a role and that person feels they must live up to society's expectations of them. I believe Una certainly tried to do this to the best of her ability with Kit, however, he was unable to play the role of a sane person, and therefore, was rejected by the society. I loved Jaslund's interjection of an indigenous culture where "madness" was accepted and not classified as aberrant behavior to be controlled. I vaguely remembered that from an Anthropology course years ago. In her role as Ahab's wife I felt she was a bit more independent, however, she had the advantages of financial independence and the fact that her husband was gone more than he was home with her. I believe her relationship with Ishmael was much different in this regard and much more independent, at least that was my impression.
Don't forget to check out the others' reviews:
Ariel of One Little Library
Audra of Unabridged Chick
Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses
The sixth Literary Wives read is The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhorn, for December 1.