Thursday, October 3, 2013

Literary Wives #5: Ahab's Wife or, The Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund

  • Ahab's Wife or, The Star-Gazer
  • Sena Jeter Naslund
  • ISBN-13: 9780060838744
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: August 2, 2005

This book was so much more than I expected! I was rather pleasantly surprised. I truly enjoyed the spiritual/philosophical discussions and exploration amongst the various characters, as well as the historical information. The writing style seemed to be different within the last 150-200 pages than the earlier portion of the book, though I enjoy epistolary writing, it was a bit disruptive and I felt that as a reader I had to adjust to this change. Likewise throughout the book I found myself needing to purposefully track characters and their inter-relationships; the flow seemed a bit disjointed at times.For me, there was much ironic symbolism in this book: with names (Judge Lord oversees all Ahab and Una's investments, and Liberty, bestowed upon two different children who died young, and one infant still living by book's end), shapes and objects (rather phallic lighthouse and Frannie licking it), and I'm sure many more that I missed! Other issues addressed in this book that I'll not discuss in detail here: cannibalism and the residual guilt of "living" in the aftermath; freedom of choice in many different aspects, choice of partners, of spiritual/religious beliefs, "lifestyle," vocation/career, and ultimately, of "family," or perhaps more accurately of friends who end up being "family you choose"; the "social construct" of madness/insanity--could such eccentric behaviors be acceptable elsewhere as was implied?

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...

What an exciting gut-wrenching opening to this book! Immediately we are made aware of Una's beliefs regarding slavery (echoing her mother's); she helps a runaway slave escape. Susan managed to sneak into her cabin, and stayed to help Una through the labor, birth, and, unfortunately, the death of her first child, Liberty. Disappointingly, Una later learns Susan eventually returned to the deep South to reunite with her mother, hoping to lead her out of slavery, but being pregnant and learning of her mother's foot being cut off due to her own attempted escape, she is branded by her owner (directly on her cheek!) and remanded back into slavery... Susan's story reminded me of the prisoners who have related their inability to deal with "freedom" once released, and many again commit crimes simply because they seek the reassurance, routine, and "comfort" of prison life. I believe this is very much due to lack of resources once released: financial, vocational, and interpersonal, much as with Susan... Though Una very generously supplied her with money, she used it to bribe a bounty hunter who in return did not capture her.

I did chuckle a bit as Una related her appreciation of the fact that Ahab's experience with women of the tropical islands had taught him "to touch the magic places on [her] body." However, she was assured Ahab "went to the island women no longer, saying it was not right for a Captain." mention that it might not be in accordance with a monogamous marriage for him to continue other sexual relationships? Hmmm...

This brings us to one of my issues with the concept of "marriage" as presented in this book. Perhaps it is just an accurate reflection of the times, but it seems that anyone could virtually say they were married, and they were! In today's society, you must at least "sign papers" to prove you're "married"! My personal belief is that any two people (male-male, male-female, female-female) should be able to cohabit (or not), but claim and live in a monogamous relationship if they so choose with no implications regarding civil laws (e.g. taxes, benefits). I have always believed marriage to be a "religious" concept interjected into civil law, and I fail to understand why. I especially fail to understand why we retain it. Wouldn't it be much simpler and fairer to all to hold each person responsible for themselves once of "legal" age? Why is it anyone else's business whether any one of us is involved in a relationship? It should be a private matter totally removed from the public realm, unless we choose to share such information with others. I can only imagine how much more peaceful our society might be by eliminating so many battles over "legal rights" of people who choose to be in relationships: same-sex relationships/marriages, divorce, etc. If each adult was treated the same and only as a single entity, so much the better, in my opinion! Relationships would require NO legal paperwork/validation.  

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,; 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

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.

Cecilia of Only You

The sixth Literary Wives read is The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhorn, for December 1.

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