Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ahab's Wife - Review #9

Do you remember reading Moby Dick in high school?  Whether you weathered the epic or sloshed through Cliff's notes, you'll certainly recall this fact: Ahab's wife's name was Una.   In Moby Dick, Ahab briefly mentions her.  Sena Jeter Naslund writes an epic about Una in Ahab's Wife.  An epic from an epic.  Intriguing, don't you think?

Ahab's Wife is a magnificent story.  Ahab's wife, Una, is so much more than just a wife.  The cornerstone of the story is that at a young age, Una vehemently rejects the existence of the God of her father.  This fact angers her father so much that Una's mother has to send her away because she fears her husband will kill Una simply because of her rejection of his faith.  She goes to live with her aunt and uncle, who run a lighthouse on a New England island. While on the island she falls in love with the ocean and makes a decision that will have astounding ramifications.  The reader follows her life as she encounters repetitous patterns of love, heroism and tragedy.  Abundant with historical and literary references, this book is more of a project than a liesurely read.  It is a project well worth the effort.  Discussing this book is essential to enjoying it fully and this reviewer hopes that someone will read it and comment.  There are many major events in Ahab's Wife, but if I highlight any of them I will ruin the story for you.  A few points of interest follow.

Friendship is a fairly major theme in Ahab's Wife.  The reader meets a number of Una's friends but Naslund develops them primarily in terms of how they impact Una's life and not as stand alone characters.  When I finished the novel, I thought about the characters in the story of my life.  Who would I highlight in telling my story?  How would I describe their contribution to my being?  In doing so, would I be blind to their character traits, focusing only on their participation in my life? The pondering of such questions provided some quality soul searching and subsequent repentance.  I highly recommend it.

I'm still grappling with just how much I appreciate the feminist theme in  the book.  I don't even know if feminist is the correct adjective.  After you read the book, please provide me with a better adjective.  Anyway, Una thinks she can do anything.  She believes she can conquer the sea, overcome gender boundaries, abolish political bias, win a battle with an eagle, and master the most difficult literature, among other things.  I am confident (and the confidence is often misplaced, for the record) that I can do just about anything I set my mind to do and I identified with some of this woman-power Una exudes.  But conquering the sea?  Fighting an eagle?  Sometimes this theme was a little overstated and somewhat annoying.  And at times it was motivating.  One such motivating quote follows:

"I only mean we all change by degrees," I said.  "Neither in good architecture nor in nature is there any abruptness, but gradual modulation, requiring planning and patience."

Speaking of motivation.  The literary references in the novel are stunning.  The manner in which the author weaves thoughts of the writers of old into the story is fabulous.  For example, Shakespeare is abundantly referenced, quoted and used to develop Una's character.  At one point, Una tells her cousin that she never found Hamlet convincing because of "...All that hesitation.  A person would either kill the king or go to another country."  Her cousin responds with this telling observation:  "Hesitation is more natural for some of us than it is for you, Una."  Ahab's Wife motivated me to return to Shakespeare (high school was long, long ago and my college engineering classes just didn't seek the Bard out) and I stumbled across this book, which I highly recommend as a helpful reference to such a return.  

The most prominent theme in the book is a lack of faith in the Christian God, the God of Una's father.  She searches for God throughout the 666 pages of the book (hmmmm...), but ultimately only finds faith in herself.  Every single Christian is either a hypocrite or a disappointment.  Susan, the runaway slave Una befriends, is the only Christian in the novel with Christ-like character.  But when Susan is given a chance for freedom, she "finds freedom sterile" and makes a decision that disappoints Una.  All of the other Christian characters are portrayed as hypocrites because they claim to be Christians but then don't live up to the assumed standard of Christian behavior.  And since they don't follow the rules and subsequently disappoint her, the conclusion Una makes is that religion must be rejected.  The "Christians" in Una's life were following rules; they were being religious.  And no one can follow the rules perfectly.  The logical conclusion for her to make was to reject the religion.  But should she have rejected God on this particular basis?  The author makes this point in the following dialouge between Una and Captain Ahab:

"Are you, then, religious after all?"  I felt disappointed.  He had seemed a fellow skeptic, like Giles, like Kit.
"Religion and God usually have very little to do with each other," he said.

Una never does grasp the distinction between religion and God.  Such a distinction is the difference between faith in one's self and faith in God.  Now there is something for you to ponder.    


  1. I really appreciate your reviews -- they always give me food for thought, and not just an indication of whether I want to make the time to read a particular book or not.

  2. Just finished the book, and I flew through it. I loved it, though I wish I could have changed the fate of Captain Ahab. Unfortunately, that fate was sealed long long ago.

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    1. here's the quote! Brother, I would say. I would help you. Dwell not in that inner hell which is always of our own making. Inside yourself you must give up the illusion of power. That is God's realm. Your life is like a vast ocean. Can you control the tempest? Can you make the sun shine? 'Twere naught folly to think so. Your despair comes from your struggle, from you own vain belief that you order the sea of feeling. But despair is like the tempest, and joy is like the sun. God gives us rules for living in nature. Take shelter from the storm; stay not too long in the sun. Prayer is the shelter from despair; good works for others is the obligation of joy at home. Meditate only on the glory of God, his magnificence, his kindness in the most ultimate sense, his ever-flowing forgiveness, his warm love. Admit your lowliness before his plan. Look you only to your own way, which is in God.