Literary Wives: “Wife” as depicted in Ahab’s Wife

It’s October! Which means it’s time to post about the next installment in the Literary Wives series, a virtual book club I’m hosting with five other bloggers. (The series started earlier this spring but I just joined in the fall.) For October we have been reading Ahab’s Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund.

Ahab's wife

Ahab’s Wife is a novel published in 1999 about the life and times of Una Spenser, the wife of Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, as created by Sena Jeter Naslund. It is a sweeping story of Una’s life in the first half of the 19th century from her teens to early adulthood. There are a number of story lines and themes in this novel but for this post we’ll be focusing on these two questions:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

I would say that this book/Una defines “wife” as a role that is equal to that of husband. A wife can reasonably expect equality, friendship, respect and romantic love from her marriage. Leading up to this desirable (though by no means necessary) position in life is a woman’s right to choose – whether or not to wed, whom to marry (should she choose to marry), and how to steer her own life.

Here are some quotes along those lines, all from Una:

Perhaps . . . Giles wishes me to learn that many men could love me, that choice and not inevitability were the lot of both woman and man. (p. 124)

Is our life determined for us, or do we choose? Some of both. Some of both – the answer came clean and simple to my mind. (p. 134)

I wanted my own life. And I wanted it to be different. Choice lies in the purse. (p. 142)

I had begun to see my own life as a story and myself as the author of it. (p. 158)

I would not marry anyone anytime anywhere. I would sail as a man and live ashore as a woman. I would do just as I pleased. So long as I hurt no other being, why not do exactly as I pleased? ( p. 204)

(To Kit) “You are my beloved husband, my best friend.” (p. 314)

And so Una does live a life that she has a strong hand in playing. As a child she refuses to bend to her father’s narrow religious demands, and is sent by her mother to live with her aunt, uncle and cousin (lighthouse keepers), to avoid further physical and verbal abuse at the hands of her father. She misses her mother, but quite enjoys life with her extended family at the lighthouse. Then, at 16, she travels to New Bedford to meet her mother. When she receives word that her mother cannot make it, Una decides that instead of returning to the lighthouse she would disguise herself as a boy, and seek work as a cabin boy aboard a whaleship in order to see more of the world. And so she does, until the ship is sunk by a whale. She survives this ordeal and is rescued by Captain Ahab’s Pequod, and from this point on the story of her more “domestic” life as a woman begins. She ends up marrying three men (Kit, Ahab, and I won’t name the third so as not to ruin the “surprise”…) over the course of the novel and bears one surviving child.

As a wife Una appears devoted, understanding of Kit’s descent into madness (they undergo a traumatic episode at sea, one that, incidentally, does not appear to touch Una in nearly the same way) and usually forgives his out-of-line behavior because of it. She also endures patiently the years of separation when Ahab is at sea. She is strong and independent and good at somehow getting a whole village of people to support her. Her men come easily to her and she remarries without difficulty. Each man seems better than the last. Men seem to fall at her feet and fawn over her, body, soul and mind.

From what I read I wasn’t able to see anything out of the ordinary or of great insight in terms of marriage in the 19th century. Though Una’s marriages were not easy given Kit’s mental breakdown and Ahab’s long absences, she was never treated unfairly because she was a woman. Her husbands (when Kit was of sound mind) always respected her as a wife and an equal. Una’s strong-willed aunt was “exceptionally happy” with her husband. Frannie, Una’s cousin, grows up rejecting marriage and choosing, instead, to cohabitate with a man and to have a child together.

The one marriage that piqued my interest was that between Una’s parents. To me it was curious and unexpected that a mother, in protecting her child from her husband’s abuses, would choose to send her one and only child away rather than try and reform the husband or leave the husband, or maybe this is telling of the obligations that wives in the 19th century had to their husbands.

Otherwise, setting aside the historical realities of the time (slavery, women as second class citizens), I didn’t feel that I gleaned anything from the situation of wives in the 19th century that was really any different from that of wives in the 21st century. And therein lies my problem with this book: everything is so modern, so forward-thinking, so ideal, even for our present world. Nearly every character seems to be a women’s rights supporter and an abolitionist. While Una philosophizes a great deal about the importance of free will for women, I never got a sense of the challenges that she faced as a woman. She wanted to have choices, and voila, she had choices. People – men and women – loved her and welcomed her and all her ideas with open arms, heart and ears. Famous historical figures who have cameos in this book – women’s rights activist Margaret Fuller, astronomer Maria Mitchell, writer Nathaniel Hawthorne – all want to be in her company and to hear her thoughts. Things always seem to fall into place for Una. When she goes into labor alone at home in the middle of winter, a runaway slave girl magically appears from underneath the mattresses to help deliver the baby. When her huge fortune from Ahab starts to dwindle, she is informed that her investments are suddenly all doing remarkably well. Really? Was it really that easy? This novel would have been more satisfying had Naslund written a more complicated story of a real woman in the 19th century.

Have you read Ahab’s Wife? If so, what did you think? Do you have other recommendations for good reading on 19th century women in America?


Please also check out the other Literary Wives bloggers’ pages to see what they have to say about the book! 

Ariel of One Little Library

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors


Next up for December 1: The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhon

16 thoughts on “Literary Wives: “Wife” as depicted in Ahab’s Wife

  1. You said it so much nicer than I did!! “Nearly every character seems to be a women’s rights supporter and an abolitionist. While Una philosophizes a great deal about the importance of free will for women, I never got a sense of the challenges that she faced as a woman.” Exactly. The whole thing was just unbelievable. Literally not-able-to-be-believed.

    • Thanks, Carolyn. I did enjoy the atmosphere too, and her writing. I finished the book very interested in that period and, of course, got inspired to try and re-read Moby-Dick!

  2. I didn’t voice my doubts as strongly as you did, but this was the part of the book that I thought so unlikely. After all, Una does some reprehensible things that I didn’t want to mention for spoilers, yet everyone accepts her, everyone is enlightened, everyone is a feminist. Not happening, really, in 19th century America. I also agree with your comments about the depiction of wives and how little this novel really says about that.

    • I thought you expressed those thoughts very clearly and well in your post (and wrote a very balanced review overall). I’m very curious as to why the author chose to write it that way – I wonder if she wanted to depict a female utopia?

      I feel kind of badly that my review veered off on the negative side…I actually had much more to say (and I did enjoy other aspects of the book) but homing in on the subject of wife I ended up being critical.

      • I wouldn’t feel bad about being negative about a book I didn’t like. That’s one of the interesting things about participating in a book club. Everyone has a different viewpoint and sees different things in a novel. I have only read two books by Sena Jeter Naslund, but I’m getting the impression that she tends to view things, if not in a utopian way, in a feminist, positive, always life-affirming way. One reviewer used the words “earth mother.” Sometimes it is a bit over-the-top and annoying.

        • Thanks! That is what I have discovered in this first foray into a book club – the beauty and “OK”ness of having different opinions. It’s a good exercise, as I’ve been so accustomed to seeking comfort in agreement.

          • I belong to a book club here in town, and I have found that some of the members are too polite to say they don’t like a book. They’ll say it to me in private but not in front of everyone. That’s what makes the discussion interesting–not when everyone agrees, but when people disagree and can talk about it! Fun stuff!

            • That’s an interesting anecdote – I think many people, especially women, would be too afraid to “hurt” someone’s feelings by saying they didn’t like a book. But I agree that the varying opinions with Ahab’s Wife made the discussions that much more fun.

  3. I love what you’ve drawn out about equality. I do think the author made a purposeful effort to depict the marriages in that way, especially juxtaposed with Una’s parents. I also like what you say about the situation then not being too different from the situation now for wives. I think that is telling, frightening, and what also bothered me about the book. Great review! Thanks for helping me to think about the book in new and different ways from my bad reaction. 🙂

    • Thanks, Emily! I felt that we were made to believe that marriage can be this ideal but I just couldn’t buy it…I don’t know if you have seen the quote about Melville not having wanted women to read Moby-Dick when it came out? It would’ve been interesting had Naslund written an encounter between Una and Melville 😉 I mean, those were the times that Una was in, and everything was just too liberal and perfect. Anyway, this book club experience has been very interesting and fun for me, as it’s been fascinating to see how we’ve arrived at similar conclusions or feelings about the book.

  4. Pingback: Literary Wives: Ahab’s Wife | One Little Library

  5. I haven’t read the book, but from what I know about the time period, it does seem as though the author may have taken some liberties in expressing the possibilities for a woman of Una’s time. Then again, in my research on historical women, I’m often surprised by how much freedom a lot of them did have. As in all things, I suppose, the story is often very complicated. 🙂

    Really enjoyed reading your review, Cecilia, and the takes of the other bloggers as well.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kristen! Yes, I look at someone like Margaret Fuller and am intrigued – what was it like for someone like her during that period? There must have been such extremes in the lives of women.

  6. As I mentioned in my review ( and in response to Ariel’s review, I felt geographic limitations and lack of mobility (as we have now) meant most all relationships were based upon availability. I might agree about the idealism demonstrated by Una’s “husbands” except I felt it was the same for all of them: Mr. Hussey (not 1, not 2, but 3 women who can all cook fantastic chowder? Really?!? 😉), the gaoler, the seamstress. However, the one relationship I felt to be quite unrealistic in the mid-19th Century U.S. Was that between Robben and Judge Lord, though perhaps that is due to my ignorance of Nantucket society at that time. Just found it difficult to believe they wouldn’t be harassed, even if they were living in relative isolation. I do agree with you-all that it was a bit idealistic in many ways, but sometimes I enjoy such a read–I’m still a kid at heart who enjoys a good fairy tale every once in awhile. As I stated in my review I resonated with this theme of Universal spirituality that I took from the book–love, respect, and acceptance for all! Hear! Hear!! LOL Excellent discussion! I love how we’ve demonstrated varied perspectives! Thank you!! And, yes, this variance is exactly why I now facilitate 1 book club and participate in 4 others; I never cease to be amazed and impressed by others’ viewpoints! 😄

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