Literary Wives: Una Spenser and DIY Wifehood

literarywives2If you missed the Literary Wives introductory post, here’s the summary:  I’ll be joining founding bloggers Ariel, Audra, and Emily, as well as fellow newcomers Cecilia and Lynn, as we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. This month, we’re writing about Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, the sweeping, imaginative, feminist answer to Moby-Dick.

Readers take note: Although I usually refrain from spoilers, what follows is a consideration of one aspect of the novel, and so I shall be spoiling away. Beware!

I read Ahab’s Wife years ago and remembered liking it very much, and I looked forward to reading it again. I like the gusto with which Ms. Naslund throws all she has at Una’s story, giving her connections not only to the characters and world of Moby-Dick, but also to the time and culture of Melville’s novel.

Ahab's Wife

Una experiences much and meets a cast of strange and interesting characters — including Hawthorne, Maria Mitchell, Margaret Fuller (sidebar to myself: a cenotaph to her memory is somewhere in Mount Auburn Cemetery, a must-find), and a young Henry James (this last strains credulity, really). I fear that I’m making the novel sound like a literary Forrest Gump. Ah well. It’s certainly interesting, with passages of real, sensual beauty.

As I read it through this time, I felt as if Ms. Naslund were trying to construct Una as a secular saint, progressive and feminist ahead of her time, flawed but thoughtful. Una understands that “choice lies in the purse” (142); freedom of movement, of action, is often dependent on financial independence, something we twenty-first century feminists think about often. Some of Una’s free-thinking, as it would be called at the time, seems more like wishful thinking on the part of the author.

In the narrative, Nantucket becomes a little free-thinking paradise, and almost everyone gets a happy ending. The lost and the dead are mourned, but never for too long; after all, when reading Goethe, Una prefers Wilhelm: “While Werther disintegrated, Wilhelm learned from the wonder of life, and grew” (387).

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

This novel’s first line is misleading in the opposite way that Moby-Dick‘s is deceptive. “Call me Ishmael,” begins the American epic, leading us to believe that we will learn much about the narrator, this Ishmael. Instead, we are offered lessons in cetology and monomania.

Here, Una begins her narrative: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” which suggests that the novel’s focus will be on her husbands and their marriages. However, Ahab’s Wife is always Una’s story, told from her perspective and focusing on her thoughts and feelings, a bildungsroman that extends into middle life.

Along the way, her adventures offer Una many models of wifehood:

  • Una’s own mother, loyal to an abusive husband whose religious zealotry endangers Una; nonetheless, she is an educated, caring woman who protects her daughter the best way she knows how.
  • Aunt Agatha, in perhaps the novel’s ideal union. She and Torchy are equals, co-parents and co-workers, who face their isolated life with good cheer, open minds, and hands together. However, she, like her sister, is confined, an important epiphany for Una:

For my aunt and my mother, journeying lay in their fingers for the most part. They knew the landscape of colored patches, the rivulets and tributaries of stitchery. They knew the voyage of reading. It seemed an inward journey. But the sea! the sea! How could it not seem freer, wider, more uncharted than anything else one could know? I wanted it for Giles. For any man I loved. Perhaps in sending Kit to play the part of companion, Giles wished me to learn that many men could love me, that choice and not inevitability were the lot of both woman and man.

For my mother and my aunt, the thought of babies revitalized their beings. And yet, I did not just want babies, or men who went to sea. I wanted something for myself. (124)

  • Captain Swift’s absent wife, who died in childbed: “Her bed’s the grave . . . She gave her life for Chester of the darling curls” (161). A reminder of the very real danger Una and any other nineteenth-century woman faced in childbirth; an example of what I like to call the good-dead-wife trope.
  • Sallie Swain, feminine, generous, adherent to the standards of feminine behavior common to her time and place, even on board a merchant vessel.
  • Charlotte Hussey, vivacious and cheerful, practical to a limit. Warm toward her much-older husband, but overcome with her love for Kit.
  • Mrs. Macey, a widow who tells Una the joys of being a sailor’s wife: “You can come to love your own life. Alone” (348).
  • Mary Starbuck, steadfast and loyal, calm and religious and kind, the ideal Quaker wife.

(At over 650 pages, you’d expect it to be a long list, right?)

Una learns over time that the experience of being a wife is not an universal one; neither fidelity nor infidelity, neither solitude nor company, neither cruelty nor kindness may be expected of all spouses. Knowing her own mind, Una chooses her husbands with care; she compares herself to Maria Mitchell, reflecting, “my investments were so much in people” (464). By observing the women and marriages around her, Una chooses pieces of wifehood for herself, crafting an approach to wifehood all her own.

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

What magic there was in the word when it names all that I would be! Mother, daughter, neighbor, friend—I let go of all those names, except my own, for that of wife. I drank the word as if it were wine. (457)

Una comes to marriage on her own terms, and she defines herself as married even when, in the case of her last marriage, there’s no semblance of ceremony or state sponsorship to confirm the union. How she views her own position as “wife” varies from marriage to marriage, but in every marriage, as she says of the second, “I did not question the legitimacy of our marriage, our power to define our lives” (361).

In her first marriage to the mad (and frequently abusive) Kit, Una sees her role as that of caretaker and provider. She plans to sew to make money, to grow food in a garden, to cook and bake with Kit, and do her best to keep him sane. Her loyalty is shaken by his madness, but when Charlotte offers a possible avenue out of the marriage, by gently suggesting that a marriage at sea is not binding, Una refuses the gesture: “We have shared a bed . . . That binds” (320). However, when Una comes to realize that some harms cannot be undone, she lets Kit go with grace and good will, recognizing that his self-preservation will also be her own.

Una’s marriage to Ahab embodies Charlotte’s earlier admonishment: “The world is not closed off, Una, because a man and his wife make a small, inviolate circle at the center of it” (324). Ahab divorces Una from Kit (he had declared them married) and marries her himself on the Pequod‘s deck (“Ahab no more needed the validation of priest or paper than I” [360].). After their first night together, Ahab goes off on a whaling voyage, leaving Una to her own devices. They both relish this independence, especially Una, who realizes that this kind of relationship is not always typical: “Now I was married, but because my husband was independent, so was I” (386, emphasis mine).

Una regards Ahab as more capable of love and devotion than Kit, and delights in Ahab’s passion for her. They meet as partners, bearers of histories: “Nothing was concealed, and though nothing was overtly revealed, all was known. In guilt and in forgiveness we counted ourselves equals, and always had” (475).  Ahab regards their marriage as one of true minds (and I do love a good Shakespeare sonnet), a union of souls for which “marriage” is too common a word. He tells Una in a letter that he would go mad and destroy any thing that kept them apart. Unfortunately for Una, Ahab’s first encounter with Moby Dick leaves Ahab mangled, in body and mind. Though Una does not regard their relationship differently, she sorrows at Ahab’s monomania, and does not try, materially, to stop him from seeking revenge. She knows that he will not return, and grieves for it, but soon settles into new routines.

Una’s third marriage is with Ishmael (I’m afraid I think this last turn is too cute by half), whom she glimpses at times in the story — on board the merchant ship that rescues her with Giles and Kit, and at the dock before the Pequod’s last sailing, for instance. Together, the creative two “write” their tales, united by choice though not custom: “We are not legally married [. . .] but united by our natures. Each day and forever we choose to be husband and wife” (664). Once again, Una chooses a non-traditional (for the nineteenth century, of course) mode of wifehood, focusing on her own continuing choices and those of her partner. Each is independent, though they craft their companionship together.

Now that you’ve read my meanderings on the subject, please visit the other Literary Wives bloggers! 

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Audra at Unabridged Chick

Ariel at One Little Library

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors

We’d love to hear what you think of Ahab’s Wife, and we hope you’ll join us on December 1, when we’ll be talking about The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhorn (visit the site at 

12 thoughts on “Literary Wives: Una Spenser and DIY Wifehood

  1. This is a beautifully written review, Carolyn. I highlighted all the exact same lines while I was reading but I couldn’t write or tie it all together quite as precisely or eloquently. I think you are spot on about how Una has carefully defined the role of wife in a way that suits her. I would have been interested in knowing more about the challenges that that involved. I wonder how easy or difficult it was to be free thinking as a woman during that period? This book did get me very interested in other 19th century women like Margaret Fuller.

    • Thank you for the kind words! I’m interested in Margaret Fuller too, now, though in general the Transcendentalists bore me to tears (I know, terrible confession coming from a reader/New Englander/former grad student in English). And I’d read about Maria Mitchell before, but I wonder if there’s a good bio or novel about her.

      I’m no nineteenth-century expert, but I do wonder what my grad school friends think of this book!

  2. I echo Cecilia–this is a great post! You’ve tied it all together very succinctly. I think I might have had a more appreciative view of the book if I’d read Moby Dick, but oh well. I’m glad you were able to see the positives in the story. And I do like that, as a wife, Una is first married to herself (there’s a quote somewhere in there about that). I just found it hard to believe she found such perfect unity not just once but at least twice!

  3. Hi, Carolyn, I agree with you about the depiction of “wife” in this novel. You did a great job of extending your observations to all the other wives in the novel, too, which I thought about a little bit but didn’t go ahead with. This one is a hard book to review without spoilers, and I thought my own review suffered from my not talking about any of them. I love your remark about the “secular saint”!

      • That’s true. I was trying to do a review for my regular readers combined with the book club. I’m going to have to think more about how to do this in the future. I thought everyone had interesting things to say.

  4. Well done! You gave this novel the attention it deserved. I really like your observation at the beginning about how some of the ideas expressed through Una are the wishful thinking of the author. I completely agree with that and had the same thinking. And thanks for reminding me that perhaps some of the nontraditional behavior that I deemed boringly traditional, WAS progressive in its time. I also love how you give each wife her own attention. Nice review!

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

  6. Ditto what others have said, Carolyn! Love how you analyze virtually all the wives; a very thorough and pertinent summary. I tend to want to review the book and then do the wife thing and wonder if I should make two distinct postings of those in the future. As did Cecilia, I also noted these same passages and appreciate your organization of them into a comprehensible review. Spoilers are a quandary–I try not to divulge usually, but sometimes I just can’t resist!! 😝

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