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 

Literary Wives

Do you find the current trend of “wife” books (The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Zookeeper’s Wife, American Wife, etc.) encouraging or alarming? Should we feel positive that authors are focusing on female protagonists, or troubled that these women, at least in the titles, are defined by their relationships to others? Or both?


I’m still mulling it over myself, so today I’m pleased as punch to share that I’ll be joining founding bloggers Ariel, Audra, and Emily, as well as fellow newcomers Cecilia and Lynn, in the Literary Wives series. Every other month, we’ll be posting about a different book with the word “wife” in the title, focusing on two questions in particular:

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”?

On October 1, we’ll share our thoughts about Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel Ahab’s Wife.

We hope that you’ll join us by reading along, visiting the six blogs, and sharing your thoughts in the comments!

Meet the Literary Wives Bloggers:

Ariel, of One Little Library

Ariel Coffee Republic

Ariel is an editorial assistant at a Southern California publishing house. A literature enthusiast, she likes heroines full of gumption and conflicts fraught with ethical dilemmas. Her favorite book is and always will be Jane Eyre.

You can find Ariel on Twitter  and Facebook.

Audra, of Unabridged Chick


Audra is a 30-something married lesbian with a thing for literary fiction and historical novels, classic noir and vintage favorites.  She lives in Boston with her wife and works for a non-profit.  She loves interesting heroines, gorgeous prose, place as character, and the occasional werewolf.

You can find Audra on Facebook and Twitter.

Emily, of The Bookshelf of Emily J.

Emily J

You can find Emily on Facebook.

Carolyn, of Rosemary and Reading Glasses (that’s me!)

Carolyn O picture

After five years in graduate school, Carolyn O is on hiatus to be the read-at-home-parent to her small son. She works as an editor, proofreader, and writer on the side, and hopes to return to teaching soon. She loves used bookstores, early modern drama and poetry, feminism, and anything Joss Whedon creates.

You can find Carolyn on Twitter.

Cecilia, of Only You


Cecilia teaches writing and self-presentation skills to international professionals by day and night (the curse of time zone differences) and in between squeezes in some reading and writing of her own. Her reading tastes are pretty eclectic, though she loves literary fiction and memoir most of all, and works by women and international writers in particular. The best part of her day is the end-of-the-day book club that she shares with her 9 year old son.

You can find Cecilia on Twitter and Facebook.

Lynn, of Smoke & Mirrors


Lynn writes that she is “an avid (some might say “obsessive”!) reader, former Borders bookseller (my dream job!), and now blogger of books and reviews! My only limitation to reading and posting more often is that necessary full-time job! I am mother to three sons, soon-to-be 10 (yes, 10!) grandchildren, and one beautiful and “purr”fect gray kitty, Smokie…oh, and perhaps most importantly, I can count one of the kindest, most caring, and complex men I’ve ever known as my full-time partner and husband! Life is good!”

You can find Lynn on Twitter.