Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel

Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel

by Sena Jeter Naslund


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"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." This is destined to be remembered as one of the most-recognized first sentences in literature--along with "Call me Ishmael." Sena Jeter Naslund has created an entirely new universe with a transcendent heroine at its center who will be every bit as memorable as Captain Ahab. Ahab's Wife is a novel on a grand scale that can legitimately be called a masterpiece: beautifully written, filled with humanity and wisdom, rich in historical detail, authentic and evocative. Melville's spirit informs every page of her tour de force. Una Spenser's marriage to Captain Ahab is certainly a crucial element in the narrative of Ahab's Wife, but the story covers vastly more territory. After a spellbinding opening scene, the tale flashes back to Una's childhood in Kentucky; her idyllic adolescence with her aunt and uncle's family at a lighthouse near New Bedford; her adventures disguised as a cabin boy on a whaling ship; her first marriage to a fellow survivor who descends into violent madness; courtship and marriage to Ahab; life as mother and a rich captain's wife in Nantucket; involvement with Frederick Douglass; and a man who is in Nantucket researching his novel about his adventures on her ex-husband's ship. Ahab's Wife is a breathtaking, magnificent, and uplifting story of one woman's spiritual journey, informed by the spirit of the greatest American novel, but taking it beyond tragedy to redemptive triumph.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060838744
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/02/2005
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 704
Sales rank: 232,598
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Sena Jeter Naslund is a cofounder and program director of the Spalding University (Louisville) brief-residency MFA in Writing, where she edits The Louisville Review and Fleur-de-Lis Press. A winner of the Harper Lee Award and the Southeastern Library Association Fiction award, she is the author of eight previous works of fiction, including Ahab's Wife, a finalist for the Orange Prize. She recently retired from her position as Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville.

Read an Excerpt

Ahab's Wife

Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel
By Sena Naslund

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Sena Naslund
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060585854

Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last. Yet, looking up--into the clouds--I conjure him there: his gray-white hair; his gathered brow; and the zaggy mark; I saw it when lying with him by candlelight and, also, taking our bliss on the sunny moor among curly-cup gumweed and lamb's ear. I see a zaggy shadow in the rifting clouds. That mark started like lightning at Ahab's temple and ran not all the way to his heel (as some thought) but ended at Ahab's heart.

That pull of cloud--tapered and blunt at one end and frayed at the other--seems the cottony representation of his ivory leg. But I will not see him all dismembered and scattered in heaven's blue--that would be no kind, reconstructive vision; no, intact, lofty and sailing, though his shape is changeable. Yesterday, when I tilted my face to the sky, I imaged not the full figure but only his cloudy head, a portrait, glancing back at me over his shoulder.

What weather is in Ahab's face?

For me, now, as it ever was in life, at least when he was looking at me alone and had no other person in view, his visage is mild--with a brightness in it, even be it a wild, white, blown-about brightness. Now, as I look at those billowed clouds, I see the Pequod. I half-raise my hand to bid good-bye, as it was that last day from the east-most edge of Nantucket Island, when, with a wave and then a steadfast, longing look, till the sails were only a white dot, and then a blankness of ocean--then--a glitter-- I wished his ship and him Godspeed.

Nantucket! The home where first I found my body, my feet not so much being pulled into this sandy beach as seeking downward, toes better than roots; then, my mind, built not to chart this blue swell of heaving ocean, but the night sky, where the stars themselves, I do believe, heave and float and spin in fiery passions of their own; Nantucket!--home, finally, of my soul, found on a platform eight-by-eight, the wooden widow's walk perched like a pulpit atop my house. These three gears of myself--body, mind, and soul--mesh here on this small island--Nantucket! Then, why, when I look into the mild, day sky, do the clouds scramble, like letters in the alphabet, and spell not Nantucket, but that first home, Kentucky? And those clouds that did bulge with the image of Ahab show me the map of that state, flat across the bottom and all billowed at the top? I did not consult Ahab about my decision to spend my pregnancy in a rough Kentucky cabin with my mother, instead of staying in the gracious home of a captain's wife on Nantucket. But I wrote him, of course, and sent the letter after him on the ship called the Dove, so he could imagine me aright. That time spent with my mother outdoors in the sweet summer and golden Kentucky autumn was augmented by our indoor companionship of sewing baby smocks and cooking and reading again those great works of literature my mother had brought with her to the wilderness, green-bound books I had read as a child or she had read to me.

Sometimes my mother and I stood and looked at our faces together in the oval mirror she had brought with her from the East. Along with her library chest of books, the mirror with its many-stepped molding distinguished our frontier cabin from others. Thus, elegantly framed, my mother and I made a double portrait of ourselves for memory, by looking in the mirror.

When in early December the labor began but tried in vain to progress, my mother went from our cabin, driving the old mare in the black buggy through a six-inch crust of snow, for the doctor. In my travail, I scarcely noticed her leaving. When my mother did not come home and did not come home, and the pains were near unbearable and the chill was creeping across the cabin floor and into my feet as I paced, I grasped the feather bed from my bunk and flung it atop her bed. In desperation, between spasms, I gathered all the gaudy quilts in the house, and then leaving the latchstring out so that I would not have to venture from my nest when she returned, I took to my childbirth bed. There, softness of two mattresses comforted me from beneath and warmth of myriad quilts, a cacophony of colors, warmed me from above, but still I worked my feet and legs and twisted my back.

Despite the heat of my labor, I could feel my nose turning to ice, long and sharp as a church steeple all glazed with frost. Parsnip! I thought of; frozen and funny--a vegetable on my face! I chortled and then prayed, wondering if prayer and laughter gurgled up, sometime, from the same spring. Let nose be parsnip, parsnip be steeple, steeple be nose-whatever that protuberance, it is frozen to the very cartilage. Warm it! Save me, gods and saints! Wild and crazed by pain, my thoughts leaped about in antic dance, circling one picture after another. Nose! Steeple! Parsnip! My desperate, laughing prayer from within that quilted hump below its parsnip was only that I should be delivered and nothing at all for the welfare of the rest of the world. I wanted to wait for my mother's return and I was afraid because I had little idea of how to catch the baby. So even as I prayed, I prayed against myself, that time would not pass nor take me any closer to the port of motherhood. I thought of Ahab, as if his ship were wallowing, going neither forward nor drifting back but immobile in a confused sea.

Copyright © 1999 Sena Jeter Naslund


Excerpted from Ahab's Wife by Sena Naslund Copyright © 2004 by Sena Naslund. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Brett Lott

Ahab's Wife is an epic tour de force, and deserves its rightful place next to Melville's classic. Ambitious, powerful, heartbreaking, and transcendent at once, Una Spenser's tale of a life fully lived gives us what we crave: a compelling story beautifully told. This is a great American novel.

Elizabeth Renker

Ahab's Wife joins a distinguished tradition of literary works inspired by Moby-Dick. Sena Jeter Naslund's homage to Melville is steeped in his work and at the same time explores a world that Melville left largely uncharted: the world of woman's experience in nineteenth-century America. She weaves a richly imagined tapestry of historical details, compelling characters, literary history, metaphysics, and a gripping plot. Ahab's Wife is a riveting novel.

Laurie Robertson-Lorant

Based on 19th century sources and peopled with a rich array of fictional, mythic and historical characters, this ambitious novel is a kind of technicolor dream quilt that turns Moby-Dick inside out and stitches it back together....Harrowing, poignant and comical by turns, Ahab's Wife is an audacious romp through mid-19th century New England history that is amply informed by both scholarship and imagination. A spanking good read.

Gail Godwin

Ahab's Wife is a worthy female companion to Moby-Dick and a tour de force in its own right.

Wally Lamb

Line up the literary prizes. Rendered in language both lush and luminous, Ahab's Wife is sustenance for the mind and soul.

Elizabeth Renker

Ahab's Wife joins a distinguished tradition of literary works inspired by Moby-Dick. Sena Jeter Naslund's homage to Melville is steeped in his work and at the same time explores a world that Melville left largely uncharted: the world of woman's experience in nineteenth-century America. She weaves a richly imagined tapestry of historical details, compelling characters, literary history, metaphysics, and a gripping plot. Ahab's Wife is a riveting novel."

Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
Captain Ahab was neither Una Spenser's first husband nor her last. He is the tether that ties this unforgettable heroine to Herman Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Sena Jeter Naslund has imbibed Melville's spirit, his lush, evocative language, and his passion for detail. But the story is wholly her own. Una's life is an adventure that spans many lifetimes (a quiet childhood in Kentucky with an overzealous religious father, serene years spent by a secluded island lighthouse, time spent disguised as a cabin boy on a whaling ship, years of fiery romances, encounters with legendary historical figures. With astounding courage, Una blazes a trail to her future.

In this epic tour de force Sena Jeter Naslund traces the story of Ahab's wife (the deeper story, which resides in the realm of the heart. It is about the search for self and for connection, about opportunities seized and squandered, about love and obsession. Although sprung from one of the greatest American tragedies, Una Spenser is no tragic hero. She emerges from her spiritual journey resplendent, triumphant. Told with poetic sensibility and devastating insight, Ahab's Wife is a tale for all times, a great American novel.

Topics for Discussion

  1. Ahab's Wife takes place in the early nineteenth century. In what ways is Una's story a product of the times in which she lives? In what ways are her experiences timeless?
  2. Early on in Una's life, her mother instructs her, "Accept the world, Una. It is what it is" (p. 29). Does she?
  3. In many ways, Ahab's Wife is a spiritual journey. What are the forces that guide Una? What is her notion of her placein the universe and how does it evolve over the course of her lifetime?
  4. Una writes, "Let me assure you and tell you that I know you, even something of your pain and joy, for you are much like me. The contract of writing and reading requires that we know each other. Did you know that I try on your mask from time to time? I become a reader, too" (p. 148). Several times throughout this book, Una addresses the reader directly. What is the effect of this interchange? How do you participate and become a character in this novel?
  5. Discuss Una's relationship to the sea.
  6. At the most painful time in her life, when she has lost her child and her mother, Una befriends Susan. Why is this relationship so important to Una? What is it that Susan teaches her? Compare and contrast their friendship to Una's friendship with Margaret Fuller.
  7. How do you react to Una's cannibalism? Was she justified in doing what she does to survive? Is Giles more culpable because he himself makes the decision and executes the other shipmates? Or is he the most courageous of all because he takes it on himself to make a terrible decision and save those he loved?
  8. Throughout Ahab's Wife, Una makes reference to the works of great writers such as William Shakespeare, John Keats, and Homer. What is the effect of drawing on all these other books? How does it enhance, deepen, and expand Ahab's Wife?
  9. How does Una reconcile "the inevitable animal within" (p. 256) with her spiritual aspirations?
  10. Why do you think that three out of Una's four loves (Giles, Kit, and Ahab (go mad? Is this merely coincidence?
  11. Throughout her life, Una explores the art of sewing. Although Maria Mitchell considers sewing to be an act and a skill that confines rather than liberates women, at one point Una supports herself with a needle and thread. Discuss the numerous ways in which images of mending, binding, and sewing inform the telling of this novel.
  12. When Una is looking for icebergs on Ahab's ship, she returns his trust "with silence on the subject of a white whale and all his massive innocence" (p. 280). Has she betrayed Ahab? Why does she see the whale as innocent? After Ahab loses his leg and then his life, do you think she continues to see Moby-Dick as innocent?
  13. "Beware the treachery of words, Mrs. Sparrow. They mean one thing to one person and the opposite to another" (p. 297), Ahab tells Una. Why do you think Una finally finds her vocation to be working with words?
  14. "Wondering what Margaret Fuller would say to such a distinction between spiritual and moral matters, I asked the judge if he thought there was a difference" (p. 383). Do you think there is a difference?
  15. Una's narrative plunges back in time, leaps ahead, and loops over itself again. Different sections are told through other characters' perspectives and through their letters. How does the narrative structure itself enact some of Una's beliefs about the world?
  16. The alternate title of this book is The Star-Gazer. Why do you think Ms. Naslund chose to have an alternate title at all? What meanings does it hold?

About the Author: Founding editor of The Louisville Review, Sena Jeter Naslund has received NEA and other writer's grants and is Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville. She directs the new low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing at Spalding University, Louisville.

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Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 122 reviews.
CathyB More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this novel. At times, I found certain scenes/chapters to be a bit tedious; however, for the most part, it was quite enjoyable. Ms. Naslund was able to create a memorable character and story that can stand on their own. Moby Dick, what is that? Well, there did need to be the slightest mention of a wife in the original classic in order for this novel to be believable. The idea was original and the plot held true to the events of Moby Dick. I found it satisfying to hear about the events from a woman's perspective. Any lengthy discription of whaling would have put me to sleep instantly. This is a beautifully written novel and would be perfect for a book club discussion. I recommend this book for those who like historical fiction (whether or not they have read Moby Dick).
JKrickettt More than 1 year ago
I recently decided to read the classics of old and having never read Moby Dick, I thought that I would perhaps try Ahab's Wife as a way of merging classic with modernism. The chapters are too tedius as naslund waste time on redundant wording. Each chapter seems to be as plain as the next. There is no excitement and the book has made me feeling one with the whales...diving deeper only to eascape it. However, I don't like to start something and not finish but this book is a slow read for me. It has potential but unforunately Naslund has cast doubts on me to ever read Moby Dick as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved Moby Dick when I read it a long time ago, but I remember that Ahab came across as a very angry and very troubled man. This author gives another picture of Ahab through the eyes of his wife and family and paints an engrossing picture of the wife's life before and after Ahab. It reads like 19th century literature which I appreciate and can't find much anymore. I particularly liked the descriptions of the lighthouse island, the coast and the sea.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up after reading the reviews posted here. I found this book TEDIOUS!!! It was too long and very boring. Life is to short to read bad books. Don't bother with this one.
dollynotlolly More than 1 year ago
This was one of those books whose characters still live in my mind, a good month after I finished the book. The story is highly creative, is peppered with surprises, and uses a great setting. I highly recommend this book to women who like brave heroines, don't like predictability and don't mind a little quirkiness. I found it charming.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Made me want to go back a read Moby Dick again. A whole new take on Ahab.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was almost a very good book. Concept of revealing the female side of the whaling community life is great, and as a historian I see the familiarity with serious professional research (on women's lives, commonness of male bisexuality) that underlies the fiction. Plot is great, but the 'poetic' language is too heavy-handed. And overall, I was never allowed to forget that this was a commentary on Melville - the story doesn't quite take off on its own.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book is too dry, told in the first person but without passion
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A powerful story and beautifully written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very long story, but oh so well written. Highly recommend!
numba4 More than 1 year ago
a story you'll never forget!
Osbaldistone on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Finally, Ahab's back story gets told. As incredible as 'Moby Dick' is, Ahab has remained a two-dimensional enigma for 160 years. Sena Naslund sets out to bring to life Ahab's wife, Una, whom Melville alluded to in his classic novel, and in doing so, gives us a more human, more complete Ahab. Though some of the metaphors are a bit heavy handed (e.g. the lighthouse tower), the quality and tone of her prose, the thoroughly developed historic setting, and the compelling characters she creates make this a must read for anyone who loves Melville's work. "Ahab's Wife" would stand alone as a fine novel even for those who are unfamiliar with "Moby Dick".Knowing Ahab's fate only adds to the compelling story of Una's life. However, once Una becomes aware of Ahab's fate, Naslund seems to take way to long to close out the various threads of the story. A minor complaint, really, fo rwhat is a wonderful work.Os.
dlrichar on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ahab's wife, Una, has her opinion and it's very true. Her mindset is that she is always--thank goodness!--right and a better person than anyone who disagrees with her. That mindset doesn't change throughout the book. She feels bad about being a cannibal, but hey, she's one with the stars. And she's still better than anyone who doesn't think exactly the same way she thinks. Her mind, she feels, is a wonderful thing. Naslund's weaving of historical characters, such as Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, and Maria and William Mitchell, into the plot is interesting, but we don't really feel anything for them. They are included to spout more ideas that Una can agree or disagree with. This is a very long book to slog through for a character who doesn't engage our affections.
WintersRose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ahab's wife, Una, has her opinion and it's very true. Her mindset is that she is always--thank goodness!--right and a better person than anyone who disagrees with her. That mindset doesn't change throughout the book. She feels bad about being a cannibal, but hey, she's one with the stars. And she's still better than anyone who doesn't think exactly the same way she thinks. Her mind, she feels, is a wonderful thing. Naslund's weaving of historical characters, such as Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, and Maria and William Mitchell, into the plot is interesting, but we don't really feel anything for them. They are included to spout more ideas that Una can agree or disagree with.This is a very long book to slog through for a character who doesn't engage our affections.
mudslideslim on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When we read Moby Dick, we assumed that we knew Ahab, but we really didn't have a clue, the man behind the myth was so much more. In this story, the real man emerges and behind every signifigant man is of course, the woman. I took a leap on this one and was rewarded with awe.
julie10reads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Was it worth slogging through 666 pages (is the White Whale the Beast?) of "Una's" adventures to read this:"Alone on my platform, I knew myself to be in motion, though I stood still. My motion was rooted in the earth and its journey. Not just my house, but the world itself was my ship traveling airy waters which rarefied beyond air into sheer blackness. And beyond and all about me in deep black nothingness were sources of light, they, too, moving. What a rushing, what a rushing we all made.....And none left behind, nor could they be. We are embraced even before we can embrace."?I don't know....The book features everything from cannibalism to gay marriage to telescopically discovered comets to slavery and women's rights. Naslund writes thoughtfully and deeply; but I wonder if she left out ANY of her research in telling Una's story!
astridnr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I can honestly say that this is one of the best books I have ever read. I have not been able to start reading another book since finishing Ahab's Wife, because of it's profound effect on me. This epic novel was a gift to me on my second visit to Nantucket. Knowing the places the author describes so well made the experience of reading richer on a sensory level than if I had never been to Nantucket before. Yet, I know that visiting the island need not be a prerequisite for appreciating this book. I found Ahab's Wife at times heart-warming, then heart-wrenching, and even heart-breaking with our heroine, Una becoming the champion of my heart. I was delighted at many points throughout the book to look ahead and see that the book's end was nowhere in sight. What a pleasure to find an author with the patience to weave a complex and stunning tale that allows us to ponder the issues that motivate us to live and die! SImply wonderful.
311H on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Complex, independent female character, beautiful descriptive, lyrical writing
kakadoo202 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
as an European who is not as familiar with the whole Moby Dick-story and whose English is ok, but still my second language it is hard to read and I had to give up. Maybe I will start with MD before I pick up this again.
panchocarmano on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have ever read
trinityM82 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Follows the life of Una as she travels from the countryside of Kentucky to the coast, through the ocean as a cabin boy, a cannibal, and as Ahab's wife. She meets the major figures of that time period, like Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglas. It's interesting and entertaining, if her views are a little anachronistically progressive for that time. The connection with Ahab is not the point, though it does make it interesting. The fact that she ends up with Ishmael is a little too pat, but it's more about the fact that she is independent and has done what she wants her entire life in a time when men dominated women.
booksandbosox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a tough one for me to judge. I really wanted to like this one, coming from such a high recommendation from Heidi, but, for me, it fell short. It is an epic tale of Una Spenser, wife of Captain Ahab (of "Moby Dick" fame), and her life before and after her marriage to Ahab. Unfortunately, I felt every single one of those pages. It was tedious at times. This book was not lacking for plot - Una leads a very full and interesting life - but it felt like more of a character study. There is no doubt that Naslund can write - her prose is beautifully constructed and never fails her. I just don't think this was the story for me. I might try to read something else by her to see if it strikes me any better. One additional note - I found the run-ins with famous people a little too gimmicky.
turtlesleap on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Asked during the first 400 pages of this book how I liked it, I would have responded that it was one of the best I had read in years. Sadly, the work did not end as strongly as it began and, as the author spun out the conclusion for rather too long a time, I found myself growing increasingly critical. On the positive side, Naslund's writing is almost hypnotic in its ability to conjure a place, a mood, an environment. As one reads about the heroine's early years of life on a lighthouse island, one imagines it to be the most desirable of places to live. The author also does a good job of fleshing out an enigmatic literary figure--Ahab--and providing readers who also enjoyed Melville's "Moby Dick" with an interesting expansion of the character's life. On the negative side, the situations become increasingly "pat" as the work wears on and the characters become less, rather than more, believable. Naslund also falls into the trap of populating her story with an unlikely number of well-known historical figures, all of whom seem, through equally unlikely chance, to come into contact with her main character. Still, I would recommend this one, especially for those who have read and enjoyed "Moby Dick."
geejaye on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The beginning of this book was very readable - I quite enjoyed the story of a girl growing up with her aunt, uncle and cousin in a lighthouse. However, as soon as the author got into the story of Ahab's wife, everything fell apart. Anytime there was a chance for a plot where the protagonists could have an actual story, the writer came in with her magic eraser and fixed anything that could be any soft of conflict. I gave this a 2 for the first 1/3 of the book.
Gwendydd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Really beautifully written--one of those books where you reread sentences just because they're a delight to read. Some wonderful stuff about friendship and family ties and simple domestic joys. The plot got a little meandering and directionless, and the last half was much less engaging than the first half. Lots of delightful characters, well-developed.