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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Overview

Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel by Sena Jeter Naslund

"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.

"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."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: 9780688171872
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/22/1999
Pages: 688
Product dimensions: 6.78(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.84(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

Chapter One

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 feetnot 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

Ahab's Wife
Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel
. Copyright © by Sena Naslund. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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. 89 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!
Flourpro More than 1 year ago
There is a good story in there somewhere, but it's difficult to find in a book so littered with philosophical overindulgence. The author strikes me as someone who is very fond of the sound of her own voice & more than a little impressed with her own cleverness . A good editor could (maybe) have made this an enjoyable book by cutting out at least half of the unnecessary descriptions of places, feelings, metaphysical ponderings, etc that overwhelm the reader. There's a place for that type of writing, in small amounts,but there's no place for 800 pages of it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book after it was recommended by a coworker. I really wanted to like it. I'm a huge fan of historical fiction and as a native of Massachusetts I thought I'd appreciate the setting in old time Nantucket. Unfortunately, I didn't really start to enjoy this book until about page 300. The first half of the story dragged and was quite boring. However, I read quickly though the second half of the book and enjoyed the characters. I don't feel like I wasted my time reading this, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Melisan More than 1 year ago
I wanted to gallop through this book because the story was compelling, and slowly savor it because it held such gorgeous language. This was a lovely story and I will be looking up more by this author.
Dakotamouse More than 1 year ago
I have 100 pages left. This could have benefited from more aggressive editing. The constant liberal preaching is tedious. I like the history and the glimpse into the whaling industry but if this is the author's style I won't be trying anymore of her works.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love this book! Very well written - visualizations are outstanding. I felt like I was there with the characters. Def recommend!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel is so well written that it invites comparison to some of the greatest classics in American literature. It really is several novels woven seamlessly together as one. I enjoyed it immensely.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Too bad I bought the book before I realized how long it is. Never even started it. I want a book to entertain me, or enlighten me. Not own me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Didnt have enough trouble getting hit by lightning and bit by a white whale he has this second wife to contend with. Surprising that the third movie remake of moby dick brings in the wife as deeply religious who fears her husband will pay for his lost faith if he ever had any and lazaras prediction is made to her and not ishmael. in movie had several children a real soap opera everything but the kitchen sink buska
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love most books, but this is one of the worst books I have ever read! Don't waste your time - it never gets any better!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautiful prose, but this novel does leave you wondering. Why the fear of believing?? Why the easy transition from one love to the next?? Why the ease in letting others direct but saying the opposite? Why the obvious hero worship but no tolerance for those of different path??  Why the drum of social justice, but with ample means, no real meaningful effort??  Why no deep reflection on how your actions effect others?? This book was fascinating on many levels: lovely writing, a deeper understanding of how a liberal thinks, and a book to reinforce why others are conservative. I recommend this book for both. Unfortunately, I think all current published authors must include buzz words like social justice, evil religion,  No boundaries in relationships, and racial evil even when it really is not developed.         Another excellent book that just received an Indie Award Medalian is The Partisan by William Jarvis. Both books deserve A+++++ for making the reader think and reflect on deep concepts.