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Notes Towards Day 24: Re-writing Ahab's Wife

Notes towards Day 24: Re-writing Ahab's Wife

I. relevant tales (about choice?) from your travels?
report from my teacher ed mtg. w/ certification candidates
& their on-site supervisors:
certitude of h.s. boys, self-doubt of girls....
"does this count?"...
a paradigm shift here?

II. coursekeeping
last round of individual conferences this/next week:
come ready to do some reflective work with me/
overview of the whole semester's writing

for Thurs: read
Chs. 38-54 (pp. 209-253) of Ahab's Wife
post your initial reactions PLUS thoughts re: novel as finale
also come to class ready to
do end-of-term evals (what could we do better next year?)
and ready to identify your "performance" group

for Fri @ 5: re-write
your 6 pp. collaborative paper
(one hard copy, including first draft
AND my notes from last week
AND one electronic copy)

for week after:
Tuesday's classtime: group conferences
Thursday: (just our) final performances

III. start today in 6 groups for writing workshops:

malli & leigh: abortion and medical termination of pregnancy
step & illana: stem cell research & designer babies

sara & emily:
where should decision-making on large social issues occur?
holly & aybala: is good parenting relative?

michelle & lydia: helping the less advantaged
anna, courtney, isa: a modest proposal that only the fittest survive

IV. Turning to Ahab's Wife (for today: Chapters 29-37)
initial reactions?
What does Una "taste" like to you?
How does her mind work?

Does she speak to you?
What is her tone of voice?
What is the tonality of your response to her query?

(But do you know me? Una? You have shipped long with me in the boat that is this book. 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....I try on your mask from time to time...become a reader, too, reading over what I have just written....I am also your comrade. Feel me now, standing beside you, just behind your shoulder?) (148)

Last week, our various backstories revealed
a lot about Una's readers....

What's the plot?

Her backstory actually begins w/ Moby-Dick,
which in 700 pp. mentions Ahab's wife twice--and briefly:

"Captain Ahab...has a wife - not three voyages wedded - a sweet, resigned that sweet girl that old man has a child" (Peleg to Ishmael, Ch. 16, p. 79)

"whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow - wife? wife? - rather a widow with her husband alive! Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her..." (Ahab to Starbuck, Ch. 132, p. 405)

There is a common phenomenon in the evolution of literary texts, in which minor characters from old texts are brought to center stage in new ones.

For example:

Shakespeare, Hamlet
Tom Stoppard, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899)
Chinua Achebe, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1847),
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Three Women's Texts
and a Critique of Imperialism" (1988)

The Bible
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: If then to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities...then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality...thou great democratic God!....Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings,ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God! (Ch. 26, pp. 103-104).
Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab's Wife...

from The Story of Evolution/The Evolution of Stories:
Moby-Dick/Ahab's Wife
Herculine Barbin/
Virginia Woolf's Orlando/Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex
E.M. Forster's Howard's End/Zadie Smith's On Beauty
Song of Myself and....??

Other examples?
Why revise? What might motivate it?
What might happen in a revision?

"One other detail... I feel compelled to mention--being on the subject of innocent blood--because it is never a part of men's narratives, they having little reason to think of it. How did I manage my monthlies...?" (182)

At the very beginning of Naslund's novel, Ahab's wife declares herself something other than what Melville knew/imagined:

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....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...(Ch. 1, p. 1)

  • Una revises (rejects?) the novel's title,
    the relationship which identifies her.
    And YET, she begins by...
  • looking @ HIM--rather than asking us to look (as Ishmael does--
    "Call me Ishmael") @ him/herSELF (per Carol Gilligan, The Birth of Pleasure and elsewhere: does this signal the way women value relationships, vs. the autonomy-seeking of men?)
Una is a great character to add to our semester's list of those who think we cannot consciously control the direction of our lives (cf. Belkin, "The Odds of That"; Haidt, "The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail"). She often meditates on the question of choice:

....many a life journey starts out in the opposite direction to its destiny(23)

I wondered for the first time where I myself would go next, and, if I went there, if that path might branch as elm trees do and as rivers do and go elsewhere. Would I ever come back to the place where I started? What portion of my lot would be choice and what part accident? ....

"Una," he said directly to me, "do you hold that our lives are determined for us or that we are free to chooose?..."I think we are free," I said

What a strange moment...when possibility changes to certainty. I realized that my life itself was then all a matter of possibility....all seemed free and open to me...yet suppose one...was not chosen back? A deep shame....To be unworthy! Not to be chosen! Perhaps one should not hope or want to plan at all....I could not return to a moment...when two ideas were equally possible (83-84).

Giles wished me to learn...that choice and not inevitability were the lot of both woman and man (124).

The first section we read (Chs. 25-28, pp. 142-167) begins w/ Una's decision to change the conventional script of a woman's life. Her mother has just had a miscarriage, and she takes to sea:

I feared hearing more stories, uniquely female, uniquely painful. I wanted shed of such stories.

I wanted my own life. And I wanted it to be different

The novel is (among other things) about our ability to
make the world as we choose:

"People are always composed of a combination of the real and the abstract....We make each other up" (92).

Wordsworth said that nature was half created, half perceived
....surely it was a signal or a sign, but my brain refused to interpret it (203)....there was no logic in what I beheld (208).

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

Then Chester added, "I shouldn't have to tell you what to do." He sighed (167).

I had chosen and would choose my own life (188)....why not do exactly as I pleased? (204)

V. Add'l notes from today's section (Chs. 29-37, pp. 168-209):
On the relation between living, writing and reading:
"There's a romance, ain't it?"...."I think it might be a quite different thing than the way she writes about it...the lack of feeling."

"It was the reading of sea books that made me want to run away to sea..."

I thought I would tell him of some of the landscape of Kentucky...I seemed to owe him something true and real for all the pictures he had made to dance before my eyes (172-174).

On guilt and innocence:
I was reluctant to target a whale for butchering. Yet...I did but do my duty. I suppose many a soldier tells himself the same, and thus assuages guilt (182-183).

"This is the devil's ship," he said....they've made a man of you, and they've tried to make a woman of me...." I said, "it was only the blood of an animal." "I walked in it. Didn't you?"

On the inconsistent self:
"I have ever feared the weathervane in me. Sometimes I point toward Independence, isolation. Sometimes...I need and want my friends, my family, with a force like a gale...I have much of loyalty in me, but I am changeable (190).

On the ability to shape our own destinies:
[Chester] looked like a little prince, coddled but needing a promise beyond human control..."it's only luck"..."Not entirely. Your alertness, your intelligence, what you know about...these can save you over and over"...."You can earn being safe?"..."Sometimes" (193-194).

Can we?