The Patience of a Female Author: A Woman's Calling

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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The Patience of a Female Author: A Woman's Calling

Erin Daly

_In Sena Jeter Naslund's novel Ahab's Wife, there is repetitive reference to "the chaos of the waves (40);" Naslund uses these images of turbulent water in contrast to the precise and patterned nature of stitched quilts. She equates the process of "writing a book" to the "posture of sewing (70)." She asserts "when one stitches, the mind travels...And books, like quilts, are made one word at a time, one stitch at a time (70)." The consequences of making this type of connection within a literary narrative authored by a woman writer are penetrative to the fundamental assumptions about the creation of literature. I put forth, then, the theory that Naslund knowingly mocks the concept that writing, particularly writing to make literature, is primarily a male tradition, the prevailing thought during Una's existence as a fictional character.
_Naslund derives Una from Moby-Dick, takes a peripheral character in a major novel about a man's "war upon the deep (18)," a novel she knows has been marked a classic and has endured beyond its time period, and compels the shadow-figure of the male's narrative into the prominent voice of a female's narrative. What is produced by the male becomes a reproduction by the female. In effect, tradition is usurped, inversed, and woman dominates the text, a text birthed by Melville, a hugely lauded male author. Therefore, man author exchanges positions with woman, becomes impregnated by a story, tells the story, brings the story into existence. The woman author takes the story and retells it, reclaiming it as her own, brings a new story into existence. She overshadows the object of fiction previously created and through intertextuality connects herself to the expanse of literature. She blatantly utilizes the man's text to her own literary advantages, and discovers an act of erecting a memorial for women through "one word at a time."
_The "stitching" of "one word at a time" in direct opposition to the journey of man's mind which "travels...with ax and oxen through the wilderness (70)" explicitly undermines Ahab's journey, his "war upon the deep," whether or not Una is aware of the disruptive quality of her stream of consciousness. Una suggests that "writing a book...which men often do, but women rarely (70)" is actually a task that women are well-suited for, since the domestic instructs them in "stitching" and "sewing," similar to the process of writing, a process that requires patience and the ability to sit still and travel in the mind. She is expressing disillusionment at the idea that simply because men pick up an ax and go into the wilderness, their travels are more memorable, more imperative, more important. She implores "our traveling counted," despite the fact that she cannot be called to sea in the glorious manner that Ahab is called to kill the whale. She says "our" to group women together, to grab their attention to the passage, to make them aware, to educate them.
_"Our" narrative "counted," regardless of the absence of a whale that gnaws at our leg and forces us into "war upon the deep." Ahab is out on the sea having his adventure, while Una is left behind to contemplate and to write. Ahab was not the "I" in Moby-Dick; he was explored in another's narrative, told as a story. Una is the "I" in Ahab's Wife; she explores herself, tells her own story. Ahab was caught up in his own obsessive adventures in the "wilderness," too impatient and restless to craft, structure, frame, stitch his tale. Una, abandoned, unable to be called to an obsessive whale adventures, has the patience, the instruction, to stitch "one word at a time" her narrative, and she does, letting her mind wander, letting her mind travel.
_Una registers that "perhaps the mind as the mouth is a glistening, pink cave," and she refers to the mind as a "wet, pink cave (19)." It is dark, water seeping in through the opening, threatening, foreboding, even disruptive. The "chaos of the waves" can infect the mind, pull at the careful stitching of the words struggling to become a story, and can swallow the pattern meant to establish the structure of a narrative. Ahab, in this sense, infects Una's mind, distracts her, as do other men, Kit and Giles.
_Una confesses to an anxiety over concentration, a threat to the patience, because men can move into the opening of the "wet, pink cave" and capture the attention, rendering her speechless, wordless, without language. Perhaps this is an allusion to the power men have over women; men may have the penetrative authority to create stories in Una's time, and Una may be able to usurp the tradition, but she can also be foiled because of her physical desires, the desires the mind sometimes cannot prevent. The "wet" that is inside the "cave" is the stimulation; stimulation can be caused by effective making of meaning, or it can be clouded by the "chaos of the waves," the stirring of emotions brought on by reflection of the self in company with the productive male.

Naslund, Sena Jeter. Ahab's Wife. HarperCollins Publishers. New York, NY. 1999.

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