Believing in Una

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Third Web Paper
On Serendip

Believing in Una

Heather Davis

Naslund's novel, "Ahab's Wife" was immensely more satisfying and realistic than Melville's "Moby Dick." I hope to explain why Naslund did not merely present a "feminine" version of Moby Dick, but presented similarly universal themes within more realistic and meaningful contexts. By becoming intimate with the reader, she expects more: she expects us to understand the world from a different perspective.

Melville tries to be funny by making things ridiculous. Naslund makes reality funny. From what I gathered of other's opinions of Moby Dick, the hilarity came from the absurdity. In my mind, however, when something seems impossible the story seems to change to the realm of cartoon or science fiction. It seems not only not funny, but weird and irrelevant. I was glad, after feeling like I must not have any sense of humor, to laugh out loud to Ahab's Wife. "'And some people believe' Kit put in, 'that if you eat cucumbers, your nose will grow long. Or other parts.' 'What parts?' Frannie asked. 'Your feet,' Aunt said"(p93). Although just as silly, this is funny because it speaks to an awkward situation similar to one everyone has been in, probably on all sides. It is not the absurdity of the myth of the cucumber that I laugh at, but rather the Aunt's reaction to his reference.

Naslund speaks to me, however, not because of realistic humor, but because of her contextual insight. Melville makes profound but irrelevant commentary on the world, while Naslund shows us her journey to different understandings of the world. Melville, to use one of many examples of his philosophical meanderings, tells us that, "there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast." This statement could be very insightful, except that he is talking not about understandings of the world or identity formation, but rather feeling physical warmth:
"We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bedclothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast." 52
This leaves me impressed that he was able to connect his wise perceptions of the world to an only slightly relevant story, and makes me want to steal the quote and apply it out of its context. It does not, however, make me want to keep reading. I am interested in the narrator's thought process and experiences which inspired such an assertion, which was clearly not conveyed by a tale of snuggling with a stranger.

Naslund's novel begins, on the contrary, with the narrator's vivid description of events that will undoubtedly impact her life. Then we get the satisfaction of getting to know her and her thought processes intimately, and come to understand more fully a way of looking at the world than by hearing a beautiful quote. She may, as some criticize, "hold our hand," but I would argue that she does so in an intimate rather than patronizing way. Before we can really take to heart any philosophical world views, we "walk a mile in her moccasins." We learn from Una that things are what they are "merely by contrast." She learns and comes to know more about the people in her life when she compares them. She even acknowledges that she knows herself better through contrast to another: "I rather regretted that I did not myself have a sister who was a friend and with whom I could compare myself, the better to understand both my singularity and our commonality. But I had Frannie" (32). She is not telling us how to feel, but embodying otherwise empty philosophical ramblings by telling her story.

Reality, like the representation of Una's life, is intimate and defined largely by experience and relationship, which bring emotions and change. What is real? Thoughts are meaningless without context. Our understandings of our world are embedded in our intimate relationship with it. Melville tells us a story that most people especially nowadays will not relate to, with cleverly integrated questions and postulations about reality that the reader may or may not relate to. But unless we can relate to his words out of context, we will not gain much from Moby Dick, certainly not a chance to "walk in another (wo)man's moccasins." Considering Ahab's Wife was so blatantly born out of response to Moby Dick and does often allude to it in the novel, it does a remarkable job, unlike Moby Dick, of "be[ing] enjoyable independently of its source"(back cover). Naslund shows us that connections can be made without excluding the unfamiliar. She makes intense connections to Moby Dick without relying on them to convey meaning.

Naslund, in response and in contrast to Melville, offers a book that reveals a perspective embedded as all perspectives are, in her reality, her experiences. She is intimate with the reader in order to truly offer a new perspective which the reader can try on. Unlike Melville, she does not rely on the reader to make meaning out of statements which, because they are given out of context, can only be interpreted from an unchanged singular perspective. She is, to quote Elizabeth (1/28), allowing us to
"believe in stories, wherever they are from, ...listen to them, learn from them, and make use of them when ...useful. Obtaing a full and deep knowledge of the story and it's significance involves entering the world of the story without reservation- trying as best as one can to understand the story as if one had written the story herself. This is believing a story. Only when one fully believes a story can one propel oneself forward beyond that story and onto new stories ... Every story deserves to be believed in."

The evolution of the idea of "believing" in stories, originating with Paul and revised by Elizabeth, seems to reflect the evolution of the approach taken by Melville and Naslund.
Naslund allows us to believe in a story, and a narrator's perspective. She is not "telling us what to think" but rather inviting us to spend time in another woman's moccasins, with an expectation that we will take from it what is useful and use it, like she did, to tell our own story.

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