Una's Religious Quest

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

Una's Religious Quest

Meg Folcarelli

Herman Melville's Moby Dick is a novel filled with references to the Bible and God. In writing Ahab's Wife, Sena Naslund could not ignore Melville's biblical allusions. Naslund's novel is a reaction to Moby Dick, and therefore Una does not accept Melville's omnipresent religion. She cannot bring herself to belief in the basic tenants of Christianity, and is constantly searching for a new community, or philosophy that will embrace her ideals. Una is on a journey and her quest is to find a religion that suits her life and her experiences.

Brought up in Kentucky by a fanatical father who is determined to force her to believe in his religion, Una has is repulsed by his beliefs. From a very young age Una refuses to give into him and accept his doctrines, no matter what the cost is to her. Early on in the novel the reader is exposed to Una's thoughts on religion, "Whether there was God or not, I admitted I did not know, but it was Jesus as God, or the Son of God, that seemed to me highly unlikely" (20). She loves the idea of spirituality and God, and wants to have her own religion, but she cannot find one that is based in humanity. In looking back to the early days of her quest Una readily accepts ordinary objects as G says, "The lighthouse itself became my church, my single tall tree trunk, my faith in stone and earth, and eventually, my conduit to the sky" (23).

As her life goes on, Una tries to find religion through philosophy, then through different churches, and groups. A very intellectual woman, Una discusses her theories, and thoughts with many people that she encounters, first her aunt and uncle, then Kit and Giles, and eventually Ahab. When she goes to Nantucket, Una attends a Unitarian church. She prefers that church to her rigid Christian upbringing because, "I had thought there to be only one Christian Way, straight, narrow, exclusive. And here was a road that went off at right angles, that could bend and double back, that was open to whatever sheep might wander into it" (338). She appreciates the unconventional because she is not a typical person, or leading a normal life. Margaret Fuller later introduces Una to Transcendentalism, which is more like a philosophy than a religion, but that Una finds even better than Unitarianism.

As the novel continues, and Una endures more tragedy and experiences more, her search changes. At first she views the lighthouse as God in the microcosm of her island. She and Frannie idolize the lighthouse and worship it, "I allowed Frannie to kiss the lichen-crusted stone with her lips, as though he were an holy icon, the mighty thighbone of God, and I stood beside her and sang a hymn, such as they sang in my father's church, God of Wisdom, God of Power, changing the words to suit me: Sign of Safety, Sign of Silence, Sing we to Thy Speaking of the Light, and thanked him many times for his palpable being" (44). Here Una can relate the lighthouse to God because it is tangible, and earthly. She does not have to picture some abstract being, or create dogmas to accompany it, the lighthouse is merely a great object that represents a higher power. Una then begins to see God elsewhere. When she goes to Boston with her family, she sees religious icons in a shop, "I imaged and prayed to them all-Buddha, Bastet, Shiva, the wooden mask"(64). Later on she sees God in the moon, and the sky and the stars. Una is willing to accept many different representations of God, so long manifested through a human. Having seen the horrors that humans commit, and seeing so much death and destruction, Una cannot worship God as a man.

Ahab, Una's second husband, shares many of the same religious feelings as Una. Ahab is also on a quest to find the right religion. He is also torn by what he believes. Though he was brought up as a Quaker, Una sees him at the Unitarian church. When she questions him, he says, "It may well be that in the heart of man there is a goodness that is divine, that we are Jesus-kin. But that is only half... The other half is the Betrayer, the Liar, the Murderer, the Fornicator, the Cannibal, the Prince of Darkness. And I know, by thunder, that I have kinship there. It's that half of me that wants to be called brother" (343). Ahab is searching for a religion that will accept him and his flaws. Yet at the same time he does not want a religion that is unsure of its beliefs. He is searching for a concrete religion, "He wanted something ultimate and absolute. If there be reality beyond the appearance - be that reality ultimately good, or evil, or indifferent - then it must be so always" (18). Ahab and Una are similar in their quest for a religion, or community that will accept them and their flaws. They are in awe of God, but do not want to be damned by him. They find this mutual understanding and belief together, and in each other, and in a way they form their own religion in their union.

Though the novel is not yet finished, thus far Una has found a temporary relief for her religious quest in Ahab. They have similar musings about the raw, violent and darker side of humanity, and do not see a religion that caters to that. In admitting their shared beliefs together, and Una witnessing Ahab's tirades to God, they have formed their own church of two. Their house on Nantucket is their church, with their bed as the altar, and Ahab is the preacher, though Una has her share of sermons, and the cupola as the steeple, from which they can look out at the stars and the heavens, and be closer to God. They have no need of anything else, they understand each other and their beliefs, and therefore have filled their religious void.

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