De-Mystifying Death

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

De-Mystifying Death

Perrin Braun

Nineteen years of my life has passed. By age nineteen, Una Spencer of Ahab's Wife had experienced numerous cycles of contentment and isolation, safety and loss. I cannot pretend to say that I have lived even as marginally an emotionally tumultuous life as Una's, but like most people, I can say something of loss and sacrifice. One of the last things my grandmother said on the hospital bed in which she died was to ask my mother whether I had been accepted to my first-choice college. I was not with my grandmother when she died, but the fact that she had asked about something so inconsequential and irrelevant about my life reveals the way viewed her own life and death: without idealization, regret, or fear. She instead left my family with a legacy of love, selflessness, and beauty.
"Don't ask when you will die. Ask how you can live more fully...Am I dying? No. I am living until I can't live anymore" (Caputo). Stated by a writer with terminal cancer, this quotation encompasses how I want to live my life, which is why I have a difficult time understanding the characters of Moby Dick and Ahab's Wife, particularly those of the former. Many of the crew on damned Pequod knew that their ship was destined for death, yet they did not protest their lot, but rather accepted their inevitable fate with an emotionless resignation as though they had died even before they stepped foot on the ship. They died as if to avoid the pain of living; a passive suicide. The crew of the Sussex, however, was less overt in their willingness to end their lives because they had led a comparatively gratifying existence. Giles and Kit had their companionship to savor on quiet nights, while Captain Fry had Chester to love. These characters were not emotionally-devoid, just weak of spirit—too dependant on ephemeral quiet
waters to keep them safe.
Death seems to be a recurrent presence in both novels. Almost all of the characters of Moby Dick perish by the end of the novel, while many of the people whom Una loves are abruptly taken from her life. However, there is a discrepancy in the manner in which the various characters meet their end. Both captains are suicidal, but there is a much larger element of sadness in Captain Fry's death. He sacrifices himself for a tangible cause, to spare the life of his son, whereas Ahab dies while pursuing his own personal vendetta against Moby Dick. The selfishness of Ahab's death is evident, but Fry's suicide also contained a component of self-interest. He killed himself so that others would eat his carcass instead of that of his son, but in doing so, he neglected to give Chester the freedom of choice as to whether he would have lived or died. The only genuinely tragic casualties in the novels are therefore those of the two children, Pip and Chester. Upon learning of his death, Chester responds, that "it is as good a fate as any." As opposed to his father's decision to kill himself, Chester is chosen to die, revealing his acceptance of death, rather than yearning for it. Pip is given no such choice, but his death provides an escape for an addled mind. Both died young, having not enough life experience to realize what they were sacrificing by accepting death.
It is life, not death, which seems to be so frightening for the characters in these novels. There is an essential loneliness that is common to both Ahab and Una, for they each carry within themselves a burden which they feel that they cannot share. There is a certain safety in evasiveness because honesty often precludes emotional vulnerability, but Una proved herself strong enough to be able to speak about her experiences on the Sussex. Thus, she recovered because talking proved to be an emotional catharsis—divulging her experiences and moving on with her life. Ahab, however, was not capable of talking. In Ahab's Wife, he seems to take pride
in a strong masculine identity, which might have rendered him incapable of divulging his thoughts. Ahab stands alone as if he was punishing himself; he is a masochist in every sense of the word, pursuing his enemy until he was ultimately consumed by his hatred. He lacked the capability to forgive what had been done to him, clinging to the hatred which kept him alive. For years, Ahab and Una had been punishing themselves for an act that was beyond their control and they seemed to almost relish in their tragedy. A less powerful emotion that Ahab's passionate hatred, regret was Una's maxim for life for several years after the Sussex was stove—she regretted that she partaken in eating human flesh and had thus lived while others had perished—but she was able to transcend that regret because she found love in unexpected places.
Almost each individual has their own White Whale that bears the brunt of their own personal pain, be it Moby Dick, a parent, or G-d. It takes a very unique person to be able to create something beautiful out of loss, which Una was able to accomplish by bringing new lives into the world. I think our infancy consists of a tremendous blind spot which we chose to fill with experiences that reflect our individual life outlook. Ahab instead chose to fill his blind spot with his all-consuming hatred which ultimately led to his death. I never fully understood exactly why Ahab chose to dwell on his pain instead the good things in life that he possessed, like his wife in child on whom he should have focused his energy. With such a wasted life, death would probably be a most welcome friend, but I can only hope that when I look back on my life when I am older, I will face my death like my grandmother did—ending her life with peace and without regret.
Caputo, Kim Zorn. "Foreword." Blind Spot April 2004.

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