Adam and Eve, Ahab and Una

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Adam and Eve, Ahab and Una

Student Contributor

Throughout my reading of Moby Dick and Ahab's Wife, I was bothered by the fact that the most tempting way to situate the two novels in a relationship was to categorize them as "male" and "female." Moby Dick was, of course, the man's story and Ahab's Wife was its womanly counterpart. This comparison makes sense when you consider the gender of the authors, Melville and Naslund, the gender of their respective narrators, Ishmael and Una, and the experiences portrayed throughout the texts. Many readers argue, "There are no female characters in Moby Dick- how could it be anything but a man's story?" In that context, it is easy to position Ahab's Wife at the opposite end of the literary spectrum because the novel is told solely from a feminine perspective. Viewing the texts in this way indicates that our conceptions of gender have not changed much since the days of Adam and Eve. In that story the man, Adam, came first and provided the foundation for humankind. Eve was an afterthought, borne from a single rib. The rib that became Una can be found in Moby Dick- a single reference to Ahab's spouse back in Nantucket. Adam and Eve represent a clear division between male and female that established the gender binary we now impose on these two texts.

I find this dichotomy troubling and ultimately inadequate for several reasons. First of all, I don't agree with the spectrum concept that places maleness on one side and femaleness on the other, then locates Moby Dick and Ahab's Wife at these opposite poles. However, this formula exists in almost every field of study. The scientific term for the differences between males and females of a species is "sexual dimorphism." It implies two separate and opposing morphologies, or sets of characteristics, based on sex. This term reinforces the Biblical notion of Adam and Eve as counterparts of the same creation, and the literary interpretation that divides "male" and "female" texts. I don't feel comfortable viewing masculine and feminine as diametric variations of the human species that are isolated at opposing ends of the human spectrum.

The second objection I have to the Adam and Eve analogy to Ahab's Wife and Moby Dick is that it diminishes the female story by making it completely dependent on the male story. It's true that without Moby Dick, there would be no Ahab's Wife, but I am resistant to the generalizations that can be drawn from gendering this relationship between the texts. One novel may have evolved from the other, but there are many possible stories that could stand on the shoulders of Moby Dick- Queequeg's tale, for example. There should be a separation between the gender affiliations of the texts, if they exist, and their location in time and space. The gender binary as we are familiar with it cannot contain these works or explain their interaction.

The imperative readers feel to assign a sexual identity to a particular text parallels the experience of individuals who are forced to the margins of society because of their inability to conform to the rigid binary. Transvestites, transsexuals, and intersexuals are striking examples of groups that exist somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of male and female. In the case of transvestites, a person who possesses male genitalia will dress as a female, or vice versa. These people are biologically defined as one sex, yet they have a psychological identification with the opposite sex. Although they cross dress and express feminine mannerisms to varying degrees, men who are transvestites have no objection to their "ultimate insignia of maleness." (Garber, 2, 362) In other words, they will not undergo surgery to physically become female because they are still proud of their male genitalia. Biologically speaking, transvestites are at one end of the spectrum, but many of their personality traits are at the other.

Transsexuals are an example of a group that moves from one end of the spectrum to another in both the physical and mental sense. They feel such a strong identification with the opposite sex that they undergo gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy. However, they are still emulating a sex that they were not born with, which confuses the binary.

An interesting note on both transsexuals and transvestites is the orientation of their subjectivity. To them, genitalia are not an incidental characteristic of their anatomy, but an essential, in some cases the essential, factor in determining their identity. If it is possible to take hormones and alter dress and mannerisms to appear exactly like the opposite sex, why is the presence or absence of certain genitalia so important? Also, it was once presumed that gender roles were constructed and would align themselves with given genitalia due to social pressures. The binary is further confused if gender is as innate as biological sex and the two can, in fact, be incongruous.

Intersexuals present the most striking opposition to the gender binary. These individuals are born with two sets of sexual organs, thus they fall near the exact center of the spectrum. Although transvestitism and transsexuality are social taboos, intersexuality is virtually erased from the population altogether. Medical texts on the subject talk about the need to "classify and categorize" intersexual individuals by arbitrarily assigning them one gender. (Slaughenhoupt, 138) The surgery itself is invasive and often confusing for patients and their families, who have no say in the gender chosen, but often have questions about the validity of the doctor's decision after the patient reaches puberty. Intersexual individuals suffer the strongest social prohibition of their condition and, as a result, are forced to undergo the most drastic measures to place them in one category of the binary.

In light of this information, it is obvious that there are many variations on the rigid "male," "female" binary. Instances of transvestitism, transsexuality, and intersexuality are not as rare as traditional social wisdom would lead one to believe. Although stepping outside the norm remains a taboo, individuals are becoming increasingly active in expressing their opposition to social pressure to conform to one category. Their flexible perceptions of gender identity are useful to a discussion on Moby Dick and Ahab's Wife because once readers learn to look at the middle of the spectrum instead of limiting their view to just the opposite poles, they will come to see the male within the female and the female within the male.

Moby Dick, for example, may not contain any female characters, but there are strong undertones of homosexuality in several sections of the book that do not fit with a traditional definition of masculinity. And although Ahab's Wife is written with a female narrator, it provides a new perspective on the male characters from Moby Dick, Ahab and Ishmael. Una herself takes on a male role when she goes to sea aboard the Sussex. She is hardly the archetypal image of femininity. There is something to be said for a gendered reading of these two novels, and comparing them based on the relationship between male and female can add layers of meaning to the text. However, there are limitations to this kind of analysis. By forcing a novel to conform to a male or a female role, readers are in danger of over-simplifying and ignoring ideas simply because they are incongruous with one set of norms.

As for the image of a time line with Moby Dick, the Adam-like male story, at the base and Ahab's Wife, Eve, ascending from Melville's text in a linear fashion- I would suggest an alternate visual representation of the relationship. Rather than a single line, I prefer the image of two parallel lines. However, Ahab's Wife is not it's own independent thought, but is inexorably linked to Moby Dick. The image I ultimately decided on comes from the final chapter of Ahab's Wife. Ishmael says, "Think of the Cathedral of Chartres. This of its two towers. They do not match at all. Built perhaps a century apart, or more; but without both spires, our Chartres would not be Chartres." (663) In this analogy, Melville built the foundation of the cathedral and the first tower. Then, Naslund erected a second tower which is supported by Melville's base, but also a stylistically and architecturally independent structure. Her tower stands side by side with the other and originates from the same fundamental story of Ahab and the white whale, yet it has a defined sense of self separate from the rest of the structure. When you gender the two towers and make one female and one male, they still have the base in common. Ishmael continues, "Small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the finishing to posterity." (663) Just as Melville left room for Naslund, she has opened the door for more stories to emerge from Moby Dick and more towers to be constructed.

1.) Chase, Cheryl. "Hermaphrodites With Attitude: Mapping the Emergence of Intersex Political Action." from "Questions of Gender/Engendering Questions" readings packet, 130-141
2.) Garber, Marjorie. "Spare Parts: The Surgical Construction of Gender" from "Questions of Gender/Engendering Questions" readings packet, 361-368
3.) Slaughenhoupt, Bruce L. "Diagnostic Evaluation and Management of the Child With Ambiguous Genitalia." KMA Journal 95 (1997): 135-141.
4.) "Ambiguous Sexes" from "Questions of Gender/Engendering Questions" readings packet, 96-118

(Note: Bibliographical information was not available for sources 1, 2, and 4 so I did the best I could to locate title, author, and page number whenever possible.)

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