In Moby Dick Herman
Melville devoted just a few words to Ahab’s young wife. Sena Jeter
Naslund has made her a character worthy of 668 pages. Una is arguably
as interesting as her husband — and more admirable.
To escape a religiously fanatical father who can’t abide her skepticism, Una at age 12 goes to live with an aunt and an uncle who tend a lighthouse off the coast of Massachusetts. At 16 she disguises herself as a boy to get a berth on a whaling ship. Before she returns to land, she experiences shipwreck, near starvation, cannibalism, the loss of a man she loves, and marriage to another who descends into insanity. It is Ahab’s ship, The Pequod, that rescues her. She and the much older Ahab are attracted from the first and in time marry. The rest of the book isn’t primarily about their relationship, however. Ahab is away at sea most of the time and eventually dies in his obsessive quest for the great white whale, while Una is busy making a full life for herself and their son.
Una's story is a contrast to Melville’s tale of monomania. She is an unusual woman, definitely ahead of her time. She is unfailingly reasonable, imaginative, resilient, brave, and wise. It is Una who can see what Ahab cannot: that other species are not there for humans to hunt and kill. If Ahab’s Wife has a fault, it’s that Una is almost too good to be true.
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