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Flows of Reading

Engaging with Texts

Erin Reilly, Ritesh Mehta, Henry Jenkins, Authors

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4.7 Silences in 'Moby-Dick': Looking for the Female Voice

Wyn Kelley writes:
Moby-Dick leaves many gaps for a reader to fill. One gap that has in more recent years appeared a glaring one is the absence of women in the book. Yes, certain women appear—Mrs. Hussey at the Try-Pots, Aunt Charity in Nantucket, the Polynesian island women who grace the decks of “The Bachelor” in Chapter 115. Wives of the departing sailors appear as an undifferentiated group in Chapter 7, “The Chapel”, listening in “muffled silence” to Father Mapple’s sermon…
In addressing this gender gap readers ask, “Why doesn’t Melville include women in his book?” The question is hard to answer satisfactorily and tends to limit one’s understanding and exploration of the text. Do we ask why Toni Morrison does not write at great length about White people?... More useful for reading practices in a participatory culture would be the question, "What spaces does Melville create in his text for imagining women or people of different races, nationalities, or sexual identities?" (Reading in a Participatory Culture, Chapter 11)
Sena Jeter Naslund, a Kentucky-based author, sought to insert a female voice into Moby-Dick by reclaiming the figure of Ahab's wife and seeking to recount Melville's narrative from her point of view. She told a CNN interviewer about how she developed the idea for her 1999 novel, Ahab's Wife, or the Star-Gazer

The idea came to me in November of 1993 and it came as a vision and a voice. I was driving a rented car in Boston ... and then out of nowhere I saw a woman standing on a widow's walk beside the sea, looking out to sea at night hoping to see her husband's whaling ship coming home. But then I realized she knew he wasn't coming home, not then and not ever. And she stopped looking out and started looking up into the starry sky and with this began a spiritual quest of, 'Why am I here? What's my place in the universe?' instead of waiting for her husband to come home and define her as a wife. Along with that mental image or vision, I heard a voice say 'Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.' And that became the first sentence of the novel...

I'm making a statement that there can be an epic story of an American woman that ends in peace and harmony with the universe. This woman can be one who has lived a very full and adventuresome life and has found her own way spiritually.

In this video, Naslund reads from the very opening passage of her novel, which includes some of the key elements that first inspired her to write about Melville's characters.  Here are some questions to consider as you listen to her read this passage:
  • How does her perspective on Captain Ahab alter the ways we see this iconic figure? 
  • What might his wife understand about him that is closed to the men aboard the Pequod, given what Mellville tells us about his estrangement from the people around him? 
  • What elements from Melville's novel does she use to "authenticate" this account as belonging to the same story world as the original novel? 
  • The passage she reads ends with Ahab's wife waiting on the shore as the Pequod sails away. This is a scene often depicted in versions of Moby-Dick. Why has this become such an iconic moment for thinking about the place of women in the novel? 
  • What are the consequences of shifting our point of view from the men seeing their last glimpse of land to the women watching the ship leaving them behind? 

While Naslund certainly expands on Melville's narrative, introducing new characters and incidents, she also ensure her version is consistent with information Melville gives about Ahab as a character and about the events that unfold as he pursues the Great White Whale. As she told the interviewer, "If you love Moby-Dick I've been very respectful of that book. There aren't any nasty surprises. I don't suddenly say, 'Here comes Ahab sailing back with Moby Dick boiled down to oil. I'm consistent with what was done in Moby-Dick." Here, again, we see an author stress the importance of respecting the original author, even as she seeks to rewrite an American classic to tell other people's stories.

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