What kind of woman would Captain Ahab fall in love with?
Ahab would not be Ahab if he fell in love with a typical Victorian woman. But to figure out what sort of woman he would choose, we must look at more of his character, personality, and history. (At right, picture of Pequod whale ship from miniseries is used by permission of the photographer and found at Wiki Commons.)
I believe Ahab will be attracted to someone with his same zeal for life. Although he probably would not disdain a woman experienced in intimacy, it is also probable he would not choose a promiscuous woman simply because he’s probably known many of them over the years. Being educated—“Ahab’s been in colleges”—he will marry an intelligent woman. Having traveled the world, he may find favorable the idea of taking his young bride on a world tour both to show her the world and to show her off to the world. (Today we would call her “arm candy.”) Ahab is not insane when they meet, but he is intense. Their romance is passionate because he is a vital, active, healthy man in all respects. The woman he loves must be all of those things as well.
Since he marries before he loses his leg, (not three voyages wed at the time of the Pequod’s departure; lost his leg the previous voyage of the Pequod), I am curious to know what kind of man he was before that tragedy. Why does he react as he does when it happens? Other men with similar losses, i.e., the English captain who lost an arm to Moby Dick, have managed to recover and adjust without Ahab’s rage against the White Whale.
He married “past fifty” and thought it might have been a great evil to marry Hannah because he sailed the next day, leaving her a widow while she was still a wife. Though at the time of their marriage and his departure, he left only “one dent in his marriage pillow,” the fact that he returned to her at least two more times (not three voyages wed, but at least two) means they would have had more marital bliss. Because their child is young enough to take a noon nap, he would be younger than six or seven years, and he would have been conceived after Ahab returned from that first voyage.
Ahab’s voyages would have been shorter than average, but still successful. The average whaling voyage took three years, and usually more, so Ahab becomes a legend by his less-than-three-year successful voyages. My whole story must take place when he is past fifty and before he dies at fifty-eight. By the time Moby Dick takes place, he has spent only three years out of forty on shore. He sailed for the first time at eighteen. He is “rich as a potentate” and has no need to continue whaling. He does so perhaps because it is the habit of his lifetime, but also because he has a passion for the savagery of the whale hunt, much as a career soldier thrives on battle, i.e., continually proving his manhood.
Even Ahab does not completely understand why he is compelled to pursue the White Whale. He even tries to stop when he sees his loved ones reflected in First Mate Starbuck’s eyes. But he is overwhelmed by his mania. Where did it come from? What is the real target of his rage? Why is he enraged? Surely it must go beyond the loss of his leg. A man of his courage could have faced his loss with the support of his loving family.
The theme of Ahab’s rage has been the subject of so much commentary, I feel inadequate to try to address those deeper issues. My purpose is to show just enough of his inner conflict to demonstrate how it affected his wife. She is my protagonist. Still, in creating her, I must base her every strength or weakness on something either that Melville has provided in the original work or something that fits into the time period.
Here is what I decided about my heroine: Hannah will not be a Nantucket girl, but like those indomitable women, she will possess an independent spirit and strong character. She is unlike her mainland friends who embody the typical nineteenth-century views of a woman’s “place.” Like Ahab, she will be an “Isolate” by her own choice.
Staying true to the historical times: The 1830s were a time of great discovery. The mysteries of the world were opening up to whoever wanted to travel. Hannah wants to travel and see the world (or at least parts of it), but she is still young and inexperienced enough to be unfocused in her desires. She also has no close female influences because her mother died when she was born. This device gives Ahab the responsibility and pleasure of teaching her about life, a marital circumstance not atypical of the time period. She will be beautiful enough, yet different enough to attract Ahab’s attention and love.
Love at first sight: The initial attraction between Hannah and Ahab is physical. To Hannah, the successful Captain Ahab appears to be the epitome of all the classical heroes she has read about from childhood, the godlike men who sparked her imagination and made ordinary men appear far too inferior to deserve her attention.
Ahab is attracted to Hannah because: To Ahab, lovely Hannah, all dressed in white, is purity personified. He meets her at a time when he has become sea- and world-weary and has begun to long for something in his life beside whaling. But what begins for Ahab as a playful flirtation to annoy the young minister, who has the audacity to try to convert him, quickly becomes a fascination in the young woman who is different from any female of his social rank he has ever met. Her courage and desire to learn about life beyond her sheltered world inspire him to become her private tutor in the latest philosophies, even as he advises her father in his failing whaling business. (The Victorian bride picture at left is from Flickr through Wiki Commons and has no known copyright.)
Hannah is attracted to Ahab because: Hannah has never met a man, other than her indulgent father, who values her mind as well as her beauty. That Ahab regards her as an equal becomes his most compelling virtue, and her heart is won. As the time draws near for his departure on another long whaling voyage, she fears he will forget her unless she secures his affection with a betrothal. At her prodding and against his better judgment, he proposes only days before leaving. (At right, the picture of Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab is in the public domain from Wiki Commons.)
Surprised by love: Hannah will be as surprised by love as Ahab is, for, unlike her friends, she is not looking for it. She is not attracted to Ahab’s money, but rather his intelligence, generosity, and handsome appearance. As with most people in love, she sees him in a unique light that others may not understand. Though she had not planned to marry, she grasps for happiness before Ahab leaves on his voyage. When Peleg says she is a “sweet, resigned girl,” I’ll take the sweet (though not too sticky sweet), but not the resigned—you may recall that last time I said Peleg isn’t a totally reliable witness to Ahab’s character—because a spirited man such as Ahab would not have married a resigned girl. She must have spirit. Hannah’s only resignation is to his inevitable decision to sail again, and that resignation comes after painful disappointments. With her inexperience in life, she cannot comprehend her husband’s inner conflicts. With wealth to spare and no further need to continue whaling, why can he not be content to stay home with her?
More about Hannah and Ahab next time!