I hope you’ve been enjoying our journey to show how I developed my character of Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab’s “young girl-wife.” Here’s the next installment.
To best show Hannah’s conflicts, I chose a limited omniscience, third person point of view. (in Moby Dick, Ishmael relates the tale from the first person POV.) I prefer the third person because it allows me to move back a little from Hannah in some instances to give an objective view of surrounding events. I mirrored several of Melville’s devices, such as Father Mapple’s sermon that laid out the simplest theme of Moby Dick: to obey God is to disobey ourselves. My preacher, Reverend Jeremiah Harris, addresses the issue of taking care to wisely choose whom to follow (or marry): “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” (Picture at right is of the original cover from David C. Cook, 2004.)
What made Ahab struggle against the whale that wounded him? He sees the beast as a pasteboard mask, with a cruel God hiding behind the visible instrument of his wounding. I have read many volumes and articles of commentary on some of the many aspects of Melville’s tale, including ideas about the author’s spiritual struggles and his wavering belief in God. In none of my reading did I discover a final solution to the questions that linger over both Melville’s theology and the theological significance of this work. It was not my intention to “go there.” However, from these and from the text of Moby Dick, I concocted Ahab’s ruminations about the “injustice” of God after his accident. Other than that, I did not use them to construct my Ahab.
After Ahab returns from the voyage during which he loses his leg, he is no longer my character, but Melville’s original. A complex man to begin with, he actually becomes simpler within that complexity as his monomania grows and as he focuses more and more on his quest. I am committed to being faithful to the character Melville created both before and after the accident.
There may be those Melville and Moby Dick purists who think that my Ahab gives too much rational attention to his wife and child after his loss. They may feel that he would be so monomaniacal by that time he would most likely ignore his family just as he withdraws from the community to surround himself with an “ever-contracting, dropping circle ashore” (386). Or they may prefer to keep Ahab remote and unapproachable, thereby perpetuating his myth or maintaining some fearsome, Olympian quality in his madness. I am convinced, however, that Ahab is only insane about the whale. He retains his brilliant intellect and his ability to lead, both as captain of a ship and as the head of a household. He continues to be aware of the detailed needs within both arenas. He can be approached. Just as Starbuck convinces Ahab to take time to tend to the broken oil casks, Hannah and the child, by their mere presence, will require Ahab to tend to details of home life and on-shore business. It works to Ahab’s advantage to keep peace in his ship and in his home. Further, as is shown by his almost relenting from the chase, he truly does still love his family. It is that factor upon which I base my story.
Then of course there are the practical sides to Ahab’s involvement with his wife. Of necessity, by living with her, he would be forced to interact with her. Further, after his mysterious wounding with the broken ivory leg a few weeks before the fatal voyage, when he was unconscious for some time, someone would have to take care of him. Even Captain Peleg didn’t know much about that incident. Other than his wife, who could have nursed Ahab back to health? (Picture at left is a drawing by my talented daughter-in-law, Heidi Latto Gouge. Copyright Louise M. Gouge, 2003. Do not copy without permission.)
Because I am a romance writer, my purpose was to create a compelling love story from the few fragments of information that Melville provided. One challenge was to discover what life would have been like for Ahab’s wife while he was on his ship at sea. Of course, she would be on shore the whole time, so I needed to place her in a society. Research turned up wonderful discoveries about the remarkable whaling communities of New Bedford and Nantucket. Hannah’s personality and experiences would be shaped by these places. Though she never intended to be one of those whaling wives who was always being left behind, it nonetheless happens, and she must cope with it. Having plenty of money (Ahab is rich), she does not need to have a business, such as many Nantucket captains’ wives did.
Nantucket was not a closed society to newcomers (off-islanders), but the women did have their social circles. Mirroring Melville, I placed Hannah in both New Bedford and Nantucket, as Ishmael spent time in both communities. She loves Ahab from a woman’s perspective as Ishmael loves Ahab from a filial perspective. Ishmael admires Ahab but realizes his hero is fatally flawed. Hannah believes in him till the end, her love blinding her to the worst in him.
I used the following Melville characters from Moby Dick, fleshing them out where needed: Ahab, his wife, their son, Starbuck, Mary Starbuck, their son, Bildad, Peleg, Aunt Charity, Harry Macey, Captain Gardiner, Ishmael, the Chinese whalers. Mentioned Father Mapple and Seamen’s Bethel.
I created the following characters to be part of Hannah’s story: her father, her suitor Jeremiah, miscellaneous New Bedford friends, Aunt Charity’s daughter, Ahab’s servant Abigail, Tishtega the midwife.
In addition, I have referred to actual historical characters, including some in the story: Lucretia Mott, the Joseph Starbuck clan of Nantucket, astronomer Maria Mitchell and her father, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Melville’s novel is a multi-layered masterpiece with too many themes for me to count. Religious themes predominate. My novel is a straight-forward love story. Because of the time period in which it was set, I included numerous discussions of philosophy and religion, as is apropos for a nineteenth century American tale. These themes are not intended to overshadow the main story, but rather to augment it.
Internal information in Moby Dick provides a reasonable time frame for my story. Due to the inscriptions in the Seaman’s Bethel that Ishmael reads (1839 being the date of a fatality mentioned on one plaque, so the final voyage of the Pequod would have to begin a year or more, probably several years after that death), Moby Dick being published in 1851, Ishmael speaking of his tale taking place some years (he refuses to say how many) before he is telling it, I set my novel between 1837-1846. Further, Ishmael tells us that he has decided that he must sail from Nantucket rather than New Bedford. Why does he feel that this explanation is necessary? Since 1842 was the banner year for whaling, with Nantucket being the acknowledged whaling capital of the world at that time, any whaler seeking a profitable voyage would not have needed an excuse for choosing that best port. Ishmael would have needed no such excuse for his choice of Nantucket until after 1843, by which time New Bedford, the new whaling capital, would have been the best place to sign on to a whaling ship. So I place the final voyage departure at the end of 1843, by which time, things had begun to decline on Nantucket due to the sand bars that encroached on the harbor.
Since it is difficult to deduce a time frame for all the happenings in Moby Dick, once my Ahab leaves on his final voyage, I have occupied Hannah for over two years until the ships Delight and Rachel return to the island to confirm that Ahab and the Pequod are no more.
Having the colossal nerve to try to recreate one of literature’s most memorable and awesome characters, I find my heart aching for the man. I long to call him back to his wife and child, to see him retire from forty years at sea, and to fill his last years with love and happiness. However, I must be true to Melville’s creation. Ahab’s self-will, pride, and monomania are obvious. But I must to ferret out the best parts of Ahab: the things that cause a young woman to fall in love with him, the things that make him a truly great and successful whaling captain, and the things that prove him human. Like Hannah, I have fallen in love with Captain Ahab. I hope my readers will, too. (Picture at right is my current e-book cover by Melinda Cote, 2013.)