Thank you for sticking with me on this journey. Today, I’m posting an opinion piece titled:
Ahab’s Bride Versus Ahab’s Wife
When a writer completes a novel and begins the arduous task of finding a publisher, or better still, finding an agent who will find a publisher and wrangle the best deal for the author, there can be no more disheartening discovery than to find that one’s clever, unique, brilliantly created work has already been “done” by someone else. (Crying woman is a free images from pixabay.com.)
How did this happen?
No, this is not a case of plagiarism, but rather simply a case of two writers, who do not know of each other’s existence or work, selecting the same subject at the same time and each pouring her heart into the story of a lifetime. Thus, in the spring of 1999, when I completed my master’s thesis, titled Ahab’s Bride, submitted it to my thesis advisor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, received an A on the project, and set about finding an agent to sell it for me, I was appalled to discover that in only a matter of months, another author’s version of the story of Captain Ahab’s “young girl-wife,” also based on one obscure line from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, would make its appearance in bookstores everywhere. That book is Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife.
After partially recovering from the initial shock, I continued my search and eventually was accepted as a client by an agent who believed with me that, despite the apparent success of Naslund’s novel, a publisher and an audience could still be found for my book. Finding those two essentials has become a lengthy quest that eventually succeeded. In the process, however, I realized how important it would be to show a potential publisher–and, subsequently, readers, why my novel is different from Naslund’s and every bit as worthy of publication and being read. With that in mind, I offer this comparison.
As in Moby Dick, the dominant theme of each of these sequel novels is the central character’s belief system. Naslund’s Una Spenser and my Hannah Oldweiler are both independent women who question the faith of their fathers, but their spiritual odysseys lead them to very different conclusions.
Una travels through many adventures and trials, suffering abuse from her father (physical) and first husband (physical and sexual) and being forced by circumstances into a variety of controversial behaviors. Through all events, Una’s childhood rejection of religion is reinforced. In fact, Naslund’s strongest, most sympathetic characters are those who are non-religious humanists. Una seems to regard people of the Christian faith as somewhat simple-minded and/or foolish, and even evil. For two examples: her father is stereotypical in his evangelical fanaticism until his confusion about his faith leads him to commit suicide Then Una has a bizarre meeting in a forest with a sadly misrepresented, excessively Puritanical Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ultimately, she ends up with Ishmael, the narrator of Moby Dick, with whom she shares a feeling of oneness with the universe rather than a traditional faith in a higher being, i.e., God. This interesting interpretation is certainly the author’s prerogative, and her book has garnered much success. As a fellow author, I applaud her.
Initially, my Hannah suffers more conventional trials for a woman of her time. She loses her mother at birth, experiences a smallpox epidemic, and almost dies when her son is born. While her husband, Ahab, is at sea, Hannah’s father dies, and she is left nearly penniless. Then she must endure years of loneliness after Ahab goes whaling again instead of taking her on a promised sightseeing trip to Europe. When he returns from the voyage with one leg missing, she must cope with his bitterness and insanity. But despite her disappointment in organized religion and hypocritical Christians, Hannah finds a faith that sustains her because of the example of other suffering believers. In the end, she weeps over Ahab’s misunderstanding of the good and loving Father God she has found.
My interpretation of Ahab is different from Naslund’s. She changes some of the history Melville created for Ahab, sending him to sea at thirteen rather than eighteen and having him raised by his mother, who Melville tells us died when Ahab was twelve months old. Rather than give us Melville’s Ahab, whose great struggle is against a God Whom he sees as evil and unjust, she makes him an agnostic. Further, he is essentially the same moody and “smoldering” man before and after he loses his leg rather than being dramatically changed by the tragedy.
My Ahab embraces the Puritan concept of God but thinks Him unjust and refuses to worship Him. I believe Melville intended that Ahab wouldn’t actually rage against God until after he loses his leg. Then he actually tries to kill Him by killing that which he views as His instrument of unfair judgment, a “pasteboard mask” behind which God hides: the White Whale.
The Love Story
In Ahab’s Bride, the love of Hannah and Ahab is at center stage. Although Ahab sails away on three voyages during the course of the narrative, he is always a part of Hannah’s thoughts and decisions, as is true in loving marriages. She is his antithesis; therefore, when she suffers tragedies that parallel his, her response is exactly the opposite.
Una’s relationship with Ahab is limited and her marriage takes up less than a third of the book. Una and Ahab see themselves as female and male of the same person, though the reader may not. Further, although she is a loving person and truly loves Ahab, her life is in no way defined by her relationship to him. She could have been married to any wealthy, moody whaling captain who died at sea, and still have come to the same conclusions about faith, religion, God, and the universe.
Without a doubt, Ahab’s Wife is an engaging book. It is a huge work, and many of its elements will satisfy academic, feminist, and humanist critics. However, while realizing I am somewhat biased, I feel strongly that Naslund’s use of Melville’s character was simply a hook to draw an audience, making that connection clever but suspect. But again, we authors use many such devices, so I applaud her success.
On the other hand, I feel that I have responded to Melville’s clear message in Moby Dick: Ahab’s rage against God was both needless and futile. Ahab’s Bride further reveals that Ahab fought against a God he did not understand, to his own destruction. People of faith, and seekers as well, will find my version of Ahab’s “young girl-wife” eminently more satisfying than Una because Hannah rejects a faulty concept of God and instead responds to and accepts His love. Academics will acknowledge the validity of my research and interpretation. My thesis defense, a detailed exposition of my novel’s research and development, has been offered in my previous posts on this blog.
Naslund’s approach seems quite cerebral to me, while my narrative is more direct. A tale of Ahab’s wife can be told effectively through either method. To my way of thinking, we each chose the most appropriate style for our novels.
In My Defense
Finally, it is important to note that I found no overlaps in our story lines that might suggest I have copied her work. My novel was submitted as my master’s thesis in May 1999 and is archived from that date in the Rollins College Olin Library in Winter Park, Florida. I did not learn about the existence of Naslund’s novel until June 1999 and did not read it until late October of that same year.
My publisher, RiverOak Publishing, a now-defunct imprint of David C. Cook, showed sufficient faith in Ahab’s Bride (first published March 2004, released on Kindle 2013) to sign me to a three-book contract for my Ahab’s Legacy trilogy, which continues the story of Hannah Ahab as she struggles to raise her son alone in the 1840s. Book Two in the series, Hannah Rose, was released in February 2005 and on Kindle in 2013, and Book Three, Son of Perdition, was released in the spring of 2006, on Kindle in 2013. All are available at Amazon.com in ebook or print.
You Are the Final Judge
Ultimately, it is readers who decide the financial success of any novel. Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife was a bestseller. (NYT bestseller list https://is.gd/EdNR1d)Ahab’s Bride was not. A failure of marketing? Who knows. I must content myself with knowing I wrote the book of my heart, and a Christian publisher saw fit to publish it. While every author wants to make a living doing her art, I take great satisfaction in a project well done. (Woman with empty pockets from pinterest.com)
If you’re still with me on this journey, please stay tuned for my next post about the second book in my Legacy of Ahab series, in which Hannah struggles to rear her son…and perhaps even find God’s will for her own life.