AHAB'S WIFE

Or, The Star-Gazer

By Sena Jeter Naslund

Morrow. 668 pp. $28

Reviewed by Joyce Johnson

Sena Jeter Naslund is hardly the first woman writer to recast a male myth. After all, it was Virginia Woolf who wrote of Shakespeare's sister in A Room of One's Own and who created the hero/heroine Orlando. Fifty years later, in the 1970s, feminists began retelling traditional fairy tales, a trend that produced a classic in Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, which brilliantly juxtaposed the fable of a magical female avenger and the lives of real Chinese women, both heroines and victims, in a form and voice that were stunningly original. So the publication of a book like Ahab's Wife seems old news despite the promotional campaign that proclaims it worthy to stand beside Moby-Dick. What it stands beside is, rather, a novel like The Color Purple. Both Naslund and Alice Walker set out to valorize women, but despite their worthy objectives, their agendas are too naked, their approaches too didactic, their characters too manipulated, to create enduring literature.

Still, you have to give Naslund credit for chutzpah. Captain Ahab sought to harpoon the mightiest whale in the Pacific and reduce him to lamp oil; Naslund attempts to cut a literary behemoth down to size so that its parts can be used as ingredients for a pastiche.

Naslund's research into 19th-century domesticity, theology, women's history and whaling has been extensive, and she ambitiously struggles to reach Melvillean heights in her prose. But despite all the effort that has gone into this book, the result seems less in the tradition of Melville than in the tradition of those picaresque historical novels that used to be devoured by women readers. Those novels, too, featured gorgeous lasses of spirit who had to make their own way in a male-dominated world. Naslund has cleverly taken this genre and reconfigured it, shifting the emphasis away from the sexual adventures of the protagonist to the intellectual, moral and spiritual development of a 19th-century woman with uncommon powers. (There is sex in Ahab's Wife, but mostly there is abstinence.)

In Moby-Dick, the woman who waits ashore for Ahab is scarcely a character -- there's a wispy reference to a nameless presence offstage. Naslund names her Una (after Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene) and makes her not only central but larger than life: a girl who can stand atop a lighthouse and battle an eagle with her bonnet, a born free-thinker who even as a 10-year-old can defy her fanatically Calvinist father, a wife who can get along quite nicely, thank you -- improving her mind, doing her needlework, helping a runaway slave, hanging out with Margaret Fuller and the astronomer Maria Mitchell -- during her husband's long absences at sea. Far too frequently we see Una ascend blatant phallic symbols such as shipmasts and lighthouse towers to gaze at the stars, to which she ultimately realizes we are all connected.

I found myself uncharitably wishing that Una would encounter some economic difficulties, but the profits from Ahab's immoral trade in whale oil and ambergris leave her very comfortably provided for, and she unabashedly enjoys spending her husband's money on fine furniture and china. Nor does her meager sex life seem to trouble her unduly; weaker women resort to porcelain dildoes -- Una will have none of them. Indeed, while Melville's Ahab is fatally inflexible, a captain who goes down with his obsession, Nasland's Una is so endlessly resilient that the lack of psychological complexity in her story soon starves it of real drama, even though by the time Una is in her late twenties, she has been struck by lightning, orphaned, abused by her temporarily insane and sexually confused first husband, widowed by her second, and she has lost an infant.

Her greatest trial comes when she runs off to sea disguised as a cabin boy and is shipwrecked. Starving in an open boat, Una must eat human flesh to stay alive. The two men who survive this trauma with her are both destroyed by their anguish. But Una, who never entirely grapples with the issue, goes on to thrive. In fact, Captain Ahab chooses her for his mate, sensing they are two of a kind. But should the author let Una off the hook so easily? Does being a woman make you a morally superior cannibal? With this uncomfortable question nagging at the reader, Una sails on to become a Woman Who Has It All, rewarded as in old-fashioned women's fiction by the ideal marriage. She at last finds her intellectual soulmate in her third husband, Ishmael. They call their daughter Felicity.

Once we may have needed didactic fables. But we have come a long way in the past 30 years. Let's look for our heroines where writers like Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison and Lorrie Moore have found them: in complicated human beings "strong" -- if I may quote Hemingway -- "in all the broken places." And let's give thanks for the true masterpieces in the world available to all of us, even though some of them were written by men with the wrong ideas.

Joyce Johnson is the author of five books, including a Beat memoir, "Minor Characters," which won a 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award and has just been reissued.