Reading Melville at Sea: On Women

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My friend Karen driving her dinghy in the Ragged Islands.

Captain Bildad’s sister, Charity, steps into and out of the narrative in the blink of an eye in this chapter.  She seems more like a symbol than a character, for she really plays no role in the movement of the plot.  She personifies goodness, largesse, generosity, thoughtfulness:

Never did any woman better deserve her name…and like a sister of charity did this charitable Aunt Charity bustle about hither and thither, ready to turn her hand and heart to anything that promised to yield safety, comfort, and consolation to all on board a ship in which her beloved brother Bildad was concerned, and in which she herself owned a score or two of well-saved dollars.

She’s sexless and, interestingly enough, an investor in the whaling ship.  Not simply a fountain of good works for others, but also a woman who promotes her own financial interests, and seeks to make a profit through her good works.  She’s the perfect Protestant capitalist. 

She’s also a Quaker.  Melville’s Puritan ancestors used to strip and whip Quaker women through the streets of town, punishing them for thinking differently, indeed for thinking at all, and for speaking their thoughts in church.  Ishmael seems to regard her as a somewhat frightening force:

But it was startling to see this excellent hearted Quakeress coming on board, as she did the last day, with a long oil-ladle in one hand, and a still longer whaling lance in the other.

The oil-ladle for dispensing the substance that burns and provides light; the lance the weapon that castrates. 

It seems that many male sailors still regard women in these absolute, polarized terms.  They want us to be kind and merciful to them, to cook and clean and shop and provide, but they don’t want us to drive the dinghy or steer the main vessel, and they certainly don’t want us to have the upper hand. How many women captains do you know?  How many men would consent to the status of “admiral” or “first mate?”  None that I know.  And we women go along with the game, and fail to do our homework and allow them to wield the power. 

At any rate, we’ll hear no more about Aunt Charity in this novel, and no women will sail with the Pequog.  Does that make it a “man’s book,” as many of my women cruiser friends assert?  More to follow.

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Author: Kimberly Latta, Ph.D.

Psychotherapist, writer, artist, and independent feminist scholar.

5 thoughts on “Reading Melville at Sea: On Women”

  1. Hi Kimberley,
    Just wanted to let you know I’m enjoying your posts. Get Ryan to contribute once in awhile. Curious why you referred to the lance carried by Charity as “the weapon that castrates”. I see it more as the weapon that kills.

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  2. Your question “…How many women captains do you know? How many men would consent to the status of “admiral” or “first mate?” caught me off guard. I would have answered “Many” to both! And I would love to have my partner/wife take command more than she is so far willing. I know she can do it – she has sound sailing skills and good judgement – but she lack confidence. Perhaps because of the very attitudes you describe.
    Still, my experience suggests that not all men are as neanderthal as you suggest. I hope they are not, at least!

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    1. Agreed! I know many great male captains who urge their wives/partners to get more involved in the whole enterprise. Women too often give over or away power, out of laziness, I think. It can be scary to drive the dinghy, for men as well as for women. We all need to do our best and most of us try. Thanks for writing!

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