Not long ago, Netflix introduced a limited series called The Chair, a sardonic look at the nature of current campus politics in the realm of higher learning. Chiseled from various real-life events that received media attention over the past few years, the series included a scene in which a literature class is appalled by the absence of females aboard the whaling ship Pequod in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick. “No women on the boat,” they chant.
Whether the scene is genuine or in jest isn’t clear. What’s obvious, however, is that such a viewpoint manages to remove any trace of context from the discussion.
Now, context is a pesky thing that, in this case, would provide an historical grounding of Melville’s novel in terms of the prevailing outlooks, lifestyles and conditions common to its setting. But context doesn’t concern itself with right or wrong, left or right. It’s factual, and while that may be a frightening concept in 2023, it’s what allows us to understand history as it happened, not as we might reimagine it.
Before the mid-1800s, regardless of how we choose to view it today, it was, according to Joan Druett’s 2001 book Petticoat Whalers, “unusual, eccentric, and scandalous for a woman to voyage on a whaler” during the first half of the 19th century. By the time of Moby Dick’s publication, the wife of the captain of a whaling vessel was permitted aboard. But, for the spouse of the book’s Captain Ahab to have joined him on the novel’s journey, Ahab would have had to declare he wanted her aboard. He didn’t.
Melville was certainly familiar with life at sea, having spent 1839 to1844 on various ships, serving first as a cabin boy before joining the crew of a whaling vessel. But Melville’s seafaring days preceded 1845, the year when ship’s captains’ wives began joining their spouses on whaling expeditions, so he apparently never witnessed that practice firsthand.
The Whaling Museum website reports that “in 1845, just 5…whaleships with wives on them, sailed from New England out of 302 ships.” The nps.gov website notes that it wasn’t until 1853 that “there was a captain’s wife on one in five whaleships from New England. A ship with a woman onboard was often called a ‘hen frigate.’”
That moniker is certainly not flattering, but neither are the conditions described by the Whaling Museum website: “Once the fad became socially accepted, enthusiastic captains requested—or ordered—their wives to join them at sea. Many obeyed. At the time, wives had little choice, as ‘the wife is only the servant to the husband’ (Wharton’s Law), and ‘the husband and wife are one person, and that person is the husband’(Introduction to American Law, 1846).”
The online article “New England Women at Sea 1845-1871” explains that “most women chose wifely devotion over the comforts of society, which inherently placed them at the sides of their seafaring husbands.” So, it’s quite possible that Melville’s decision not to place Ahab’s wife on the ship was a benign choice, particularly in light of the novel’s obsessive quest and ultimate outcome.
How is it, then, that context can be considered troublesome? In and of itself, context isn’t an issue, but its absence makes history extremely malleable. Remove the context, and an historical figure is no longer connected to the thinking and belief systems of his/her time and an event is not a product of its age but an isolated moment. Its removal can create heroes out of villains and vice versa. And its truancy can blur the line between past and present by allowing opinion to substitute for inquiry.
Therefore, instead of declaring “no women on the boat,” it might be more productive to ask why there aren’t any women on the boat so that context might have an opportunity to put in an appearance.