Monday, August 25, 2014

Hunilla's lonely pregnancy

The real-life story of Agatha Hatch that so moved Melville testified to the heroic endurance of suffering by island women abandoned by sailors.

When Agatha's sailor husband left her, she was pregnant with their daughter.

Many critics link Agatha with Hunilla, the grief-struck hero of Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow in Melville's Galapagos sketchbook "The Encantadas." Maybe Hunilla is similarly situated by her creator Herman Melville: pregnant and abandoned (effectively, through accidental death) by her new husband.

Pregnant?! You would never guess it from most of the published commentaries on Melville's "Chola Widow" sketch. Most critics read the narrator's artificially elaborated silence regarding "two unnamed events" in the Galapagos experience of Hunilla as crafty allusions to violence and treachery at the hands of passing sailors. Those unmentionable two events would in that case have involved two different incidents of rape. Or possibly one crime of rape, followed by unspeakably cruel abandonment counting in the narrator's mind as a separate "event." Somewhere one critic has called attention to the further possibility that Hunilla became pregnant as a result of rape. Regarding that or any scenario so terrible, what is not much explored is whom the narrator wants to protect by his silence. His artificially elaborate non-revelation protects not only the dignity of a serially victimized Hunilla, but the reputation of sailors. As a class, sailors were already regarded in some circles (also prone to criticize the immorality of Melville's writings) as stereotypically licentious. Melville's narrator will not disclose evidence "for scoffing souls to quote, and call it firm proof upon their side" of damnable criminal debauchery by brother sailors. What he will disclose is the admirable, reverent treatment of Hunilla by a group of devoted sailors, her rescuers. Booze occasionally does some good.

But there is reason enough to imagine Hunilla pregnant before the chance landing of a whaleboat. Remember, Hunilla and Felipe are newlyweds. Hunilla might be naturally and unsurprisingly pregnant with the child of her loving new husband. One of Melville's probable early sources highlights the married status of a Female Crusoe and tragic (though voluntary, sort of) separation from her heartbroken husband. The relentless critical fixation on rape neglects the emphasis Melville places on the romance of married lovers, tragically severed.

One notable exception to the general neglect of Hunilla and Felipe as a couple is available online in this comment by the keen reader at SparkNotes:
After her husband dies, the narrator speaks of two terrible things, which he should not mention, that happened to Hunilla. What are those things? They are buried in the semantics of Melville's writing, but: 1.) Hunilla actually becomes pregnant and has to try and have the baby herself because her husband and brother died on the catamaran. 2.) After she gives birth, the baby dies, and she is raped by men on a ship that boards the island. They leave after they rape her, leaving her alone again. 
--Readers' Notes for Melville Stories
The sharp SparkNotes reader (self-named The Great and Powerful Ass) errs in figuring the 180 days carved into Hunilla's reed-diary as 9 months.  That's only 6 months, of course, as pointed out by a skeptic in reply. However, reading again closely, which is what the narrator's conspicuous silences demand, we can see the pains Melville takes to construct a time frame that allows for a nine-month pregnancy. To the notched six months we have to add more time:
  • First, add 7 weeks.  Nearly seven weeks have passed when Hunilla's husband Felipe and brother Truxill (See, another CROSS there in the middle of his name.) are tragically killed at sea (joyfully celebrating their success catching tortoises, not trying to escape). 
  • Then "week after week" went by.  So add at least 2, possibly 4 more weeks of absent-minded mourning, after burying by hand her husband's corpse and building "a rude cross of withered sticks" to mark his grave.
  • + "some further weeks" of vainly hoping/trying not to hope for rescue. 2 or 3, probably.
 7 weeks  + 3 (splitting the difference) weeks + 2 = 12, and there we have those supposedly missing three months. Pretty close, anyway.

Add those three to the six months of notches to get the sum of 9 months that Hunilla was on the island before she stopped marking time. (Note the emphasis on Hunilla's trouble sleeping, such a common experience of pregnant women.) 

And thus we refute the skeptic at SparkNotes in enthusiastic defense of The Ass. The inexactness of Melville's "weeks" allows for a total of something more (but not that much more) than 9 months. Adding more weeks simply increases the probability that Hunilla conceived on the island.

Melville or if you prefer his narrator (originally named Salvator R. Tarnmoor) specifies "two unnamed events" during Hunilla's three years on Norfolk Isle. The narrator's insistence on "two unnamed events" directly parallels the Captain's two main questions of Hunilla.  One set of questions concerns passing vessels, but the earlier question concerned passing days: the Captain first asked why Hunilla had stopped counting them.

Let's say Hunilla stopped counting the days when her lonely pregnancy ended in another grief. Then the ships passed by, or not. Melville does not permit us the scoffer's security of knowing every cruel fact of Hunilla's existence--but he does invite us to think about her story, with feeling.

Now I'm curious to know who has discussed or even mentioned the possibility that Hunilla might have been pregnant on Norfolk Isle. And I still wonder if Melville ever knew Norfolk Isle by its Spanish name of Santa Cruz.
Photo: AssN9 Ranch

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