American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MARDI AND A VOYAGE THITHER (1849). The third of Herman Melville’s* published books, Mardi, in its use of symbolism and allegory, its experimentation with fictional forms, and its interest in metaphysical questions, anticipates the later preoccupations of Moby-Dick* (1851). Like its predecessors Typee* (1846) and Omoo* (1847), Mardi begins as a conventional travel narrative based loosely on Melville’s experiences in the South Pacific. But the narrator soon abandons in midsea a whaling voyage he finds dull and begins a succession of fabulous adventures when he encounters a brigantine adrift on the open sea with two survivors of an attack on it. In a later engagement, one of the survivors, Samoa, helps the narrator to rescue a beautiful and mysterious woman, Yillah, from a canoe where she is about to be offered as a human sacrifice. Proceeding to an archipelago called Mardi, the narrator, now infatuated by Yillah, assumes the persona of a demigod, Taji, and becomes the guest of Media, one of the islands’ kings.

The sudden disappearance of Yillah prompts a voyage throughout the archipelago that occupies the remaining two-thirds of the work.

In his quest for the idealized Yillah, Taji is accompanied by Media and three sages: Mohi, a historian; Babbalanja, a philosopher; and Yoomy, a poet. As they journey through the archipelago, the sages debate such matters as death and immortality, faith, fame, kingship, power, evil, and truth— usually displaying the biases of their respective perspectives and often coming to no conclusion. Through these discussions, Melville repeatedly examines the issues of what constitutes authoritative knowledge, the differences between scientific and imaginative renderings of experience, and the relationship between fact and truth. When they come ashore, they scrutinize, often satirically, the islands and their rulers. For example, King Peepi, the ten-year-old-ruler of Valapee, rules entirely by whim; his counselors have flattened noses from bowing to him. Uhia, the ruler of Ohonoo, wants to move his island to the center of the archipelago to consolidate power over all of Mardi. The only ambition of Borabolla, the lord of Mondoldo, who lives from one feast to the next, is to increase his already considerable girth. Later islands such as Dominora (England) and Vivenza (the United States) allow Melville to engage in political satire on topical issues such as England’s colonial ambitions and slavery in America.

The discursive structure of Mardi, its irreverent tone, and the inconclusive nature of most of the discourse portend the failure of the search for Yillah, called an Albino when first introduced, and prefigure the catastrophe of the search for the more ominous albino in Moby-Dick. Toward the conclusion of the narrative, Taji—reminded by an enchantress throughout the journey of the futility of his quest for the evanescent ideal of Yillah—visits Hautia on the isle of Serenia. Failing to overcome the hazards of deep diving for precious pearls, the west-journeying Taji sets off in endless pursuit of the ever-elusive Yillah.

FURTHER READING: Davis, Merrell R. Melville’s Mardi—A Chartless Voyage. New Haven: CT: Yale UP, 1952; Foster, Elizabeth S. “Historical Note” in Herman Melville, Mardi and a Voyage Thither. Ed. Harrison Hayford et al. Evanston, IL, and Chicago: Northwestern UP, 1970; Moore, Maxine. That Lonely Game: Melville, Mardi and the Almanac. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1975.

Joseph Flibbert