American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

TYPEE (1846). Herman Melville’s* (1819-1891) first novel, Typee was, in his day, his most popular. The novel opens on board the whaler Dolly, with Melville’s narrator discontented and longing for the romantic Marquesas Islands. When they land at Nukuhiva, the narrator and his friend Toby jump ship and eventually make their way into the valley of the feared Typees, whose lives and customs they are surprised to find may be superior to the “civilized” life they have left behind. Toby disappears, and Tommo, as the natives have christened the narrator, further observes and happily participates in the culture of the Typees until anxiety over being tattooed and over knowing that the Typees are cannibals leads Tommo to flee to another whaler anchored offshore.

Although the passages at sea form only the frame of the novel, they are nevertheless significant for the book and for issues that Melville would raise more fully in later novels. Life on board the Dolly, Tommo complains, is sterile and harsh, and the tyrannical Captain Vangs abuses the crew. Lacking any power to redress these wrongs, Tommo can escape only in moments of reverie at the thrill of sailing and in his dreams of the exotic wonders of the South Seas. Melville also parallels shipboard life with the larger historical situation of the European powers’ imperialistic incursion into Polynesia; Tommo’s situation on board thus represents the political and social realities of Western culture, which an individual can escape only temporarily.

John Samson