In Herman Melville's Typee, how does Tommo approach the Typeean culture?

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belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Herman Melville's 1846 novel Typee was the author's breakout work, and was loosely adapted from his own experiences in French Polynesian culture.

The protagonist, Tommo, is a sailor who dreams of adventure and simpler living. He and a comrade jump ship and discover a culture of communal natives who take them in and treat them as members of the tribe. Although he is fearful of cannibalism, he discovers that it is merely one trait among many:

But it will be urged that these shocking unprincipled wretches are cannibals. Very true; and a rather bad trait in their character it must be allowed. But they are such only when they seek to gratify the passion of revenge upon their enemies...

His comparison to Western execution shows his willingness to accept a native culture rather than try to alter it. In fact, Tommo takes no steps to introduce Western culture in the Typeean society, preferring to watch and experience their lives.

In this secluded abode of happiness there were no cross old women, no cruel step-dames, no withered spinsters, no lovesick maidens, no sour old bachelors, no inattentive husbands, no melancholy young men, no
blubbering youngsters, and no squalling brats. All was mirth, fun and high good humour. Blue devils, hypochondria, and doleful dumps, went and hid themselves among the nooks and crannies of the rocks.

Tommo is willing to accept a certain amount of "savagery," although he rejects the term, because the Typeean life is so bucolic, but as he continues his stay, he becomes more uncomfortable; the culture and lifestyle is not his own, and the Typee do not accept him unconditionally. Tommo is always watched and cannot fully communicate, and so feels a separation; he also feels a nagging surety that the Typee eventually mean to eat him.

For hours and hours during the warmest part of the day I lay upon my mat, and while those around me were nearly all dozing away in careless ease, I remained awake, gloomily pondering over the fate which it appeared now idle for me to resist, when I thought of the loved friends who were thousands and thousands of miles from the savage island in which I was held a captive, when I reflected that my dreadful fate would for ever be concealed from them, and that with hope deferred they might continue to await my return long after my inanimate form had blended with the dust of the valley--I could not repress a shudder of anguish.
(All Quotes: Melville, Typee,

Tommo is unable to fully connect with Typeean culture, since it is so far removed from his own, and although he wished for adventure among the natives, it turned out that he is not suited for it. He is unable to affect their culture, and theirs has a debilitating effect on him; they are not compatible, and so he finally escapes.


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