Study Guide

Hawaii

by James Michener

Hawaii Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Hawaiiis a multifaceted historical novel with a span of action that moves from 814 and the first immigration of the Bora Borans to the islands through 1954 and the emergence of contemporary Hawaii, soon to become a state. Following a prologue describing the formation of Pacific islands, reefs, and atolls, Michener devotes a section of the novel to each of the major groups who settled Hawaii.

While it is generally believed that Hawaii was first settled by emigrants from the other Polynesian islands, Michener’s precise details are invented. Tamatoa VI and his brother Terero are forced to flee Bora Bora by another group who worship a savage god, Oro, who demands human sacrifices. As his wife, Marama, is thought unable to bear children, Terero is forced to leave her behind and take a younger wife. Guided only by the stars and by old songs and legends—“Then we are sailing with a dream for our guide?” asks Tamatoa—they undergo both adventure and hardship before at last reaching Hawaii. Though they have abandoned the god Oro, Tamatoa insists upon one human sacrifice as they build a shrine to Tane. This god is not sufficient protection, and when the volcano erupts, they are forced to relocate. Terero then sails back to Bora Bora with a small group of men for the first fire goddess Pele. Terero not only brings back her stone, but he also brings Marama, who has conceived a child on their last night together. Through his detailed account of the beliefs of the islanders and how they influence every detail of their lives, Michener sets the stage for the next section, “From the Farm of Bitterness.”

A thousand years have passed, and to Yale College comes Keoki Kanakoa, a descendant of the original settlers of Hawaii. A convert to Christianity, he so eloquently describes the souls in Hawaii waiting to be saved that Abner Hale and his friend John Whipple are moved to offer themselves as missionaries. Whipple is accepted immediately: He is a doctor as well as a divinity student, and a handsome, self-possessed man. Hale is another matter. The Reverend Eliphalet Thorn sees him as “an offensive, undernourished, sallow-faced little prig, the kind who wrecks any mission to which he is attached.” He has a niece, however, Jerusha Bromley, who has been pining after a sea captain who promised to return to marry her. Thorn arranges a match between her and Hale. To Hale’s astonishment, she is a beautiful girl, intensely religious, who has vowed herself to the mission field if her sea captain does not return. Since all the missionaries are required to be married, the brig Thetis sets sail with eleven newlywed couples, four couples to each cabin. Hale, the only one who is not seasick for many weeks, is forced to assume leadership of the group and proves himself to be surprisingly resourceful, resilient, and sympathetic in caring for the sick. He also takes time to study Hawaiian with Keoki. Hale’s inflexibility, however, is evident in his manner of preaching to the captain and crew. They encounter another ship in mid-ocean, commanded by Rafer Hoxworth, a young and handsome but rough and brawling man. It is he who is expecting to find Jerusha waiting for him, and, when he discovers that Jerusha is not only married but pregnant, he attacks Hale, leaving him with a permanent limp.

Arriving in Hawaii, the missionaries encounter Malama Kanakoa, the ruler, or Alii Nui, of the island. To his horror, Hale finds that she is married to her brother, and that Keoki Kanakoa is their son. Though he works to convert the islanders, Hale forbids all intimate contact with the “heathen.” He is not the only one of the missionaries who is outraged when Abraham Hewlett marries a Hawaiian woman. His first wife died in childbirth; Hale and Hewlett delivered the child themselves, following a medical textbook, rather than accept the aid of the...

(The entire section is 1579 words.)

Hawaii Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Hawaii, the first of Michener’s “blockbuster” novels, was also the first of a new type of historical novel. Although Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, and John Dos Passos had all written novels that span several decades, none of their works had the epic scope of Hawaii, which covered several hundred years of human history. Another innovation was the attention that Michener paid to historical accuracy, which makes the novel as instructional as it is entertaining.

The novel begins with the birth of the Hawaiian islands in a section titled “From the Boundless Deep.” These “new” lands, totally devoid of life, can be tamed only by the arrival of what the narrator terms a “new breed” of people. This first-person narrator, whose identity is unknown until the end of the novel, is Hoxworth Hale, a direct descendant of several of the families depicted in the novel.

The second section, “From the Sun-Swept Lagoon,” deals with the first human inhabitants. In the ninth century, King Tamatoa and his younger brother flee Bora Bora in the middle of the night for fear that they will be sacrificed to a new god, Oro. Blown off course by a terrible storm, they land on a mountainous island that appears to be habitable. Many of the rituals that the missionaries will confront hundreds of years later are introduced in this section.

The narrator then jumps forward one thousand years to document the arrival of the first Caucasians—missionaries from Yale University. The title of this section, “From the Farms of Bitterness,” refers to the “fire and brimstone” that Abner Hale, the stereotyped embodiment of Calvinistic Congregationalism, preaches as he converts the natives. Hale’s preaching also makes subtle references to the inherent superiority of the white race and Western culture. By contrast, Hale’s wife, Jerusha, preaches a message of love in the school which she sets up to bring literacy to the islands. In a few short years, Jerusha dies from overwork, a fitting death for the woman from whose body would spring a line of men and women who would devote their lives to bringing “civilization” to the islands.

To introduce the arrival of the Chinese immigrants in “From the Starving Village,” Michener begins with the birth in 1847 of one of the most fascinating characters in the novel, Nyuk Tsin. In 1865, her parents are killed by the invading Tartars; soon thereafter, Nyuk is abducted. A Punti cook named Mun Ki, who works at the brothel where Nyuk has been sold into prostitution, decides to take her with him to Hawaii, where he intends to sell her. During the ocean voyage that Mun...

(The entire section is 1086 words.)