Perhaps no book by Herman Melville has been the subject of as much negative criticism as Mardi, and a Voyage Thither. Having written two books based on his actual experiences in the South Seas—Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847)—Melville wished in this, his third book, to abandon the travel narrative form for the imaginative freedom of the novel. Mardi imagines a map of islands unknown not only to its American narrator but also to the companion islanders who join him in a search for his beloved Yillah throughout the archipelago. Somewhat in the manner of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), these islands are each allegories of different conditions of humanity. Some, like Dominora (England) and Vivenza (the United States), even represent actual nations. Many critics have objected to the confusion of the numerous symbols in this journey; the hodgepodge of different styles employed by Melville in the book; the weak main character, Taji; and the frequent passages of philosophical dialogue between Taji’s companions, a Mardian king, philosopher, historian, and poet.
On the other hand, Mardi in many ways anticipates the concerns of Melville’s later masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851). It has begun to be seen as a great work in its own right, although not without its challenges for the reader. Following Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for an authentic and original American literature, Mardi’s display of literary invention was fueled by Melville’s ambition to be the author of the great work America awaited. This ambition led to a supremely self-conscious novel in which literary improvisation plays a large role.
Several different allegories are at work at once in this complex novel. Alongside Taji’s search for Yillah, an embodiment of beauty, is the Mardian philosopher Babbalanja’s search for the perfect society. In the meantime, the party flees Hautia, a lustful native queen, who represents possession of the narrator and an end to the quests of all involved. Frequent reflections of the process of writing itself indicate that the novel is first and foremost an allegory about literature and the novelist’s attempt to create something new. Tension arises between the knowledge that one learns how to live from the past and the knowledge that one must break with this past if one is to make works that are original and worthwhile. As is true with Ishmael, the narrator of...
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