Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life is based on Melville’s experiences in the South Seas, specifically his desertion of the whaling ship Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands and his subsequent stay with a tribe of reputedly cannibalistic islanders. He wrote the novel when he was twenty-five, soon after returning from his sea journeys, and he later told his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne that “from my twenty-fifth year I date my life.” The reviews of this first novel were almost unanimously favorable, convincing Melville that he was going to be a literary success.
Typee is narrated by a dreamy young sailor who is weary of the conditions aboard the whaling ship Dolly. He combats the tedium of the voyage by constructing fantasies of tropical adventures. When the Dolly anchors in Nuku Hiva harbor in the Marquesas Islands, the sailor convinces himself and a companion named Toby to ignore the fearful tales of murderous cannibals and jump ship. Their escape from the ship to the island’s interior is a harrowing and symbolic initiation rite, forcing the young deserters to survive chills, fever, hunger, and perilous heights in order to earn their entry into the enigmatic paradise of Typee Valley. Their trial ends when they exhibit their determination by leaping from a cliff into the top of a tree in the valley below.
In Typee valley they discover a society free from the necessity of work and the restrictions of “civilized” moral codes. They are taken in by the tribe. The protagonist, who names himself Tommo, is adopted by a family which provides for all of his needs. Tommo and Toby spend their time learning about the...
(The entire section is 688 words.)