Mardi, and a Voyage Thither

by Herman Melville
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1007

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 Moby Dick, Taji describes the writing of the work as if he were the author himself. Unlike Ishmael (and Melville), however, Taji understands that his book is not fully realized. Nonetheless, he is proud of having risked catastrophe, a possibility only when one has been ambitious enough to risk originality. “Give me, ye gods,” he says late in the novel, “an utter wreck, if wreck I do.” The reader’s ultimate opinion of the novel will rest on whether he or she admires the degree to which Melville chanced something new, or, on the other hand, insists on a more polished finished product.

Even for readers who do not ultimately feel the novel is successful, Melville’s brilliance as a novelist and thinker comes through: for instance, in his satirical edge in depicting Vivenza, an allegory of the United States. The natives of Vivenza are loud and jingoistic, braggarts with a high-flown rhetoric of freedom and selective historical memory who ignore the oppression of slaves and the poor, excusing all of their own faults through the singular merit of being without kings. This criticism is half-retracted as the party leaves the island, noting that Vivenza’s democratic government may prove a light to the rest of the archipelago in the future, but Melville’s points are clear. The United States in the 1840’s was a confident nation, growing and pushing ever westward. Melville cautions Americans not to be blind to the national shame of slavery (still an institution when he wrote the novel), nor to trust that a rhetoric of freedom can replace its actual practice. What is called freedom may only be a disguise for misuse of individual authority and responsibility.

During the tour of islands, Melville increasingly uses the Mardian philosopher Babbalanja as a didactic mouthpiece, often very effectively. First, Babbalanja often cites the Mardian epic, Koztanza, by Lombardo, composed in much the same improvisational fashion as Melville’s own work. Babbalanja’s own quest also becomes important, linked with Taji’s. His quest is not so much for truth as for peace of mind: a society where he can pursue spirituality with a conscience untroubled by the misery of others. Everywhere else in the archipelago, there is a dark underside to the locals’ claims of utopia and right worship of Alma, the Mardian Christ figure. Often, injustice is economic in nature. The Mardian currency is human teeth; thus, the wealth of the rich is often directly composed of the misery of the poor. When the party reaches Serenia, where Alma is worshiped and all goods are shared (a suggestion of the incompatibility of Christianity and free-market capitalism), Babbalanja stays, calling his search complete.

Babbalanja here instructs Taji to give up his own quest, warning him that desire cannot be appeased. Life in Serenia is perfect for one who wishes to give up worldly concerns, but it is unsuitable to those who still want to pursue their desires. Taji’s quest has been made problematic by his refusal to see his platonic companionship with Yillah as having any link to the sinful lust expressed by Hautia. Critics have suggested that Melville, recently married as he wrote the novel, projected his own puritanical sexual repression onto Taji in this allegory. Taji is surprised when he discovers, visiting Hautia’s bower, that she and Yillah are linked. This means that desire for beauty (humanity’s highest pursuit) and sexual expression (humanity’s basest instinct) are linked. Taji cannot accept this association between his beloved and the power that he flees. The book ends with Taji still pursued by Hautia and her companions, as much Taji’s personal demons as an objective embodiment of evil.

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