In the language of the Marquesan islanders, omoo signifies a rover, one who travels from island to island among the island groups of Polynesia. These islands provide the setting for Herman Melville’s first two works. In Melville’s day, these islands were still fairly unknown except to missionaries and whalers, and since the latter ships tended to follow known courses through the region, it was still possible to come in contact with islands that had rarely been visited by European or American peoples.
A sequel to Melville’s popular first travel novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Omoo continues the story of Melville’s experiences in the region. The question of how factual a reader should consider these experiences has been much debated since the book was first published in 1847. Reviewers objected to various aspects of Melville’s first two books, declaring they must be fiction. Melville responded that he had observed “a strict adherence to facts.” Research in the twentieth century showed that he had embellished his true experiences—that he had lived one month among the Typee people of Nukuheva, for instance, rather than four as he had claimed. As a result, readers must consider both of these books novels, in which Melville has felt free to alter the details of his experience to deliver a better story.
Omoo stands out among Melville’s novels as his most reckless and carefree. Perhaps, for an author associated with darkness, depths of thought, and brooding about the nature of evil, it is Melville at his happiest as well. Like Typee, it contains some complaints about missionary activity in Tahiti, but Omoo is mostly a light and comical travelogue, as Melville and his shipboard companion, Doctor Long Ghost, tour and have adventures on Tahiti and neighboring islands. This free spiritedness implies a Melville who has escaped his Puritan demons, a Melville whose narrator can give himself over to pleasure without guilt and to desire without comeuppance. Unlike Melville’s other books, there is no dark side to pleasure in Omoo, and Melville and Doctor Long Ghost laze around, a couple of beachcombers, throughout much of the...
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