Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649
*Papeetee (pah-pay-AY-tay). Principal city and colonial capital of Tahiti. Papeetee (now generally spelled Papeete) provides the setting for the first half of Omoo. Its deep, spacious harbor is well protected by reefs, making it one of the South Pacific’s most valuable anchorages for both commercial and military purposes. Melville’s narrator duly notes the harbor’s activity in a steady stream of whaling ships and trading brigs. He also delineates the city’s role as a colonial catspaw, or pawn, used by the British and French.
*Tahiti. Major island in the South Pacific’s French-occupied Society Islands. At the time in which the narrative is set, the island group had been unofficially ceded by the British to the French; however, the British presence in Papeetee is still maintained in the form of its chief consul. His corrupt administration exemplifies the self-delusory arrogance inherent in colonial systems that purport to “civilize” colonized peoples but in fact exploit and debase them. For instance, the narrator contrasts the simple beauty and usefulness of the native barkcloth (tapa) with the European fripperies ridiculously adopted by some Tahitians. Moreover, he provides an insightful analysis of the cycle of dependency and idleness engendered in a colonized people who abandon traditional economies (such as tapa-making, canoe-building, and even coconut harvesting) to accept handouts from colonial authorities. Yet, the narrator reserves his greatest scorn for the European missionaries, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, who seem more interested in establishing the dominion of their own narrow creeds than in sharing the common message of Christianity. These “mickonarees,” as they are called in the island’s pidgin English, have effectively eradicated Tahitian culture—from the innocent pleasures of its traditional sports to the profound spectacle of its ritual dances.
Imeeo (ee-MAY-ay-oh). Small remote island in the Tahitian group offering a view of more purely traditional Tahitian culture that contrasts with the decadence of Papeetee. The narrator first goes to this island to work as a day laborer on a plantation. However, he soon wearies of the tropical, mosquito-infested climate, and sets out for the highlands on a hunt for bullocks, wild descendants of animals left by the explorer George Vancouver fifty years earlier. The increasing wildness of his trek culminates in a walking tour into the interior. In the solitary village of Tamai, he experiences the old Tahitian hospitality that welcomes him as an honored guest in the first house he approaches. Unlike his friendships with parasitic Tahitians in Papeetee, the friendships he forms with his Imeeo hosts are real, and he effectively becomes part of their family.
The narrator offers many ethnographic details on traditional Tahitian food, drink, and architecture. He recounts both the food served in a traditional Tahitian feast and the complicated seating arrangement dictated by the laws of hospitality and family lineage. In one passage that presages the epic catalogs in Moby Dick (1851), he provides an exhaustive list of myriad uses of the coconut tree—its fruit for food, its leaves for thatch, its nuts for cups, its fibers for cord, its oil for embalming, and so on. He also informs on taboo subjects such as the intoxicating kava drink and the girls’ ritual dance that has been suppressed by missionaries in Papeetee.
Partoowye. Royal village of hereditary Tahitian queen Pomaree that is the narrator’s final destination on Imeeo. There, he glimpses the once-glorious past of the Polynesian court with its strict protocol and rigid hierarchy. Compared to the sickly, degenerate Tahitians of Papeetee, the inhabitants of Partoowye live up to the physical and spiritual ideal of the “noble savage” that the narrator has sought. Pomaree herself is almost the caricature of the unpredictable Polynesian who is mild one moment, passionate the next. Ultimately, though, he portrays these “true” Tahitians as a doomed culture without the focus or resources to defend themselves from the overwhelming forces of European imperialism.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 217
Anderson, Charles Roberts. Melville in the South Seas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939. A reliable account of Melville’s South Seas voyages, featuring comparisons between the facts of Melville’s experience and the fictions of Moby Dick, Typee, and Omoo.
Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Penguin, 1977. Lawrence was important in the reevaluation of Melville in the 1920’s. Lawrence has two essays on him in this book, including one on Typee and Omoo.
Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: The Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951. Includes excerpts from letters to and from Melville and his family, reviews of his work, and excerpts from his novels that have biographical significance. Good for browsing.
Melville, Herman. “Omoo”: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas. Vol. 2 in The Writings of Herman Melville. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1968. Features an excellent, concise note that places the novel in the context of Melville’s career.
Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. Berke-ley: University of California Press, 1985. Incisive psychological and Marxist reading of Melville’s life and work, arguing that he was one of the leading thinkers of his age. Its reading of Melville’s family’s place in the historical context of the 1840’s is unparalleled.
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