Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.