(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Michener’s first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, appears at first to be a collection of nineteen casually related episodes. Upon closer inspection, however, a coherence becomes apparent, produced by a chorus of common themes and characters that resonate throughout the work. In this way, Michener’s novel is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942), which achieves unity through the same devices. The classification of the book, though, is still so nebulous that the Pulitzer Prize authorities felt compelled to change the category of “novel” to “fiction in book form” before awarding it the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.

Michener is more successful at attaining narrative unity in this book than he is in most of the others, largely because Tales of the South Pacific is so much shorter. The unidentified first-person narrator describes himself as a “paper-work sailor.” The observations that he makes in the first two tales, “The South Pacific” and “Coral Sea,” reveal Michener’s primary goal, which is to discuss the human side of World War II.

Although several stories, such as the first two, are no more than journalistic sketches, “Mutiny” has true literary merit. The narrator has been sent to Norfolk Island to oversee the cutting down of a strip of pine trees so that an airstrip can be built. The title refers both to Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1932) and to the resistance of an old lady named Teta Christian and a retarded fifteen-year-old girl; both of their ancestors migrated to Norfolk Island from Pitcairn Island in 1856 and planted most of the pines. The organic symbol of the trees, a “cathedral of pines,” is contrasted with the cold, heartless, mechanistic symbol, the bulldozers, one of which is blown up by the two women. Through Tony Fry, a sympathetic Navy lieutenant, Michener is saying that victory is hollow if the spirit of free individuals is trampled.

“Our Heroine” is one of two stories on which the musical South Pacific was based. Nellie Forbush is attracted to a wealthy French planter named Emile DeBecque. Although she is enchanted by the bright hues of the foliage on the island, however, she has trouble accepting the same variations in DeBecque’s eight illegitimate children. This is the...

(The entire section is 963 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

American, British, and Australian naval and marine forces face life and death in the South Pacific during World War II. An American naval lieutenant, the Commander, observes and relates the stories of the Tonkinese, the officers, the nurses, and the enlisted men he encounters. Navy lieutenant Tony Fry involves himself in everything from dealing with the survivors of the Bounty crew, to providing whiskey to the troops, to cohabiting with the Tonkinese and eventually marrying one of them. His death on the beach at Kuralei is particularly hard for the Commander, who admires Tony and even envies him.

In “The Milk Run,” Lieutenant Bus Adams, a daredevil pilot, describes spending seven hours on the water after being shot down during a cleanup mission. His rear gunner is killed, and he is under heavy bombardment from the Japanese. Upon hearing of Adams’s plight, an admiral orders his immediate rescue regardless of the cost. The rescue, involving New Zealand and American pilots, bombers, fighters, and PT boats, eventually costs $600,000. Adams admits it is a lot of money but is truly grateful he is the beneficiary.

In “Those Who Fraternize,” Adams is having a love affair with Latouche Barzan, one of four beautiful part-Javanese sisters and the daughter of a French plantation owner. Renowned for her lavish dinners and for entertaining the officers, she also is independent and freethinking. When Tony Fry arrives at the plantation, Latouche falls in love with him. Bus is heartbroken but accepts the inevitable and also accepts her gift of another French woman. He then attends the wedding of Tony and Latouche.

“Our Heroine” concerns twenty-two-year-old Navy nurse Nellie Forbush from Little Rock, Arkansas. She earlier has deftly dealt with a married lothario intent on seducing her. In the New Hebrides, she and the other nurses are pursued by the officers and lusted after by the enlisted men. Numerous instances of rape and near rape are reported, as well as tales of heroes who defend the women.

Life changes for Nellie when she meets Emile De Becque, a French plantation owner. In spite of a twenty-year age difference, they are immediately attracted, and...

(The entire section is 902 words.)