Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener

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Summary

(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 first appearance of what was to become a major theme in Michener’s later novels: the need for racial tolerance.

The effects of long periods of inaction on virile young men are demonstrated in the next three stories. In “Dry Rot,” eight hundred men who are afflicted with a fungus growth also “itch” for action with the enemy and, in a different sense, with women. “Fo’ Dollar” is the second story that inspired South Pacific. After the young woman he had been writing to in “Dry Rot” dies, the frustrated Joe Cable falls in love with a beautiful Tonkinese woman named Liat; however, he cannot marry her because he is to be part of the invasion of Kuralei. The theme of racial intolerance resurfaces in Cable’s reluctance to bring Liat back to the United States and in the way Liat is ridiculed by the young French women at the convent.

Bus Adams is the narrator of “A Boar’s Tooth” and “Those Who Fraternize” and is the main character in “Wine for the Mess at Segi.” In “A Boar’s Tooth,” a gruesome native ritual reminds Dr. Benoway of the revolting emphasis that all religions place on appurtenances, such as the importance some American churches place on the height of a church steeple. In “Wine for the Mess at Segi,” the dangers that the men encounter in their search for whiskey provide as much relief from boredom as does the whiskey itself. “Those Who Fraternize,” which is narrated by Bus Adams, focuses on the desperate attempts of four of the half-caste DeBecque sisters to attain security by marrying sailors. The futility of trying to establish permanent, meaningful relationships during wartime is underscored by the fact that all the...

(The entire section is 1,865 words.)