Tales of the South Pacific

by James Michener

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963

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 girls’ lovers are killed in battle.

The stir-crazy sailors finally encounter the enemy in the last four stories—“The Strike,” “Frisco,” “The Landing on Kuralei,” and “The Cemetery at Hoga Point.” Even though the narrator is personally involved, his commentary is oddly restrained. The commander of the Navy Supply Depot in “The Strike” is Captain Kelley, a no-nonsense officer who likes to imitate Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. Unlike the descendants of the mutineers in “The Mutiny,” sailors such as Polikopf rebel against authority by burlesquing naval life.

In “Frisco,” the crew of a landing craft headed for Kuralei form a loose bond through their shared memories of the last American city in which they spent time. “The Landing on Kuralei” is a minute-by-minute account of the American assault, during which more than nine hundred Japanese and more than two hundred American soldiers are killed. The narrator fully comprehends the senselessness of war when he discovers that the courageous Tony Fry is killed during the landing and that the cowardly Bill Harbison has avoided the conflict altogether. The elegiac tone of “A Cemetery at Hoga Point” is tempered by the assertions of the narrator and the two black gravediggers that there will never be a shortage of good men when duty calls.

Even though Tales of the South Pacific was considered by many critics to be a poor choice for the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, the novel is noteworthy for its small-scale approach to an epic conflict. The Pacific theater of war as recorded in this book is a learning experience for both the readers and the military personnel. Michener implies that people such as Nellie Forbush and Joe Cable survive by questioning the values that they brought with them and adapting to their new circumstances.

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