Last Updated on September 23, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386
Typee, Melville's first novel, is partially based on his time in the Marquesas Islands after escaping from the whaler Acushnet in 1842.
The novel describes Tommo's pact with fellow sailor Toby to escape from the the whale ship Dolly, which has put in at the Marquesas to obtain provisions. The first part of the book describes their escape into the interior of the island and the tremendous hardships involved in their gaining entrance to the valley of the Typee. Tommo sustains a leg injury that festers throughout his entire stay on the island.
Once Tommo and Toby make it to the Typee village, they are taken in by the natives and treated as guests. The Typee natives live an idyllic life free from labor, but their reputation as cannibals—and the difficulty of communicating verbally with them—gives rise to fear and paranoia. For example, Tommo is assigned a manservant in the form of Kory-Kory, who watches over him and sees to his needs, but Tommo suspects that Kory-Kory's real mission is surveillance. Gradually, Tommo comes to understand that the Typee do not intend to permit him to leave, but life in the valley is very pleasant otherwise, and Tommo falls in love with a local girl, Fayaway. Much of the middle section of the book is devoted to an account of life in the valley, and readers are introduced to several native characters, including the fierce Mow Mow.
The turning point for Tommo is when the Typee begin to insist that he be tattooed. Melville includes fascinating descriptions of native tattooing practices, and while it's clear that being tattooed is extremely painful, it's less clear what undergoing such a ceremony would mean. It also becomes clear that the Typee do, in fact, eat human flesh: after a battle with the neighboring Happar tribe, there is a feast at which the bodies of slain enemies are eaten, although Tommo is not allowed to witness this. It's possible that his status as "guest" is really just a prelude to his being eaten. Tommo decides that he must escape. He gets his chance when Karakoee, a sailor Tommo recognizes from the Dolly, shows up in a boat. Tommo is allowed to go to the beach and, when given a chance, gets in the boat and makes his escape.