(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life is based on Melville’s experiences in the South Seas, specifically his desertion of the whaling ship Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands and his subsequent stay with a tribe of reputedly cannibalistic islanders. He wrote the novel when he was twenty-five, soon after returning from his sea journeys, and he later told his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne that “from my twenty-fifth year I date my life.” The reviews of this first novel were almost unanimously favorable, convincing Melville that he was going to be a literary success.

Typee is narrated by a dreamy young sailor who is weary of the conditions aboard the whaling ship Dolly. He combats the tedium of the voyage by constructing fantasies of tropical adventures. When the Dolly anchors in Nuku Hiva harbor in the Marquesas Islands, the sailor convinces himself and a companion named Toby to ignore the fearful tales of murderous cannibals and jump ship. Their escape from the ship to the island’s interior is a harrowing and symbolic initiation rite, forcing the young deserters to survive chills, fever, hunger, and perilous heights in order to earn their entry into the enigmatic paradise of Typee Valley. Their trial ends when they exhibit their determination by leaping from a cliff into the top of a tree in the valley below.

In Typee valley they discover a society free from the necessity of work and the restrictions of “civilized” moral codes. They are taken in by the tribe. The protagonist, who names himself Tommo, is adopted by a family which provides for all of his needs. Tommo and Toby spend their time learning about the...

(The entire section is 688 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The whaler Dolly was long at sea, and the men are discontented and restless when the captain finally gives orders to put in at Nukuheva, one of the Marquesas Islands. This is the chance for which Tom and Toby, two young sailors, are waiting. Even though the natives of the island are known to be cannibals, Tom and Toby desert the ship and flee inland, planning to hide until the Dolly sails. They hope to then sign aboard another ship where they would get better treatment.

Tom and Toby begin their flight with only a few biscuits for food. On the first night away from the ship, Tom contracts a disease that causes his leg to swell, and he is in much pain. Nevertheless, he and Toby continue. At last, when their food is all gone, they realize that they can stay alive only by giving themselves up to one of the savage tribes that inhabits the island.

They discover too late that the natives to whom they surrender themselves are the Typee tribe, the most ferocious cannibals on Nukuheva. Tom and Toby are treated with respect, however, and are given food and comfortable quarters. All the natives come to see the strangers. Mehevi, the chief of the Typees, appoints Kory-Kory as personal servant to Tom. The captives go to live in the home of Tinor, Kory-Kory’s mother. Mehevi has a medicine man examine Tom’s swollen leg, but the native remedies have no effect on the disease.

Tom, unable to walk, spends most of his time reclining in the house while Kory-Kory attends to his needs. A beautiful young maiden, Fayaway, is also his constant companion. She, among all the Typees, seems to understand the painful situation of the two captives. Toby convinces the Typees that he should be allowed to return to the main harbor on the island to seek medical aid for Tom. On the trail, he is attacked by hostile warriors from a neighboring tribe, and he returns to the Typees with an ugly head wound.

A few days later, Toby discovers a boat offshore. He is allowed to go down by the beach, but Tom is detained in his house. Toby promises to bring medical aid to Tom within three days, but the three days pass without the return of Toby. Tom can learn nothing from the natives; he realizes that now he is the single captive of the Typees. Somewhat recovered, he is allowed to roam almost at will within the country of the Typees, but he is always accompanied by Kory-Kory, and there is no chance for escape.

As Tom’s leg improves, he begins to indulge in the pleasures allowed him and to observe the native life with interest. The Typees seem to exist in a perpetual state of happiness, interrupted only by skirmishes with neighboring tribes. One of Tom’s greatest pleasures is to paddle a canoe about a small lake in company with Fayaway. For the privilege of taking Fayaway with him, he has to ask...

(The entire section is 1155 words.)