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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.

Plot Summary

The novel describes Tommo's pact with fellow sailor Toby to escape from the the whale ship Dolly , which has put in at the...

(The entire section contains 1541 words.)

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Typee, Melville's first novel, is partially based on his time in the Marquesas Islands after escaping from the whaler Acushnet in 1842.

Plot Summary

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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1155

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 special permission, since entering a canoe is ordinarily taboo for a woman.

One day a handsome stranger appears among the Typees bearing news from other parts of the island. He is Marnoo, a taboo man, who is free to go among all the tribes without harm. When Tom learns that Marnoo knows English, he asks the native to help him escape. This Marnoo cannot do for fear of arousing the anger of the Typees.

The daily life of the natives is extremely regular. Each morning they bathe and eat breakfast. After the meal, they smoke their pipes. The rest of the morning they spend sleeping, conversing, or doing odd jobs about their houses. The men often spend the afternoon in the large meetinghouse of Mehevi; there they relax and joke in a sort of bachelors’ club. Before the evening meal, they bathe again. After the meal, the young girls entertain the rest with dancing. Everyone retires at an early hour.

Tom is present at the Feast of the Calabashes. It seems to have some religious significance, but most of the time is spent in eating and drinking. During the two days of the festival, Tom decides that the natives do not take their religion seriously. They possess many idols not treated with any high degree of respect. The most universal religious observance is that of tattooing; everyone is tattooed upon the face, even the women. The bodies of some of the men are completely covered with intricate designs.

Since the men outnumber the women in the tribe, the women often have two or three husbands, but the men never have more than one wife. All in the tribe seem happy with the various aspects of their social organization. Private property is limited to household goods; food is common property. All understand and follow the laws and customs of the tribe; there are never disputes among the Typees.

One day, a battle is fought between the Typees and a neighboring tribe. Afterward, the bodies of the dead enemies are taken to the ceremonial feasting place. For the next day or two, Tom is not allowed to leave the vicinity of his house. He suspects that the Typees are making a meal of their dead enemies. Later he discovers the remains of the meal and finds that he is correct, though the Typees deny that they are cannibals.

A few days later, Marnoo again appears among the Typees. This time he tells Tom to try to escape by means of the same path by which he left. Tom is unable to leave the village, however, for Kory-Kory keeps close watch on him day and night.

Not many days after Marnoo leaves, the Typees excitedly announce the approach of a boat. Tom argues with the natives and finally persuades them to let him go to the beach. He has some difficulty in getting there, since his leg begins to swell again. At the beach, Tom finds a boat from an Australian ship standing just outside the surf. Marnoo tells the Australian captain of Tom’s trouble, and he sends a boat loaded with presents to obtain Tom’s release. The Typees, however, have no wish to release their captive. In desperation, Tom breaks away from the guard placed around him and plunges into the surf. He manages to reach the boat, and the sailors pull away from shore. Thus ends Tom’s captivity among the Typees. His only regret is in leaving the faithful Kory-Kory and the beautiful Fayaway.

Many years later Tom again meets Toby and learns from him that he intended to return to the aid of his injured friend, but he was tricked into boarding a vessel that sailed from Nukuheva the following day. It is only long after Toby gave Tom up for lost that the two friends learn of each other’s fate after their separation.

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