Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1021

Herman Melville’s assertion in Moby Dick (1851) that a whale ship was his Yale and Harvard reminds readers of how central to his development the sea adventures of his youth were and how strongly they would shape his writing. It was from the whaler Acushnet that Melville jumped ship in the Marquesas to spend a few weeks among the Nukuheva natives. The episode ended, sooner and less dramatically than in Typee, when he departed the island on another whaler, eventually to join the American warship United States, for a voyage back to Boston. Though the adventure ended in actuality, it began imaginatively for Melville only when he sought to discover its meaning in the fictionalized account of his sojourn among the cannibals that he called Typee. Though actually a novel based upon experience, Typee was regarded generally as simply a travel narrative when it appeared, and the work’s reputation since has had to fight against that classification. In fact, Typee contains more of the basic elements of Melville’s later fiction than its detractors have realized, and it deserves a primary place among such other early works as Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850) that give meaning to the idea of Melville’s education on board the ships he sailed as a young man.

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The essential facts of Typee, except for the time, which Melville considerably exaggerates, are true. He did jump ship in company of a friend named Toby Greene and spent a few weeks among the natives of the Typee valley, where he enjoyed a somewhat ambiguous status as a prisoner-guest. Melville did injure his leg escaping the Acushnet and allowed Toby to go for medical supplies. Toby failed to return, having been shanghaied by another whaler, and, after a few weeks Melville was taken off the island by a whaler in search of crewmen. The novel, however, is more than the sum of these few facts, and it cannot be done justice by a reading that regards it as no more than a slightly fictionalized autobiographical narrative. Far from simply recounting his adventures, in Typee Melville is examining the fundamental ambiguities in humanity and nature that would characterize his best work as the basis for the unanswerable questions his novels propose.

From its very beginning, the boys’ journey into the Typee valley promises to be more than it seems. Running not only from the ship and its cruelly authoritarian master but also from the world of the coast natives, which has been hopelessly corrupted by sailors, administrators, and missionaries, these adventurers make their way down a precipitous route that carries them metaphorically backward in time as it takes them beyond the reach of civilization. Eventually reaching the valley floor, the boys initially encounter Typee (which they still believe to be Happar) as a new paradise. Not only the fecundity and lushness of the rich valley but also the young lovers who are the first inhabitants encountered point to the discovery of a South Seas Eden. This vision of innocence and beauty in the South Seas islands was, to some extent, typical of nineteenth century Romanticism, with its recurrent theme of the noble savage, but Melville, even this early in his career, was no typical Romantic writer.

From the time Tom (now renamed Tommo) settles, albeit unwillingly, into life with the Typees, Melville begins to develop on him a series of symbols that point to the fundamental ambiguity that lies at the heart of the island “paradise.” On the one hand, the simplicity, loyalty, and unselfconscious devotion offered by Kory-Kory, and, more particularly, the innocent love and natural sexuality of Fayaway, keep alive the vision of an Edenic garden. On the other hand, Tommo’s discovery that he is in the land of the dread Typees rather than among the peaceful Happars leads to his fear of cannibalism, the most dreaded of all humanity’s aberrations. Tommo’s injured leg, which mysteriously grows worse as his suspicions of cannibalism near confirmation, becomes an objective correlative for his sick spirit, which, cut off from the civilization it sought to escape, languishes. Tattooing also develops a symbolic value, since it would complete the initiation into the Typean world begun with the ritual name change. Once tattooed, Tommo will never again be able to return to his own world.

The essential ambiguity in Typee centers on the prospect of a paradise corrupted at its heart by the horror of cannibalism. In later years, Melville would assert that he could look upon a horror and be familiar with it, but this is not so of Tommo, who cannot reconcile himself to this discovery. More generally, the implications of the innate evil of Typee seriously challenge the view of optimistic philosophers of Melville’s period who argued that the universe and humanity were essentially good, evil being only an appearance rather than a reality. Tommo might like to think that he, as a civilized human being, somehow transcends the essentially savage nature of humankind, but Melville will not have it so. In the escape scene, Tommo repays the hospitality of his hosts by driving the boat hook into the throat of one of his recent friends. Even as Tommo feels the horror of his violent act, readers feel the horror of Melville’s world in which the savage impulse dwells even in the most civilized breast.

Though perhaps less orderly than this reading suggests, Melville’s symbols are clearly present, and they serve to put his vision in a direct line of descent from that of his Calvinist forebears who endorsed the doctrine of the essential depravity of humanity. It is only because the symbols are tentative and nascent, rather than fully developed into Melville’s mature symbolism, that Typee must be seen more as an anticipation of later Melville than as a fully realized work of art in itself. Typee does reveal, however, how early Melville began to develop the symbolic mode that would become the hallmark of his greatest novels, and how soon he began to discover those unsolvable questions of the nature of good and evil that would preoccupy him throughout his career.

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