Analysis

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Typee: A Peek at Polynesian Life was Herman Melville’s first novel and an overnight success upon its publication in 1846. Melville (1819–1891) was an American novelist, short story writer, and poet of a time period in literary history known as the American Renaissance. This literary era took place between 1830 and the Civil War and is closely associated with Transcendentalism, an intellectual movement developed in the eastern United States characterized by a core belief in the inherent goodness of humans and the corrupting effects of society and institutions.

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Inspired by Melville’s travels, Typee, a classic of adventure literature, takes its name from the province of Tai Pi Vai on the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Archipelago (French Polynesia). This novel is neither entirely autobiographical nor entirely fictional. Finished when Melville was only twenty-five years old, Typee combines real experience with imagination and contains interspersed chapters that explain native customs and culture, apparently added at the request of the publishers. Melville scholar Robert Milder has described Typee as “an appealing mixture of adventure anecdote, ethnography, and social criticism.” New York literary magazine The Knickerbocker called the novel “a piece of Münchhausenism,” an extravagant mode of fiction.

Melville spent much of the period between 1839 and 1844 working on ships at sea. In January of 1841, he signed up for a whaling voyage aboard the Acushnet in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Near the end of June of that year, the ship anchored at Nuku Hiva Harbor at the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. Like Tom (Tommo) and Toby in the novel, Melville and a companion named Richard Tobias Greene jumped ship and spent a month in Tai Pi Vai. (The characters in the novel spend four months on the island.) The young sailor Tommo narrates the tale and is sympathetic towards the customs and lifestyles of the natives, and he is critical of the missionaries who come to the island to convert them. The relaxed way of life is appealing to him, but the menace of the practice of cannibalism also colors his experience.

Melville wrote Typee with the encouragement of his family. His brother Gansevoort successfully presented the manuscript to a publisher in London. Appearing in 1846, the novel became an overnight success and was also published in New York later the same year. In the American version, the publisher removed criticisms of the missionaries and a sentence about the debauchery that took place on board the narrator’s ship when local women came to visit. These were topics considered too sensitive and unacceptable for American audiences of the time.

Places Discussed

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Dolly

Dolly. Whaling vessel that carries the narrator to the Marquesas Islands. Before arriving there, the ship and its crew spend six months at sea in pursuit of sperm whales. Though Melville’s descriptions of life on this ship are minuscule in comparison to his lavish depictions of the islands, these matters are important because they explain why the narrator and his cohort Toby decide to jump ship. It is also through these descriptions that the author chronicles injustices suffered by sailors and thus sets into motion one of his concerns in this and in later narratives: reform of oppressive and intrusive Western institutions.

*Nukuheva

*Nukuheva (noo-koo-HEE-vah). Largest and most important of the Marquesas Islands. Approximately twenty miles in length and nearly as broad, Nukuheva (now generally rendered Nuku Hiva) is large enough to boast three good harbors and is consequently the place where foreign ships first land. As the Dolly enters the harbor, the crew finds that the French have occupied the island and are maintaining control with several warships and soldiers. However, despite this familiar Western presence, the narrator is still overcome by the exotic scenery as he describes the terrain of the island from the vantage point of the Dolly. What he finds most remarkable are the swelling heights of the surrounding hills and mountains rising from the placid, blue waters of the bay. After the narrator and Toby decide to jump ship and explore the island, their journey takes them deeper into the interior of this beautiful but forbidding landscape, where they eventually will enter the valley of the Typee, a fearsome tribe whose very name in the Marquesan language connotes cannibalistic practices.

Valley of the Happar

Valley of the Happar. Valley on the island of Nukuheva that is populated by the supposedly peaceful Happar tribe. As the narrator and Toby plan their escape from the Dolly and venture into the interior of the island, they debate whether to enter the valley of the Happar or the valley of the Typee.

Valley of the Typee

Valley of the Typee. Nukuheva valley that the narrator and Toby eventually enter after an arduous descent down rugged precipices and through areas overgrown with dense, suffocating vegetation. As he enters this valley, the narrator is struck by its immense and startling beauty, especially in contrast to the harsh landscape over which he had recently traversed. His wonder is tempered by his fear of the Typee; however, he soon learns that the Typee are not as fearsome and violent as he had feared. In fact, they seem to be a peace-loving people who greet him and his companion with much hospitality. Soon after the men enter the valley, Toby disappears, leaving the narrator alone to calculate his chances for survival among these strange but seemingly friendly people. Over the course of his four-month stay among the Typee, the narrator describes their dwellings and chronicles their daily practices, including their bathing habits and their dressing rituals. He also falls in love with Fayaway, a young woman whose breath-taking beauty he describes in surprisingly graphic detail. By including such a detailed, almost anthropological account of the domestic life of the Typee, Melville does much to humanize these Polynesian people and sets the groundwork for his critiques of the intrusive practices of Western merchants and missionaries.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 277

Anderson, Charles Roberts. Melville in the South Seas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939. A still reliable account of Melville’s own South Seas voyages featuring comparisons between the facts of Melville’s experience and the fictions of Moby Dick, Typee, and Omoo.

Herbert, T. Walter. Marquesan Encounters: Melville and the Meaning of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. An examination of Typee alongside two other nineteenth century narratives of Americans in the South Seas in the context of how Marquesan societies were irreparably damaged by contacts with white people during this era. Provides excellent readings of the political and religious dimensions of Melville’s book.

Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Penguin Books, 1978. Lawrence was important in the re-evaluation of Melville in the 1920’s. (Melville had sunk into obscurity between the end of his novelistic career in the 1850’s and this rediscovery.) Lawrence has two essays on him in this book, including one on Typee and Omoo.

Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891. Vol. 1. New York: Gordian, 1951. Leyda’s work is a two-volume collection of documents important to the life and career of Melville, including excerpts from letters to and from Melville and his family, reviews of his work, and snippets of Melville’s novels which allude to cited biographical data.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. Berke-ley: University of California Press, 1985. Incisive psychological and Marxist reading of Melville’s life and work, arguing him as one of the leading thinkers of his age. Its reading of Melville’s family’s place in the historical context of the 1840’s is unparalleled.

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