Last Reviewed on May 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643
In Typee, Herman Melville shows the Western tendency to consider foreign cultures through a lens of exoticism. In particular, the novel's protagonist, Tom, is preoccupied with ideas of savagery, as shown in the thoughts that occur to Tom as he prepares to embark on the voyage to the Marquesas.
The Marquesas! What strange visions of outlandish things does the very name spirit up! Lovely houris—cannibal banquets—groves of cocoa-nuts—coral reefs—tattooed chiefs—and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with bread-fruit trees—carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters—savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols—heathenish rites and human sacrifices...
When the Typee people take Tom in, he is initially hopeful that the more peaceful Happar people have found him. As Tom—now known as Tommo—gradually adjusts to their ways of life, he becomes obsessed with recording details of everything from elaborate ceremonies to mundane activities. The sexual and marital relations between males and females especially fascinate him after he realizes their importance. Because men and women largely lead separate lives, Tommo for a while failed to realize that many of the Typee are married. Moreover, he finds out that polygamy is common. Rather than a man having several wives, however, a woman often has two husbands. This occurs when an elite, older man marries a young woman and her suitor. Although he is also her husband, the older man largely the young couple. Tommo sees these customs as superior to Western practices, claiming the rareness of infidelity stemming from the ease of voluntary separation.
No man has more than one wife, and no wife of mature years has less than two husbands,—sometimes she has three, but such instances are not frequent... [A]n ill-used wife or a hen-pecked husband is not obliged to file a bill in chancery to obtain a divorce. As nothing stands in the way of a separation, the matrimonial yoke sits easily and lightly, and a Typee wife lives on very pleasant and sociable terms with her husbands. On the whole, wedlock, as known among these Typees, seems to be of a more distinct and enduring nature than is usually the case with barbarous people.
As Tommo becomes more familiar with the practice of cannibalism, he comes to understand its centrality in ritual life and social identity. He understands that European audiences probably will see him as excusing such an abhorrent practice, but he is determined to contextualize it. The limits of this understanding are sorely tested, however, when he learns that there are human heads in packages hanging from the rafters of Marheyo’s house. Only when he realizes that they had been there when he arrived can he feel confident that none of them contains Toby’s head.
[T]here were three packages hanging very nearly over the place where I lay, which from their remarkable appearance had often excited my curiosity. Several times I had asked Kory-Kory to show me their contents; but my servitor, who in almost every other particular had acceded to my wishes, always refused to gratify me in this.
One day, returning unexpectedly... my arrival seemed to throw the inmates of the house into the greatest confusion. They were seated together on the mats, and... the mysterious packages were, for some purpose or other, under inspection. The evident alarm the savages betrayed filled me with forebodings of evil, and with an uncontrollable desire to penetrate the secret so jealously guarded. Despite the efforts of Marheyo and Kory-Kory to restrain me, I forced my way into the midst of the circle, and just caught a glimpse of three human heads, which others of the party were hurriedly enveloping in the coverings from which they had been taken...
Two of the three were heads of the islanders; but the third, to my horror, was that of a white man.
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