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Herman Melville’s Typee

Written in 1846, “Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life” is a book partly based on the actual experiences of the author Herman Melville as a captive on Nuku Hiva or Nukuheva in the South Pacific Marquesas Islands. “Typee” is derived from the name of a valley in the place called Tai Pi Vai. In the story, after a long arduous trek through the mountains of Nuku Hiva, Tom (a character based on Melville) and his companion, a fellow sailor named Toby, reached the secluded valley of the Typees.

The two sailors are practically adopted by the villagers at once and treated as visitors. The novel is considered one of the most intelligent contemporary account cultural interaction between Western and Polynesian cultures in the nineteenth century Pacific which centers to themes and images symbolizing the Pacific’s natural plenty and beauty, simplicity of life, desires and motives as well as cannibalism, cultural absorption, colonialism, exoticism, and eroticism.

In Typee, Melville has effectively emphasized his point that incompetent people in authority can abuse customs and usages, such in the case of Captain Vang. Because of his incompetence and lack of concern with his crew, the sailors aboard the Dolly suffer, not to mention the hardships they endure from cruising over long hauls. When at last, Vang orders the helmsman to set course for Nukuheva, the main island of the Marquesas group, the crew finally had the chance to divert their boredom. Sex and violence are familiar objects of curiosity for the bored and restless.

Although, sexuality is a subtle motif in the text, it plays an important role in the development of Tom’s identity. Typee tells the story of how Tom, the narrator, gave in to temptation despite his fear of falling victim to cannibals, and to realize the prospect of blissful freedom in a savage domain. Initially, Tom appears to be innocent of sex. When the Dolly arrives in Nukuheva, the crew and the native girls join in a scene of wild decadence, excluding Tom as sexuality is foul and licentious on the ship.

But as Tom enters and becomes a part of the valley, he is more able to accept sexuality with decency and innocence when he falls in love with Fayaway. At this point, sexuality and nudity become innocent and pure, as opposed to how they are normally seen in the European or the American world, which is a distinction between the native and the urbanized Western culture. In essence, the Typee valley represents sex before the corruption of man, still fresh and innocent, without malice and sinful connotations.

Indeed, sex plays a central role in the allure of island life. Tom’s view of European behavior in the islands is formed by the readiness of the sailors to take advantage of innocent willingness. As Dolly stationed herself in the harbor of Nukuheva, the girls of village offer themselves to the lustful sailors for jewels and favors. Tom describes them as “picturesque band of sylphs” exhibiting “savage vivacity,” and with “an abandoned voluptuousness in their character,” whom, however, their “European civilizers” have seduced into “every vice.

” (source) Yet this contamination, says Tom, brought to these once innocent girls thrice the happiness they feel. Melville, in his book, strongly suggests the preservation of natives in their secret islands because he strongly believes on the negative effect to the natives of interacting with the European and American world. He discusses this point throughout the text particularly the influence of missionaries, colonists, and merchantmen. According to him, natives mostly are labeled heathen by missionaries who are supposed to be aliens in their native islands.

These “visitors” fail to recognize the quality of native culture even condemn native practices like differing views on sexuality or clothing (because natives have the tendency to wear less clothing due to tropical climate) which are deemed acceptable. Missionaries often use their influence to “civilize” the natives and turn them from their “barbaric” nature to domestication which is indeed against their native self thus strongly impairing their culture.

Physically, colonists and merchantmen destroy the natives by taking over their peaceful islands to build European empires. Native women are exploited by merchantmen taking out their sexual desires leaving sexually transmitted diseases that demolished a part of the native population. It may be asserted in all the cases of outrages committed by Polynesians or the natives are caused by the aggressions of the Europeans, and that the cruelty and cannibalism of some of the islanders is mainly as a response of such examples.

Melville gives high regard to native culture which he repeatedly emphasized its superiority among civilizations. It is actually the natives, who often insulted as “heathens” by the so called “civilized” people, who are unique and exceptional and even more civilized than urban people. The Typees generously share food with one another and none of them lies nor cheats nor steals. They are not stricken with debt or poverty so no one starves unlike in most cases in Europe and the United States. The Typees live in bliss and in peace despite their less intellectual existence.

Melville attacks the missionaries attempt to “civilize” the natives whom they called “savages” when in fact, according to Melville it is the cruelty and aggressions of the missionaries that quickens the barbaric nature of the islanders. The natives could even teach Europeans many things about how to be less barbaric, but ironically it is the Europeans who call them savage. Thus, according to Melville, European contact with natives has an adverse effect therefore Melville strongly believes that the best is not to disturb the natives and simply leave them in their own peaceful habitation.

Tom articulated Melville’s complex judgment of the savage life. The myth of the noble savage is merely for the self-ennoblement of those whose anger of limits stimulates them to rebel against civilization. In the irrational project of such people, mastery over self requires mastery over others, which Tom observed and did. It is certain through the story that Typee outlines a crisis of identity. Tom enjoys his sojourn yet he is terrified of being permanently absorbed into native society, or worst to becoming a victim of cannibalism, although this fear runs in the face of much evidence.

Fortunately he is not eaten. Melville does not disregard the possibility that Tom can be eaten since Melville claims to have seen natives eating an inhabitant of one of the neighboring valleys on the island. Although Tom has a friend in the person of Toby who is allowed to leave in search of a cure for his leg injury, Tom can be soon healed and then possibly eaten. The only thing that protects him from being eaten perhaps is his injured leg. Still, the process is an act of natural pity.

The contrast between the oppressive conditions of life in a “civilization” as against the primitive life enjoyed by the Typees is effectively drawn throughout the novel. By just an observation of a Typee man laboriously start a fire by rubbing two sticks, Melville concludes that it is more difficult to survive in a civilization than in the valley. Also, Melville observes that although Typees lacked a concept of personal property or crime and that they left valued spears and carvings, Melville observes they are more upright than those in a civilization:

“So pure and upright were they in all the relations of life, that entering their valley, as I did, under the most erroneous impressions of their character, I was soon led to exclaim in amazement: ‘Are these the ferocious savages, the blood-thirsty cannibals of whom I have heard such frightful tales! They deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane than many who study essays on virtue and benevolence, and who repeat every night that beautiful prayer breathed first by the lips of the divine and gentle Jesus.

‘ I will frankly declare that after passing a few weeks in this valley of the Marquesas, I formed a higher estimate of human nature than I had ever before entertained. ” (Melville 1996) Melville wants to point out that there is no reason to condemn savagery because savages might have the dignity of their own as Tom attributes to them and so Melville calls them “noble savages”. This requires understanding as to why and how the sophisticated peoples have rejected savagery for the sake of civic existence.

Europeans have the capacity of self-correction unlike the Typee or other primitive societies, who have only the capacity of self-abolition when confronted by doubtful inquiry. For them, submitting to self-criticism is already rejection of unanimity, solidarity, a union to the myths and hatred to disputes. By these lines, Melville disagrees that cannibalism is what characterized the Typees, contrary to the allegations of missionaries and sailors who had preceded him to the island and much prejudiced the natives. This is a pattern that has been repeated throughout the history of colonialism.

During the early years of colonial expansion, subjugation of native peoples was considered appropriate if they were beyond redemption, especially if they were reported to be cannibals. Whatever the truth it is about cannibalism among the Typees, they are mere flops to the savagery of the invader. Obviously, Melville is inspired by the Western colonialism which is responsible for the reduction of the native Marquesan population. As scholars revealed, Marquesan population reduced from 100,000 to only 4,865 in 1882.

This decreased is merited to Captain David Porter of the US Navy who seized the islands shortly after the War of 1812. After being treated with generosity and thereby acknowledging the pacific nature of the islanders, Porter realized the necessity to bring them under his power and eventually exploit the Marquesas economically. (Walter 1980:229-235) In summary, Typee provides opportunity for a dark satire with a risk of exposing strategies of colonialism, which, along with the role of racism, is one of the principal concerns of the novel. The need to possess one culture opens the risk of replication.

It becomes even more complicated when one speaks for the behalf of the culture to possess, as in Typee when the affiliation with the “other” is heightened by a sense of desire. Indeed the accusation of cannibalism was one of the principal means of condemning the Marquesans. Melville argues that this is just a product of discourse and no physical proof that this behavior is practiced among the Marquesans. To explore this problem, Melville used his book along with the desire to explore social organization, specifically the process or systems of sexuality and gender of the natives that radically differ from his own.

Melville’s particular site for the exploration of these social issues is the figure of Marnoo in Typee, who is off the traditional Noble Savage. He has no facial tattoos as the other natives and he is able to move between the two cultures of Typee and the West. Marnoo becomes the means of escape to Tom, but he is not the special friend of Polynesian custom, the role taken by Kory-Kory who is an “attached follower” yet “a hideous object. ” (Martin 2002: 1-3)

As to gender distinction, Melville was unable to join the two sides of his experience of the Polynesian male when writing the Typee – one which is ethnocentrically saw the other as ugly and disfigured, and another side which is in Polynesia characterized by a physical perfection of the body. Also, Melville observes that marital composition in the island is two men and one woman. He therefore speculates that this organization may contribute to the general peacefulness of the society and may contribute to homosocial if not homosexual relations. (Martin 2002: 1-3) References

Herman Melville, Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life, Penguin Books, NY, Reprint edition February 1996, ISBN 0-14043-488-7. Martin, R (2002) glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Retrieved 17 May 2010 from <http://www. glbtq. com/literature/melville_h. html>. Proyect, L. (2004) Herman Melville’s Typee: A Peep to Polynesian Life (Book Review) retrieved 17 May 2010 from <http://www. swans. com/library/art10/lproy19. html> Walter Herbert Jr, T. (1980) Marquesan Encounters. Melville and the Meaning of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press.

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