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Sick and tired of the drudgery on board the whaling ship Dolly, Tommo, the narrator and hero of Typee, jumps ship with his friend, Toby, and escapes into the mountains of Nukahiva, one of the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. They hope to live with friendly islanders, have some adventures, and then- who knows? Just so long as they don't fall in with the reputedly ferocious and cannibalistic Typees, they're sure everything will work out. But fall into the hands of the Typees is exactly what happens!
Tommo quickly begins to change his opinion of the Typees when he sees how kind they can be, and how beautiful they are physically; but he wonders how they earned their fearful reputation, and can't help worrying that maybe the Typees are merely acting friendly to trick him and his friend. His worries turn to depression and despair when Toby makes his escape and fails to return with help as he promised to do. Everything is made worse for Tommo by a mysterious leg injury that plagues him on and off throughout his stay with the Typees and rules out the possibility of an overland escape. Tommo is a prisoner of the tribe, and there's nothing he can do about it.
Suddenly Tommo's spirits lift, and he gives himself up to the enjoyment of all the many pleasures to be had in Typee valley. He's in love with an exquisitely beautiful girl named Fayaway, and he spends many happy hours with her and with his native "valet" Kory-Kory, boating, swimming, and lounging around. Not a bad life at all! Tommo compares Typee society with Western society, and finds that it has much to recommend it. The Typees are happier, healthier, more attractive physically, don't need law or money, seldom fight, and never work. This truly is a tropical paradise, a South Sea Eden- but like the biblical Eden, it too has its serpent, in the form of Tommo's nagging fears about the Typees' violence and cannibalism.
His fears erupt into nightmare when the Typees fight a battle with the neighboring tribe, and then Tommo finds the remains of a corpse they've just eaten. Now he's got to escape from here no matter what! At the exciting climax of Typee, Tommo gets word that a ship has come to the bay to rescue him, and he breaks away from the islanders, bids a tearful farewell to Fayaway, and jumps aboard. A group of warriors swim after the rescue boat, and Tommo, to his horror, must stab the chief Mow-mow to prevent him from getting on the boat and slaughtering the rescue party. But he's desperate to escape from Typee at any cost- and he succeeds.
All the action of Typee takes place on or near the South Sea island of Nukahiva, (or Nuku Hiva), one of the Marquesas Islands south and east of Hawaii. From your first glimpse of the beautiful Nukahiva Bay, with mountains rising behind it, to the final scene of Mow-mow and the fierce Typee warriors swimming after Tommo's rescue boat, the island scenery and people are always vividly before your eyes. Melville brings out the tropical paradise of Typee valley by painting beautiful pictures of hidden lakes, murmurous palm groves, and sandy ocean beaches. But this Eden also has its darker side in the mysterious Taboo Groves, shady religious precincts where Tommo suspects that cannibalism and orgiastic rites are practiced. In many ways, the setting of Typee is central to its themes; you can enjoy the pictures Melville scatters through the book, but you have also to pay attention to how he uses his setting to bring out symbols and moral issues. Be sure to notice how your view of the setting changes depending on Tommo's moods. When he's happy, Typee seems like paradise. When he's miserable, it's a horrid prison.
The style of Typee reflects the personality of Tommo, its narrator. Youthful and vivacious, Tommo plunges rapidly from adventure to moral reflection, to vivid scene painting, to diatribe, with hardly a pause to shift gears. Tommo's main desire is for experience, and the style of Typee reflects this constant craving in its light-hearted, hurrying manner. One critic spoke of its "hearty and full-blooded exuberance" as something completely new in American literature at the time. Despite his gloomy moods, you can tell that Tommo takes great pleasure in being alive; and though he often doesn't stop to digest what he's seen, he relishes the act of seeing, and seeing so many wonderful things. Humor and irony flash through the descriptions and enliven them. Tommo's language is always simple and fresh, and you see the pictures he creates as vividly as you feel his anger against the missionaries or his love for Fayaway. The style of Typee has a quality of youthful spontaneity about it that makes the book a pleasure to read.
One of the most interesting things in Typee is Tommo's point of view. He blames civilization for destroying the noble savages of the South Seas, yet he wants to return to home and mother in the civilized land where the destroyers come from; he praises the simplicity, beauty, and goodness of the Typees, yet he's always scared that they're about to eat him. Where does he stand? Whose side is he on? One critic described Tommo as a "gentleman-beachcomber" who holds himself slightly apart from all groups. His social status separates him from the crew of the Dolly, his refusal to "go native" elevates him above a mere beachcomber; his hatred of the missionaries gives him a special sympathy with the natives, yet he won't allow himself to be tattooed, and thus branded as one of them. In Chapter 4, Tommo stands in a shady grove, eating bananas and comparing a naked Polynesian chief with a French admiral decked out in all the finery and trappings of his rank. This position, standing slightly apart while he muses on the state of nature and civilization, is typical of Tommo's point of view throughout the book. Tommo makes no commitment to any group. He's the romantic outsider motivated by curiosity and a thirst for new experience. This perspective allows Tommo to enter imaginatively into the lives and customs of the natives, but it also keeps him from drawing serious conclusions, at times. Even when he fears that he's on the verge of death, he just won't give up his gentlemanly poise.
Typee combines the form of an old-fashioned travel narrative with the excitement of a romance or gothic novel. It claims to be the "unvarnished truth," and very often it reads like a work of nonfiction- describing customs, wildlife, scenery, and historical events without much concern for plot or character development. At other times you feel a strong element of suspense giving form to the book, and you see how episodes, such as the escape over the mountains, the entry into Typee valley, and Tommo's daring getaway are constructed for their full dramatic impact. One critic, points out that Melville blended fact, invention, and information he gathered from reading in such a way that Typee seems even more true than reality. Even when the plot drops from sight, and you're reading long descriptions, you always feel you're in a heightened world where everything has a certain magic.
Many readers feel that though the structure of Typee, like Billy Budd, is not symmetrical, its pieces do add up to a coherent whole. In other words, Typee works as a novel because of the imaginative force that Melville exerts throughout. On the other hand, some wonder if the book is fish or fowl- novel or travelogue, adventure story or essay on the meaning of civilization and human nature. Others conclude that Melville has created his own unique form in Typee, and that fact and fiction are blended so well that you don't have to worry about the book's exact category. In some ways, this hybrid form points ahead to such contemporary mixing of truth and imagination as In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, and The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer.
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© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.