Support the Monkey! Tell All your Friends and Teachers

Help / FAQ

printable study guide online download notes summary

Herman Melville


Have you ever felt like running away from everything tedious and routine by escaping into a world of adventure, fantasy, danger, and delight? Herman Melville actually did this, and he tells the story of his adventures in Typee. Maybe you've never actually experienced an exotic exploit like this, but you've probably made some impulsive, split-second decisions- to stay out all night, crash a party, pull a practical joke- only to find yourself in more hot water than you bargained for. This is exactly what happens when Tommo, Melville's narrator, and his friend Toby run away from their whaling ship the Dolly and hide out on the island of Nukahiva. They were looking for adventure, and relief from the grueling drudgery of shipboard life- and they find themselves in the midst of Typee inhabitants, about whom they've heard the most ferocious and terrifying stories.

Are the Typees really cannibalistic savages- or is their valley in fact a South Sea Garden of Eden? Are the missionaries, who claim to be civilizing the natives, really bringing corruption and depravity to the islands? What does the primitive life of the Typees say about us and our notion of civilization? These are the questions that Typee makes you think about while it's also telling an exciting and suspenseful story.


After insisting in his preface that everything in the book is the "unvarnished truth," Melville lets his narrator (whose name we know only as Tommo, the nickname the Typees later give him) take over and tell the story in the first person. Though for many years readers believed Melville and thought Typee was true, we now know that much of the book is exaggerated or distorted, and some of it is totally invented. For example, Melville spent only four weeks alone with the Typees, not four months, as the book claims. Typee is a novel that Melville tries to pass off as truth. Why? Perhaps Typee actually captures the truth more vividly than the dry facts alone would have done. Remember that Melville insisted that Billy Budd was not a work of fiction, but that it told the truth "uncompromisingly." Maybe fiction implies "lie" to Melville and symbolizes the deceit of civilization that he finds so destructive.

Tommo plunges us into his story by telling how sick he is of being at sea on board the whaling ship Dolly, and how desperately he wants to be on land again. He's thrilled when the Marquesas Islands are sighted, even though the islands, located to the south and east of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, fill him with thoughts of "heathenish rites and human sacrifice." You'll see how his attitude changes as he finds out more about them, and yet how hard it is for him to shake off his initial reaction. We all approach other cultures with certain prejudices that influence our perceptions. At least Tommo has some awareness of this.

The boat arrives at the island of Nukahiva, and we learn that the French have just taken possession of it. While the boat is still anchored off-shore, a group of naked island girls swim out to it and climb aboard. A drunken orgy ensues, and Tommo reflects on how the Europeans, who claim to be coming to civilize the islanders, are in fact exposing them to the worst kind of corruption and depravity. This theme is developed with great force throughout Typee. Doesn't it make you think of innocent Billy Budd, so often described as a barbarian, who is destroyed through the lies of the evil but sophisticated Claggart and the harsh laws of naval authority? The trusting innocence of Billy and the natives is no match for the traps of civilization.

Tommo has been influenced by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of the noble savage- man in the state of nature whose intrinsic goodness is buried and corrupted- when civilization takes over. This was a notion adopted by romanticism, the early-19th-century movement that emphasized the importance of individual feeling, the cult of nature, and the spiritual truth behind physical reality. Tommo is a romantic in many other senses as well: He is eager for adventure, open to whatever new experience comes his way, questing for truth and opposed to authority. Some readers feel that Tommo is never really developed into a character, but if you look at his attitudes, beliefs, and point of view, you can learn a lot about what sort of person he is.

Partly because he's a romantic who can't resist the lure of adventure, and partly because he's sick of life on the Dolly, Tommo jumps ship. He convinces a spirited, taciturn, and altogether more rational young sailor named Toby to go along with him. Packing a little bit of food but otherwise devising no real plans, the two make their daring escape into the mysterious interior of the island. They don't care what happens to them, so long as they don't get near the fierce tribe known as the Typees, about whom they've been strongly warned.


If you've ever made a wild and potentially dangerous decision, such as bushwacking a short-cut through the woods instead of following the regular path, you probably remember the let-down you experienced after the initial rush of excitement had passed. Soon you come to a steep cliff- or worse, you get lost and night closes in. Now your let-down turns to fear and maybe despair. This is exactly the situation Tommo and Toby find themselves in once they wander into the mountains after their daring escape. They sleep out with no shelter, get soaked in a rainstorm, and discover that their food supplies have turned to mush. In addition to everything else, Tommo's leg begins to swell and gives him terrible pain. Their spirits do lift a bit after several days of roughing it when they see a beautiful valley stretching out below. But the question they keep asking is: Who lives there? Happars (a friendly, peaceful tribe) or the dread Typees? Toby decides it's got to be Happars (how often wishful thinking takes over in a moment like this!) and, at great peril of life and limb, and great pain for Tommo, they descend to the valley.

These chapters introduce a symbolic overtone when Tommo's leg becomes diseased. The infirmity cripples him for much of the book, but it's never explained and comes and goes mysteriously. Does it symbolize his impotence in this situation, or his fear and disorientation? A few readers interpret it as a symbolic castration. Keep these possible meanings in mind later in the story, when the leg acts up again. Also make note that the valley they sight is described as the "gardens of Paradise," introducing the Eden theme, and that suspense keeps building around their horror of falling into the hands of the Typees.


Toby and Tommo finally make it to the beautiful valley, and their arrival causes a great uproar among the inhabitants. Can you picture how they must have felt in this totally strange place with mobs of naked people surrounding them and leading them through the valley? Tommo is particularly disconcerted by one powerful man, who keeps staring him sternly in the face. And then this fierce man demands to know which tribe they favor- Typee or Happar? Tommo's life depends on his answer and some instinct prompts him to say: Typee. He's right! These are the fearsome Typees, and now the two young men are totally in their grasp.

But Tommo's actual impressions don't agree at all with his fearful forebodings. Physically, the Typees are a beautiful race, and they seem to be treating Tommo and Toby quite well. The powerful man who stared him in the face is Mehevi, one of the Typee chiefs, and Tommo describes him as one of "Nature's noblemen" for his dignified bearing and aura of command, again bringing out the noble savage theme. Tommo and Toby get assigned to one family, which consists of Marheyo, a gentle old man, Tinor, his kindly and industrious wife, Kory-Kory, their son who becomes Tommo's guide, guard, protector, and valet, and the beautiful Fayaway, with whom Tommo promptly falls in love. He describes Fayaway as a gentle child of nature, with rich olive skin, lovely blue eyes, and thick brown hair.

NOTE: In her utter innocence, sweetness, simplicity, inner calm, and happiness, Fayaway is almost like a female version of Billy Budd.

And yet despite the kindness and beauty of these people, Tommo still strongly suspects that he and Toby will be cooked and eaten any minute. Are the Typees the treacherous savages they're reputed to be, or are they as good as they seem?

NOTE: Questions about the true nature of the Typees become one of the novel's major themes. Another theme is Tommo's willingness to change his mind and judge the Typees on their own terms. How different he is in this regard from other 19th century white men, especially missionaries, who came to the South Seas to impose their notions of religion and culture on the indigenous people.


Toby gets away! He's already tried once to flee over the mountains, but a Happar warrior assaulted him before he could make it. However, this time his escape succeeds. It seems that a European ship has sailed near the Typee beach, and the islanders have let Toby go there to make contact with the sailors. He's promised Tommo to come back with medical help for his ailing leg, so that they can then both leave the valley of Typee together. But days pass and Toby does not reappear. (You don't find out what happened to him until the book's sequel.) You won't have any trouble imagining how Tommo feels about Toby's failure to keep his word. Has his pal double-crossed him? Or was he killed and eaten by the cannibalistic natives? Tommo can't get a straight answer out of the Typees, and he sinks into despair.

One day there comes a report that boats have been spotted off the bay, and Tommo, crippled as he is, decides to rush down to the shore. But the islanders surround him and won't let him budge. His heart sinks as he realizes that he's being held captive, and it's useless to try to resist.

The theme of captivity introduces a new mystery into the book: Why do the Typees want to keep Tommo? We never learn the truth, but it makes you think a lot about the nature of these people. Like Tommo, you keep wondering about their motives, and you experience Tommo's fear even as you succumb to his pleasure in the natives' kindness and innocent charm. The theme of captivity makes you feel how entirely cut off this valley is from the rest of the world.

You also learn a lot in these chapters about the customs of the islanders- how they light fires and prepare breadfruit, for example. Anthropologists have confirmed the validity of a great deal of the factual information in Typee, though Melville also changes certain facts; for example, he creates a lake where one does not exist to suit his narrative or symbolic pattern.


Suddenly Tommo's leg feels better and his mood and attitude toward the Typees change completely. You can possibly relate to this if you think about how different your outlook on life becomes after you recover from a serious illness. You can appreciate books, music, even nice weather a lot more when you're feeling yourself again. But Tommo's transformation goes deeper than this. Not only does he feel happy to be with the Typees, but his happiness leads him to open up to the positive aspects of their lives. He compares them with Europeans and decides that, all in all, the Typees have it much, much better. This chapter is, thus, central to the whole theme of the noble savage and the joys of barbarity.

Tommo admits that life in this "Happy Valley" is less intellectual than the European or American mode of existence, but this is more than compensated for by the pleasures the people enjoy. (You might compare Billy's happy innocence with Claggart's tortured intellectualism here.) He confesses that the Typees are cannibals and allows that this is "a rather bad trait in their character." But then he compares cannibalism with the "fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death- dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars" and he concludes that "the white civilized man [is] the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth."

NOTE: He's got a point here when you stop and think about our arsenals of atom bombs and agents of chemical warfare, not to mention the normal weapons we've developed for conventional warfare. Aren't our wars and potential for war far worse than anything so-called primitive people have ever done with bows and arrows?

Are you shocked at how Tommo dismisses the issue of cannibalism? You can bet that the readers of his day were even more shocked. But Melville wants to show that cannibalism, while bad, can exist alongside many good traits that the Typees possess. He undermines the assumption that cannibalism necessarily means that the Typees are completely brutal and depraved. The point is, we have to stop judging in such simple and sweeping terms, and we have to let ourselves enter into the lives of these people and see what they're about.

Tommo, like so many of us, is a creature of moods, and in his refreshed and happy frame of mind, he allows himself a new range of perceptions about the Typees. These perceptions make Chapter 17 exciting to read as well as central to the thematic argument of the book.


Now that Tommo is feeling better and more accepting of his situation, he spends a period of tranquility in the valley of the Typees. He describes swimming with Typee girls, boating on a fantasy lake with his beloved Fayaway, watching the dances of the girls, and participating in the festivals celebrated by the people, especially the exciting and grand feast of the Calabashes, in which everyone joins in a big eating and drinking party that Tommo guesses has some religious purpose. These chapters may not be quite so exciting to read as the ones dealing with Tommo and Toby's escape over the mountains and their first days with the Typees, but they do give you some interesting facts about the islanders and paint some lovely pictures of their life.

In Chapter 18, Tommo encounters the handsome Marnoo, whom he describes as the Polynesian Apollo (Apollo is the Greek god of poetry, music, and the sun). It turns out that Marnoo speaks English! He's from a different valley, but since he's taboo he's allowed to go from valley to valley without being harmed. What really makes Marnoo special is that he's lived with white men; knows their language and ways; but retains his native dignity. In fact, he's superior in many ways to both whites and Typees. Tommo tries to get Marnoo to help him escape, but when the islanders begin to understand what they're talking about, they become extremely angry.

NOTE: Why, you might be wondering, does Tommo want to escape, now that he's discovered what a delightful place Typee valley can be? It's a good question, probably best answered by thinking over your own feelings and reactions. If you've ever traveled to a beautiful spot or a fascinating foreign city, you may go through a time when you feel you never want to return home- back to the same old routine. But if you stay long enough, you begin to miss little things about home. Even though you know it could never be as exotic or beautiful as the place you've traveled to, you determine that you have to get back. This is part of what Tommo experiences. Some readers speculate that Tommo's desire to return reveals Melville's fundamental commitment to his own culture, a force almost like gravity that he could not resist. You should also remember that Tommo is being held captive- yes, his prison is pretty comfortable, but it's still a prison, and his romantic nature yearns for freedom. He never does know what the islanders intend to do with him. Typee valley may be an Eden, but every Eden has its serpent- and the serpent here is the potential violence that Tommo fears the Typees conceal deep inside (or maybe not so deep!).


In these chapters, Tommo develops the idea of the Typees as noble savages by describing in greater detail their physical beauty and elaborating on their customs. Tommo was particularly struck by how tall and shapely the Typee men and women are, how smooth their skin is, and how clean and healthy they all seem to be, especially when you compare them with the sorry specimens of most Western men and women. He also tells us how democratic and fair-minded the Typees are, how little they quarrel among themselves, and how they don't need law because they are governed "by an inherent principle of honesty and charity towards each other." This concept is crucial to the notion of the noble savage. Think about Billy Budd and how necessary Captain Vere felt it was to uphold the law and hang a man in order to maintain discipline on board his ship. Who's more savage?

Tommo tells us that the Typees do not work, and indeed don't have to work, because everything they need is there for the taking and enjoying. Other visitors to the island actually contradicted this, but Melville describes it this way because it's necessary to complete his picture of the happy, carefree noble savage. Melville may even have invented the literary myth of the tropical paradise, where all you have to do is sit under a palm tree while food falls into your hands, and the sun always shines. But the underside of this is a certain laziness and tendency to sleep a lot that Tommo finds somewhat boring. He needs to have a goal, while the Typees are content to live for the moment.

He brings up the story of the Fall of Adam here, so important in the symbolism of Billy Budd. But the Typees are people before the Fall. Tommo again blames the missionaries for forcing the South Sea islanders to work when they don't have to, and for ruining the people, wrecking their culture, and then taking their land. In Tommo's view, the missionaries have forced the biblical Fall of Man to come true in the South Seas, and then they profit from the work the islanders do as a consequence. The islanders listen to the missionaries and even pretend they're Christians, but the religion means nothing to them. They're so innocent, they don't need it, and it just becomes part of the destructive force of Western civilization. "Civilization," Tommo says angrily, "is gradually sweeping from the earth the lingering vestiges of Paganism, and at the same time the shrinking forms of its unhappy worshippers..." It has spread its vices to the people it calls savages, but withheld its blessings.

This is the clearest statement of the theme that the men who came to civilize the islanders are actually the ones who turned them into savages.


Before he gets to the exciting conclusion of the novel, Tommo pauses in these chapters to give more information on the Typees and the land they live in. He describes wildlife, birds, bugs, the beautiful weather that the island constantly enjoys, and some of the odd customs of the islanders, such as their chanting. One custom that Tommo finds particularly alarming is tattooing. Both male and female Typees have their bodies and faces tattooed, with the result that some of them look like walking drawings. What really upsets Tommo, however, is when the Typee tattoo artist shows an interest in applying his art on Tommo's white skin. Can you see why he's so alarmed? For Tommo it's a symbolic act: It would be like crossing the last barrier separating him from the islanders, equivalent to giving up all hope of ever getting home. Tommo, for all his love and admiration of the Typees, doesn't want to join the indigenous culture to this extent. And of course, if he ever does get back home, he'd have these permanent marks on his face and body that would single him out as a kind of hybrid, part savage, part civilized. It may also symbolize his constant terror of being violated physically by the islanders.


Evil erupts into Tommo's idyllic life when he comes upon his beloved foster family examining three human skulls on the floor of their hut. Is it possible that one of the heads belongs to Toby? Tommo is not only horrified, but more depressed than ever because his leg is acting up.

NOTE: The leg hurts each time Tommo's spirit sinks and symbolizes his powerlessness and despair.

He begins to fear more and more that the Typees will eventually make a meal of him, and he simply can't see any way out. The fears become all the more intense when a battle breaks out between the Typees and Happars, and Tommo sees several bloody Happar bodies being carried back to the sacred Taboo Groves. He wants to know what's going on, but the fierce, violent one-eyed chief Mow-mow absolutely forbids it. We'll see how Mow-mow comes back at the very end of the story. Later Tommo does penetrate the Taboo Groves and opens up a carved wooden container, only to find the mutilated remains of a human body! Now he knows beyond any doubt that the Typees eat their slain enemies. His Eden is shattered by this knowledge of evil. The ferocious Mow-mow comes to symbolize all the violence of these people, which Tommo had seen little sign of until now.

NOTE: As in Billy Budd, innocence and violence seem to be linked, perhaps springing from the same source deep inside human nature.

You'll have no trouble imagining Tommo's desperation to escape now that his idyll has ended. His spirit lifts a bit when Marnoo returns and suggests that he sneak away from the Typees at night when they're all sleeping. Marnoo even points out a path he can take over the mountains, but the plan fails because someone always wakes up. Tommo sinks to his lowest ebb, though he does derive some comfort from the sympathy of kindly old Marheyo, who has learned two words of English: home and mother, the things Tommo most craves.

Tommo's escape comes out of the blue, and it brings Typee to a thrilling conclusion. After being passive for so long, Tommo explodes with action in the final chapter when he hears that a boat is harbored in the bay. The islanders violently debate whether or not to let him go, with Mow-mow leading the opposition party. But while they're arguing with each other, Tommo rushes down to the beach. Karakoee, the Oahu islander who has come to rescue Tommo, was offered a reward by the captain of an Australian ship that needs more men for its crew. The captain heard about Tommo from Marnoo, so it turns out that the "Polynesian Apollo" proved helpful after all.

The last moments are tense as Karakoee urges Tommo to hurry, and he must bid a hasty farewell to the tearful Fayaway. Then Tommo jumps in the rowboat that has neared the shore, and the rowers pull with all their might to get away. Mow-mow swims furiously after them with his tomahawk clenched between his teeth. Swallowing his pity, Tommo dashes the fierce warrior with the boat-hook and hits him just below the throat. His last image of the Typees is the "ferocious expression" on Mow-mow's face. Tommo has had to use violence himself to make his escape back to home and mother. Does this mean Tommo has picked up the Typee trait he most dreads, that their violence has made him a savage in the worst sense? Or is Melville saying that violence is inside all of us- civilized and savage alike- always ready to spring out when we're provoked, scared, or desperate? It makes you stop and think about your own reaction to the scene and wonder how you would have acted.

In a brief sequel, Melville tells how Toby was kidnapped, in effect, by a wily beachcomber who sold him to a ship captain in need of crew. Toby desperately tries to persuade them to rescue Tommo, but they don't listen, and he's forced to sail away. After the publication of Typee, Toby came forward to verify the part of the story that he had experienced. Both Tommo and Toby were surprised and delighted to find each other alive.



ECC [Billy Budd and Typee Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
Further distribution without the written consent of, Inc. is prohibited.

  Web Search Our Message Boards   

All Contents Copyright © 1997-2004
All rights reserved. Further Distribution Is Strictly Prohibited.

About Us
 | Advertising | Contact Us | Privacy Policy | Home Page
This page was last updated: 10/18/2019 3:25:34 PM