Study Guide

Typee

By Herman Melville

Typee Introduction

Typee is the red-headed stepchild of one of the most famous novels in modern literature: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick . Whether you've read that big kahuna or not, Typee will introduce you to Polynesian adventure, whaling ship boredom, and a hyper-observant, well-informed storyteller eager to offer his tale—at about half the page count.

It's up for debate whether this story of a sailor held captive by maybe-cannibals on a beautiful and remote island in the Marquesas is strictly true or not. When Melville first tried to publish it, it was as a true account of his own time as an adventure-seeking sailor. When the publishers looked at him like he had lobsters growing out of his ears, he even added chapters about everyday customs, animals, and plant life, just to try to prove that he had spent four months in the Typee Valley. Eventually, it was published as fiction in 1846. (Note: it sold better than Moby-Dick, or any other book he would writer later in life.)

So, did Melville actually do time with a sweet-hearted cannibal tribe? It's hard to say. But either way, Typee provides two for the price of one. It's one part proto-adventure novel in a landscape many of us will never see. And it's one part hyper-progressive discussion about the native islanders and the damaging European culture that began once Columbus-era exploring and "discovering" became en vogue.

What is Typee About and Why Should I Care?

Reading Typee is a lot like going on an Internet binge, only with gorgeous, intricate descriptions of landscape and plenty of old-timey charm. Here's a list of "websites" (literary moments) you can expect to click through on the journey:

DIY Flower Accessories: All the Rage for Spring!
Get Cut with The Islander Diet: What is Breadfruit, Anyway?
Popular Tattoos of the Typee People, Their Meanings, and Whether You Should Get One
35 Everyday Uses for Palm Fronds
Dress For Success: How to Channel Your Inner Typee Warrior
Using Plant As Medicines: Treatments You Can Try at Home
Are You "Taboo"? Take This Quiz & Find Out!
Wedding Tips: Festival of the Calabashes Tablescape Ideas
Video: Chief Mehevi is Angry. You Won't Believe What Happens Next!
First Person: My Life As A Prisoner of a Cannibal Cult

Well… you get the idea.

Okay, so don't just read Typee for the clickbait. It's also a chance to complicate your idea of European bias against cultures that do it differently. Reading older books about so-called exotic countries can seem depressing to our contemporary brains, where authors may say reductive things about non-Euro-centric cultures.

But Melville makes his best efforts as a nineteenth-century man to approach the Typee culture with respect and openness, interrogating his own ignorance and wondering if all this European meddling does any good for native peoples, whose values and particular joys may get lost in the shuffle. His attempts aren't always pitch-perfect, but reading this book is a literary way to think about how systems of power can give goodies to one group of people, while things don't exactly work out for another.

A little too heady for you? Then you can start by thinking of narrator Tommo as a kind of ancestor to freewheeling gourmand Anthony Bourdain, sampling the local delicacies and culture while cracking jokes and taking in the sights—plus, you know, kidnapping.

Either way, Typee is an adventure book chock-full of specificity, new sights and sounds, and a good bit of danger. But it's also a great chance to remember that we're all human, all interesting, and all worthwhile... no matter what we eat for dinner.

Typee Resources

Websites

Where It Belongs
Here's a compact-and-useful explanation of the book's standing in Melville's larger life and career.

For When We Feel Nerdy and Curious
This is a "fluid text" of the book, including scholarly introductory essays and a copy of the first edition that shows the path of revisions in each successive edition.

So You'd Like to Visit the Marquesas…
Well, just head to the local tourism board.

Mapping It Out
Get a sense of the geography at work in Typee—all from the comfort of your own home.

Keep It Domestic
Or maybe you'd like to visit the place where Tommo—er… we mean, Herman, ended up.

History of Island Life, Anyone?
The Polynesian Cultural Center is a good place to start.

Movie or TV Productions

Enchanted Island
The 1958 film is loosely based on the novel, and known mostly for being, well, "terrible."

Articles and Interviews

First Thought, Best Thought
Here's a discussion of how early Melville work—Typee included—signaled his lifelong creative project.

But Is it For Real?
Is the book a true story? Or is it simply a hoax? Click to find out more…

Melville: the First James Frey?
When it comes to a book, is it really "Just the Facts" that matter?

A Whale of a Tale
Check out this nearly-exhaustive introduction to Melville, whaling, and his life on the sea.

Political Ambitions
Typee may have started Melville's criticism of imperialism, but he kept on it.

Melville Gets Emo
This article is in regards to Moby Dick but we think you'll see some valuable points about Typee, too.

Video

A Fly-Over Look at the Typee Valley
Imagine you're one of those birds Melville goes on about, and soar through this site.

Modern-Day Marquesas
Here's a tourist's raw footage of his visit to Nuka Hiva. It may not be slick, but it's still pretty cool.

Typee in HD
Check out this edited montage of sights from the island.

That Time "Survivor" Shot in the Marquesas…
...and had a very different experience from Tommo.

Audio

Typee Chants (Sort Of)
These are from the general Polynesian neighborhood, anyway.

Tommo's Vocal Stylings (An Approximation)
Here they are, by way of a twentieth-century folk act.

Read Along!
Check out this free audio version of the novel.

Images

Cover Art
Check out this first edition cover of Typee.

The Author Himself
We dig the beard, Herman.

Mow-Mow?
Here's a tattooed warrior chief, standing apart from the fracas.

Tior Bay, Today
Here's a seagull eye's view of the place.