Study Guide

Typee Analysis

By Herman Melville

  • Tone

    Double Trouble

    There's the neat trick of twinning here (mentioned also in our "Narrative Technique" section), where we experience a slice of the character-Tommo's adventure, filtered through narrator-Tommo's composition and perspective. It results in a sort of double-vocal narrator, switching between the attitudes of a bewildered adventurer and learned academic as the story unfolds.

    Not only can he extol the beauty of the land and people, the ferocity of the warriors, and the pleasure of swimming in a clear lake, he can also make double-sure we believe him. He writes, "Let it not be supposed that I have overdrawn this picture. I have not done so" (27.13).

    Judge Tommo

    Because Typee is about 70% adventure story and 30% ethnographic text, and Melville was a (progressive) man of his time, there are moments when the text can seem a little…well, condescending. It can sometimes be a little tricky to tell which is which, whether Tommo is trying to compliment or evaluate, advocate or beat something down.

    For example: during a long passage about the religion of the Typee, and whether Christian missionaries do more harm than good for native peoples, Tommo ends with this thought: "In truth, I regard the Typees as a back-slidden generation. They are sunk in religious sloth, and require a spiritual revival" (24.32). Oof! That's a severe judgment—no two ways about it.

    But in its severity, we can see the distance between Tommo-as-captive and Tommo-telling-the-story-at-home. Would someone eating poee-poee and scoping out Fayaway—all while strategizing an escape—really have the energy or confidence to summon such a stern thought?

  • Genre

    Adventure, Pastoral, Quest

    Want an adventure? Well Typee is it. With cannibal threats, soaring spears, bathing beauties, and dramatic landscapes, this book has everything you need. There is an inexact threat of danger around every corner, and Tommo—largely ignorant of the Typee life—often sees shadows where only light is present.

    In chapters added in order to prove the book's "truthiness", the novel turns full-on pastoral, romanticizing the lush beauty of the valley and its inhabitants, "surrounded by all the luxurious provisions of nature, enjoyed an infinitely happier, though certainly a less intellectual existence than the self-complacent European" (17.5). In between close-calls and thwarted escapes, you can really get the vibe of a tropical vacation, accompanied by a pretty judge-y tour director.

    This brings us to the "quest," which Typee indeed depicts. Tommo seeks not only freedom from his sailing contract, or the Typee people, but also his own limitations. And isn't discovering the nooks and crannies of The Self the greatest quest of all?

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life is pretty playful for the story of a sailor who's held captive for four months. So what's Melville getting at? Perhaps it's that, as long as four months can seem for a captive, it's nothing like being an actual part of a community. Tommo can only give us what he has: just a "peep." Plus, it's classic Melville to repeat that "pee" sound between "Typee" and "peep." It's just got some pep in it, dontchya think?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    A Mysterious Postscript

    The final chapter of the book, as it's been published since the mid-nineteenth century, is "The Story of Toby," an account of what happened to Toby after he leaves the Typee Valley in an attempt to get help for the ailing Tommo and secure freedom for both of them. Of course, things don't go as planned, and Tommo ends up accidentally deserting his friend.

    While much is made of the friendship between Tommo and Toby at the start of the book, stock in Toby understandably plummets after his departure. Our narrator is confused, hurt, and angry that his friend has totally ditched him.

    This final chapter is an explanation, an excuse, or a vindication in Toby's solo-escape. It also provides us a reminder that things are not always what they seem. Or, in more nuanced terms: things are what they seem but they are also other things. Let us explain:

    Just as Mehevi is a regal warrior who only seems like one of the guys, Toby's desertion was in fact a terrible accident, which we learn when Toby and Tommo run into each other years later. Toby is fantastically relieved that Tommo is alive and free. Learning this makes Toby's "heart all the lighter" (Toby.64)—aww.

    Could Toby have found some way around Jimmy in order to actually stay in Nukuheva, recruited some help, and then found some way to get back to the valley and stage a rescue? What does it mean that Tommo, as narrator, doesn't seem to hold it against him?

    Will the Real Toby Please Stand Up?

    An author's note directly after Toby's chapter explains that Tommo believed Toby to be lost, just as Toby thought of Tommo. They run into each other, though, briefly after the book's first version is published. "It was related to the author by Toby himself," the note reads, "not ten days since" (Note.2).

    Is this gospel truth or another machination by a master storyteller? We'd bet on it being some combination of the two. However, we're sorry to report that, though many readers were convinced that Toby was a real guy, Melville wasn't ready to confirm it.

    So perhaps it was a compliment to Melville's literary prowess when his readership called out to learn the fate of dear buddy Toby, and that he decided to add it later. After all, everyone likes a happy ending.

  • Setting

    Setting:The Marquesas, French Polynesia

    Everyone Always Wants To Be First

    The first human inhabitants of Aka and Pepe-iu were not indigenous, but actually explorers from Hawaii that settled there. Of course, they got there prior to 100 CE, so just maybe the fifteenth-century European explorers had a bit less claim to be first. (Because of their long tenure, you'll catch both us and Melville calling the Typee, Happar, and Nukuheva peoples "native." While that's not strictly true, it's true enough to separate them from those newbies, the French.)

    As Tommo mentions, the Spaniards were the first modern interlopers in this paradise, "cruising in quest of some region of gold, these isles had sprung up like a scene of enchantment" (1.10). When Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira arrived in the late sixteenth century, he was looking for new lands to claim and colonize in the name of his Spanish-Peruvian boss. The landing went more than poorly for the native islanders, many of whom were killed at the hands of the bored sailors. When Mendaña died of fever (as folks did in those days), the expedition was dropped.

    The islands remained undisturbed until 1791, and then again in 1813, when American explorers tried to claim them as U.S. territory, though the government never got around to making it official. At the time of Typee, the French had arrived. In 1842, they were beginning a formal occupation. Tommo claims to have been there to watch the handshake between the "the polished, splendid Frenchman, and the poor tattooed savage" (4.41) that made the Marquesas a part of French Polynesia.

    So while Tommo waxes poetic about the extreme natural beauty of the place, looking as if it has been "untenanted since the morning of the creation," (7.13) that's of course hardly the case.

    An Oversimplified Discussion of Colonialism

    Say you're holding a sandwich. It's a good sandwich, delicious, your favorite kind. (We'd go with egg salad, but it's your sandwich.) Then some strange dude walks up and takes it from you, by force if necessary. "This is my sandwich!" he declares. And then he eats it super-noisily. Sound rude beyond all accounts? That, dear friends, is colonialism.

    What, you wanted something more? We can do that. Head over to the Post-colonial Literature page for something a bit more in-depth.

    Setting: The Typee Valley

    Like Shangri-la or the Biodome, the Typee valley seems at first like a mythical, magical spot. Tommo can't get over it, saying: "Over all the landscape there reigned the most hushed repose, which I almost feared to break, lest, like the enchanted gardens in the fairy tale, a single syllable might dissolve the spell" (7.46).

    But the Typee Valley—or Taipivai Valley, as it's called on modern maps—is a real place, alright. Now the kinds of sailors who drop anchor in Tior Bay aren't whalers, but locals, or vacationers in bikinis and jaunty captain hats. Ready to book a ticket?

    During Tommo's time in the vale (that's valley, for short), he collects all manner of observations about the plants and animals—so much in fact that entire chapters are devoted to them. (Don't forget to head over to the "Symbols" section to get a load of the animal life.) But his time there is much more about being a guest—er, captive—of its inhabitants.

    Marheyo & Tinor's Crash-pad

    When Tommo and Toby arrive to the settlement, they're set up in a hut with Marheyo, Tinor, Kory-Kory, Fayaway, and a few other folks. The structure is a multi-roomed, bamboo-walled, coconut-tree framed structure that sits on a base of stones. In the general living area, everyone hangs out during the day and beds down for the night on mats. From the beams hang the storage sacks of tappa, holding everything from Tommo and Toby's extra gear to the preserved human heads that cause so much hub-bub in the final pages of the novel.

    It's a simple set-up, says Tommo, "cool, free to admit the air, scrupulously clean, and elevated above the dampness and impurities of the ground" (11.26). It's Tommo's "permanent abode" in the valley and because of this he's "placed upon the most intimate footing with its occupants" (11.20). In other words, this is his Typee family.

    Indeed, Marheyo and Tinor behave warmly toward him, like surrogate parents. Kory-Kory and Fayaway have less familial roles (servant and GF, respectively). The Typee are less invested in genetic family structure than in a tribal one, "where all were treated as brothers and sisters, [...] hard to tell who were actually related to each other by blood" (27.12).

    So does the fact that the Typee want to keep him in the valley make him more like a grounded teenager, or a proper prisoner? It's hard to tell.

    Setting: The Ti

    The Ti, the "Bachelor's Hall" (22.1) on the sacred Hoola Hoola grounds, beyond the taboo coconut groves, is a center of governance for Mehevi and the chiefs—no girls allowed. Plus, it's an ad hoc armory, host to "six muskets [...] from the barrels of which depended as many small canvas pouches, partly filled with powder" (12.17).

    But it's also used by Tommo as a sort of country club, where he knows he can always get a good meal alongside Mehevi, and afterward a relaxing smoke and daylight nap.

    Setting: The Sea & The Ship

    "Every one seemed to be under the influence of some narcotic" (2.2).

    In Moby Dick, Melville's narrator is by turns bored, hypnotized, and angry at the endless sea. In Typee, we get only a taste of that in the early chapters, along with a bit about life on a whaling ship under the sinister (but incredibly minor) Captain Vangs.

    When we first land on the Dolly, the crew has been sailing for six months and everyone's ready for a siesta on solid land. The food stores have been depleted, including the population of hens kept for chicken dinners. Last in the hutch is a lone rooster, nicknamed Pedro, but even he is scheduled to "be laid out upon the captain's table next Sunday, and [...] will be buried with all the usual ceremonies beneath that worthy individual's vest."

    With the scheduled execution of Pedro, we feel Tommo's desperation intensify, as he exclaims: "oh! how I wish to see the living earth again!" (1.4). In this desperation, Melville seems to be busy building suspense, ready for the great relief and reveal of the beautiful mountainous Marquesas and their mysterious inhabitants. In other words, by shutting us up on the ship with Tommo at the start, he's making the wilderness adventure that much more dramatic.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    There are two major factors that up the difficulty on this otherwise straightforward literary adventure tale. The first one is diction. It isn't that Melville simply uses big words—it's that he was writing in the mid-nineteenth century, when the English language looked quite different than it does today.

    "Severely contused" (17.31)? That's a bad bruise. "Round-shouldered, spindle-shanked, crane-necked varlets" (25.4)? Oh, that's just a low-class dude with bad posture and chicken legs.

    This all means that sometimes you have to take a breath and do a little internet searchin' to get the true meaning. (And maybe later you'll impress your friends with some truly vintage put-downs.)

    That brings us to the second difficulty factor: practicing patience. Melville thinks nothing of putting aside the action-adventure for a little discussion of, say, the plant and animal life of the Marquesa Islands, or the tribal weaving customs. It's going to take a little self-control to stop yourself from—wait for it—"jumping ship" (sorry, not sorry).

    But remember: if you wanted non-stop action, there are like two gazillion Fast & Furious flicks. You're coming to Melville because he's Melville—sailor, explorer, literary icon—and he wants to teach you about everything he's seen. Why not let him?

  • Writing Style

    Jolly Retired College Prof Who Had Quite An Adventure…Once

    It isn't just Tommo's tone that changes as he moves his readers from in-scene stories to reportage (more factual-sounding accounts), and back. It's also how Melville manipulates his vocabulary that really exemplifies the changes in style throughout the book.

    It's not so hard to imagine Tommo as an old man in an over-stuffed lounge chair, surrounded by books and warming himself by the fire as he starts and stops his crazy captivity tale, taking lengthy informational breaks to make sure we're not only entertained, but educated.

    Slide Show Lecture on the Marquesas

    Melville's not just in it for the drama—he really wants to teach us. The language here shows that: he'll drop five-dollar words like he doesn't need the cash.

    What does it mean when he uses stilted, formal words? First, check out this passage about female puberty in the Typee: "The early period of life at which the human form arrives at maturity in this generous tropical climate, likewise deserves to be mentioned" (25.6). Words like "human form"—instead of something simpler like "body"—or "generous tropical climate"—instead of something like "sticky jungle"—betrays a really particular diction: an authoritative Melville is dropping some serious factoids, and we better have come ready to learn.

    And check out that sentence again. Look familiar to you? Yes, that's your classic topic sentence: a note to signal to the reader what he's about to talk about, just before he launches in. (While diction does totally signal tone, it also contributes to the style. For Melville, his vocab usage has everything to do with the overall experience of the piece as he throttles back and forth from drama to report.)

    The Lyric Beauty of Tommo's Intense Feelings

    Whether Tommo is providing descriptions of lazy afternoons in the valley, the ferocity of warriors, the beauty of the mountain lakes, or something as dramatic as finally gaining his freedom, Melville isn't shy about going into specificity or exclamation. Consider these two examples:

    While sitting hanging out at Marheyo's, Tommo is "covered with a gauze-like veil of tappa, while Fayaway, seated beside me, and holding in her hand a fan woven from the leaflets of a young cocoanut bough, brushed aside the insects that occasionally lighted on my face" (14.29). Or when Tommo has broken free from his captivity, finally setting his eyes on the sea once more: "never shall I forget the ecstasy I felt when I first heard the roar of the surf breaking upon the beach. Before long I saw the flashing billows themselves through the opening between the trees. Oh glorious sight and sound of ocean!" (34.16).

    Both passages—though one describes some serious sloth, and the other a big plot-turn moment of drama—are laden with description, like the "gauze-like veil of tappa," or "the flashing billows" of the waves. When Tommo does the text-version of gesticulating wildly, when he goes headlong into lyric reverie, we think Melville's really working that emotion, perhaps hoping we'll get just as swept up as Tommo does.

    It can be difficult, when in the throes of the adventure portions, to move back into the more dry chapters, and vice versa. We know that the informational chapters were added on after the first version was complete. So we do wonder: what would the book have been like without them?

  • Food

    In Typee, food is as central to the characters' lives as it is to our own. But while we may be posting pictures of our plates, for Tommo, Toby, and the Typee natives, a meal may demonstrate simpler truths.

    Breaking Bread(fruit)

    Pretty much as soon Tommo leaves the ship, he finds it hard to fulfill his basic needs—the most pressing is having enough to eat, as he and Toby torch calories across a mountain. Sweetly, they combine their stores—mostly "those small, broken, flinty bits of biscuit which generally go by the name of 'midshipmen's nuts'" (6.8)—and then divide them into even little portions so that they both enjoy the same amount. This equitable division illustrates the easy companionship between Toby and Tommo.

    When Tommo and Toby are welcomed to the valley with a feast, this signals good will and welcome. As a first course, the strangers are served poee-poee, a breadfruit porridge. Mehevi must show them the proper way to eat it: "Mehevi, motioning us to be attentive, dipped the forefinger of his right hand in the dish, and giving it a rapid and scientific twirl, drew it out coated smoothly with the preparation" (10.33). He does so gently, and with patience, signaling that no immediate ill will befall the bedraggled, half-starved sailors.

    It Reflects a Peoples' Relationship to the Land

    While other societies labor day and night over ventures in back-breaking agriculture, the Typee are able to use what their immediate environment provides them. As Tommo puts it: "Nature has planted the bread-fruit and the banana, and in her own good time she brings them to maturity, when the idle savage stretches forth his hand, and satisfies his appetite" (26.21). With coconuts, breadfruit, and the odd hunted wild pig (or "baked baby" (12.30) as Tommo and Toby disastrously misunderstand), the Typee do just fine.

  • Water

    The long, measured, dirge-like well of the Pacific came rolling along, with its surface broken by little tiny waves, sparkling in the sunshine. (2.3)

    Land vs. Water: The Great & On-Going Battle

    When there's a book set on an island, water is going to make an appearance. There's no two ways around it. When we first meet Tommo, he's sick of the sea, and longing for land: "Oh! for a refreshing glimpse of one blade of grass— for a snuff at the fragrance of a handful of the loamy earth!" (1.2). The ship is his prison, but once it lands at Nukuheva, Tommo is pretty darn sure he's going hit land and get a taste of sweet, sweet freedom.

    Except: his adventures will exchange the meanings of "land" and "water" until all he wants is to get out from under the pretty cooling fronds of the valley and out to the sea for another chance at freedom. As Jimmy later says to Toby, when he wants to return to the settlement to find Tommo:
    "Then there is no hope for you,' exclaimed the sailor, 'for if I leave you here on the beach, as soon as I am gone you will be carried back into the valley, and then neither of you will ever look upon the sea again" (Toby.34).

    Water as Female

    Once Tommo gives in to life in the valley (before all that nasty business about preserved heads and de-fleshed human skeletons), he finds it amazingly pleasant to bathe and swim in the Typee waters: "People may say what they will about the refreshing influences of a coldwater bath," he writes, "but commend me when in a perspiration to the shade baths of Tior, beneath the cocoanut trees, and amidst the cool delightful atmosphere which surrounds them" (4.38). And it isn't just the plant life that sets the scene, it's also the company.

    Truly, the Typee-related water feels a bit female to us, probably owing to the fact that Tommo only describes the females of the tribe interacting with it. Those lovely native women "sway their floating forms, arch their necks, toss aloft their naked arms, and glide, and swim, and whirl, that it was almost too much for a quiet, sober-minded, modest young man like myself" (20.13). Don't be fooled by Tommo's embarrassment. He wouldn't go swimming if it found it truly unpleasant.

    If water is women's territory, boats are men's. Notice how Tommo requests to upturn the taboo of women-in-boats, when he requests a canoe for the local lake and picks Fayaway as his sailing companion.

  • Cloth

    In a culture where most daily habits are formed with thoughts of simplicity and ease, the making of the local cloth, called "tappa," seems to be one of the few things that requires sustained, focused labor. It involves stripping fiber from the cloth-tree, then pressing the fiber together, soaking it in the stream, hand-weaving it, and then hammering it flat. Observed Tommo: "I was often attracted by the noise of the mallet, which, when employed in the manufacture of the cloth produces at every stroke of its hard, heavy wood, a clear, ringing, and musical sound, capable of being heard at a great distance" (19.23).

    This careful craftsmanship provides a material used in everything from religious ritual to storage sacks, and its omnipresence seems to point at something deeper. While Tommo may perceive the work as the merry task of a playful people, the tappa is a literal thread of labor and industriousness, which runs through the Typee culture.

    Cloth As More Than Something To Wrap Around You

    Tommo also makes an effort to grab some calico cloth from the ship before he leaves, knowing that he might be called on to give a gift or make a trade. When first the sailors venture onto Typee land, Tommo "unrolled the cotton cloth, and holding it in one hand picked with the other a twig from the bushes [...] waving the branch in token of peace" (10.10).

    The tappa may also be transformed, as Tommo learns when he absent-mindedly picks up a piece of the material as a group of Typee female are working: "I was suddenly startled by a scream, like that of a whole boarding-school of young ladies just on the point of going into hysterics" (30.19). He's confused, dropping the tappa, and later learns that the cloth was "taboo," only to be touched by women. Because he has gone and touched it, they must start the process again. How rude.

  • Tattoos

    Tattooing in Polynesian cultures, and in Typee in particular, has been well covered elsewhere, but we would be remiss not to put in our two cents of wondering.

    In Tommo's descriptions of the natives, he almost never fails to mention tattoos, their placement, geometry, and condition. Here are just a few examples:

    "a broad patch of tattooing [...] making him look as if he wore a huge pair of goggles" (1.20)
    "bare legs, embellished with spiral tattooing, and somewhat resembling two miniature Trajan's columns" (1.20)
    "tattooed limbs of brawny warriors" (10.21)
    "two broad stripes of tattooing, diverging from the centre of his shaven crown" (11.9)
    "three broad longitudinal stripes of tattooing" (11.28)
    "whose decrepit forms time and tattooing seemed to have obliterated every trace of humanity" (12.9)

    We could go on…and on. Even in the absence of tattoos, as with Fayaway's face, he cannot seem to resist, noting that it's "free from the hideous blemish of tattooing" (11.42).

    This compulsion of our narrator could definitely have to do with the fact that a tattoo stays with you forever. For the Typee, it is a cultural signifier of community and belonging. Perhaps that's why Tommo goes so crazy when stern, old Karky has the idea to put ink onto our hero's skin.

    It's only by begging that he escapes without that ink, but in that moment, he realizes: tattoos are important part of Typee life, of their religion and way of organizing the world, and "they were resolved to make a convert" (30.14) of him. A tattoo, he becomes convinced, will make it even harder to find freedom and a way home.

    Here, a tattoo is a physical mark, a record, a memory made material. But could you think about it in a more symbolic way, too? If so, we wonder what "tattoos" Tommo might have carried with him unknowingly, long after he's left the island.

  • Animals

    Wildlife is pretty scarce in the Typee valley, limited to some weird rat-dogs, a semi-domesticated cat or two, harmless lizards, and bothersome gnats. But the real presence of animals in this book lies purely in Tommo's habit of comparing the Typee (and other folks) to animals.

    As Toby descends the crevice, Tommo observes that he drops "himself with the activity of a squirrel" (7.24). Elder Typee's skin flaps "like the overlapping plaits on the flank of a rhinoceros" (12.19). The female islanders are called mermaids, and later "amphibious young creatures," (18.3) while a worried Kory-Kory frets about like a "superannuated house-dog" (19.17). (Btw: "Superannuated" here means old-fashioned, out-dated, or obsolete. Ouch, huh? So there's your new word of the day. Want a few more? Here's twenty-five terms Melville had for a beard.)

    We wonder how this narrative tic aligns with his ideas of the "savage" versus "the civilized." Can the way someone describes something—and the comparisons that are struck—reveal what an author wouldn't directly say?

  • Western Culture

    As much as Tommo adores comparing people to animals, he goes ga-ga comparing island life to "civilized" life even more. Tinor is like any mother a Western reader might recognize, "a doting mother petting a sickly urchin with tarts and sugar plums" (11.35). Mehevi demonstrates hospitality, with "all the warmth of hospitality evinced by an English squire," (44.12) while Kory-Kory, arranging himself, is "like a dandy at a ball-room door" (22.19).

    While the animal comparisons may tell us more about the narrator, perhaps the Western culture comparisons have more to do with who the narrator expects he is talking to: not Polynesian islanders, but readers in major cities like London and New York.

    How else might Tommo reveal his awareness of his audience? How do you think the telling of the story would change if he was relating it to Typee folk, or fellow sailors?

  • The Body

    As immediate as food and shelter, physical health is at the center of life in the wilderness. Tommo recognizes that most of the Typee are in superior physical condition: "not a single instance of natural deformity was observable in all the throng" (25.3).

    This is thrown into a deeper contrast, while he's just so miserably down-and-out himself. Tommo writes: "my chief source of anxiety, and that which poisoned every temporary enjoyment, was the mysterious disease in my leg, which still remained unabated" (16.2).

    The injury prevents him from fleeing the valley, and even limits him to the distances Kory-Kory and others will go with him on their backs. The worse his leg is, the more his own agency is restricted. Even vigorous Toby must return, when he sustains an injury from an attacking Happar.

    Yes, it's totally common sense that bodily pain would limit your movements. But what else might this motif be pointing to? Well, chew on this: it seems like a super-important moment, when, at the close of the novel, Tommo grabs "a spear which was leaning against the projecting eaves of the house," (11.31) and uses it as a crutch to make it to the beach, to the ship, to freedom, and to home. At last, he's able to overcome his injury and stand—er, limp—on his own two feet. He is no longer beholden to Kory-Kory or anyone else.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)—Tommo

    There are two Tommos, or rather, one Tom and one Tommo. It is Tom, a highly-intelligent ethnographer and storyteller who offers the novel, but it is poor, injured Tommo the escaped sailor who experiences the actions of the novel firsthand. They're the same person, but also, not.

    Tom can afford to divert us for a handful of chapters to explain the Typee foods and religious customs, the weather, the flora, and fauna, etc. But in the meantime, Tommo is having a mysterious vegetable poultice applied to his wounds and splashing and flirting with his island love Fayaway. So, although Tommo's situation may feel quite urgent, Tom goes along at a leisurely, academic pace.

    In the Melville-written preface, the author takes care to set up the book's artifice, saying that "Tom" has done his best to provide a clear account: "He has stated such matters just as they occurred, and leaves every one to form his own opinion concerning them; trusting that his anxious desire to speak the unvarnished truth will gain for him the confidence of his readers" (Preface.8).

    But is this simply a novelist's postmodern trick? It's unclear. Indeed, a late-edition nineteenth-century editor of the book seems totally sure that Melville is Tommo and Tommo is Melville, writing, "Whether our author entered on his whaling adventures in the South Seas with a determination to make them available for literary purposes, may never be certainly known" (Letter.1).

    One thing's for sure: the line between memoir and fiction has never been so darn blurry.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Anticipation Stage and 'Fall' into the Other World

    After Tommo and Toby escape their ship into the mountains of the Marquesas and have a bit of trouble, they seek refuge and food in a native village of friendly people.

    Initial Fascination or Dream Stage

    The Typee, to Tommo, are a strange and beautiful people. The women go around half-naked, adorned with flowers, and he's waited on hand and foot. Even if Tommo's leg won't quite heal, things still seem pretty peachy.

    Frustration Stage

    After Toby leaves for help and doesn't come back, Tommo begins to get bored and worried, realizing that the islanders are restricting his movements. He isn't allowed past certain points, and he senses the islanders are keeping things from him. It's only then that he realizes he's a captive.

    Nightmare Stage

    After a near-miss with a face tattoo that would mark him as a Typee forever, a glance at a preserved white man's head held in a sack, and a quick look at a freshly-cleaned human skeleton, Tommo decides that there's no time like the present to leave the pretty valley, no matter how nice everyone is to him. After all, he can't be sure how long their hospitality will hold out.

    Thrilling Escape and Return

    After news of a nearby boat hits the valley, Tommo decides to flee. Though he at last gets permission from the head chief, a lesser chief wants to keep him there and leads several warriors to prevent his escape. Once at the beach, a full-on fight scene breaks out. Tommo jumps in the rowboat to take him to the ship. The rowers must fend off angry islanders, and Tommo himself takes a defensive swipe at the lesser chief.

    At last they get to the ship. A few months later, his leg is healed, and he's off the high seas, free at last (whew).

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation)

    Jailbreak on the High Seas

    Okay, so our hero-narrator Tommo is bored, and on a ship in the middle of the ocean. "Oh! for a refreshing glimpse of one blade of grass—" Tommo gasps, "for a snuff at the fragrance of a handful of the loamy earth!" (1.2). He signed up for this, sure, but he didn't wager on just how cruel a task-master his Captain Vangs would be, or how being on a ship could feel a lot like being in prison when the only crime you committed was wanting an adventure.

    When ole Vangs announces that they're heading to the Marquesa Islands, Tommo decides to desert. When they land, he spots a comrade in his shipmate Toby. The two pals grab what little stores they can, and take a free day at the Bay of Nukuheva as their chance to flee. 

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

    Out of the Frying Pan, Into…the Frying Pan?

    As Tommo and Toby figure it, they have ten days to kill before their ship leaves the bay and they can return to hitch another ride. They decide they'll head into the mountains, but the climb proves to be quite a bit more challenging than, say, a tough mudder. They pull themselves through bamboo forests, and up and down sheer rock cliffs, with nothing more to eat than a tablespoon of soggy breadcrumbs. After Tommo sustains a leg injury, they espy a beautiful valley settlement of islanders. Crossing their fingers they're Happar (not cannibals) instead of Typee (cannibals), make for that promise of food and shelter.

    Tommo and Toby are able to relax a bit, finding themselves in the kind hands of the native islanders. They're Happar, they think. Or maybe they're Typee. Okay, so they're definitely Typee. But they're not cannibals…but maybe they are cannibals.

    The sailors try and put this thought out of their minds, as Tommo's leg worsens. They eat breadfruit porridge and wash themselves in the clear stream. When news of a boat reaches the valley, Toby decides he'll head over, so he can get help for Tommo, who at this point can't move. Toby leaves, never to return to the valley.

    In Toby's absence, Tommo gets comfortable in the valley, spending time with Kory-Kory, his friend-servant, and Fayaway, the belle of the village. Tommo learns about the Typee culture and eventually his leg injury clears up. When he wanders, though, he discovers there are limits to his hosts' hospitality: he is being held captive, albeit pleasantly.

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

    The Bottom Drops Out (If By "Bottom" You Mean "Human Skeleton Relieved of Its Flesh")

    Though Tommo has long-accepted that Toby has abandoned him or is otherwise unable to return, he still wanders idly about, trying to escape. His leg injury has flared up all over again, and Kory-Kory must carry him from one place to another. He may be captive, and nearly invalid, but the Typee are showing him great hospitality—so it's all good.

    But then, a chance encounter with the local tattoo artist throws things into perspective. The old man wants to tattoo Tommo, and make him part of their tribe. Tommo panics: "I should be disfigured in such a manner as never more to have the FACE to return to my countrymen" (30.8). He realizes that, soon, he may never be able to leave.

    A few days later, a battle with the Happar ends with a chief-only feast. Tommo sees the aftermath—"the disordered members of a human skeleton, the bones still fresh with moisture, and with particles of flesh clinging to them" (32.30)—and he's pretty well sure it's time to peace out.

    Falling Action

    The Boat! The Boat!

    News of a boat, or Toby, or something at the shore arrives (much is lost in translation). Tommo implores the Typee king to let him leave the Valley. He does, although another chief, and the attendant warriors, try to stop him. In the chaos, Tommo is hefted on the backs of various Typee men, from one to the next, for the four or five miles over land to the beach. There, a ship waits. Tommo hears his name called out. It's a Polynesian chief he met in Nukuheva (and who he'll later discover is aware of Tommo's situation). At last, the real promise of escape, and the means to get it done, is at hand.

    Resolution (Denouement)

    One Last Blow Before I Go

    After quite a bit of negotiation and not a little grappling, Tommo bids goodbye to Kory-Kory and Fayaway and runs for the rowboat to take him and the chief out to the ship. All the way, the warriors swim after him. The disagreeable chief reaches the boat, and Tommo uses a boat hook to fend him off. A moment later, Tommo is on the ship, free at last, and will be home to the States inside two months.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Tommo decides to flee his whaling ship when it lands at the French Polynesian islands, the Marquesas. He and his fellow sailor Toby make for the mountains, but they get more than they bargained for and end up more or less captive guests of the Typee tribe.

    Act II

    After Toby flees for help, Tommo learns to make the best of it in the Typee Valley. He learns the ways of the Typee as best he can, makes friends, and gets a little too comfortable.

    Act III

    After Tommo realizes that the Typee want to keep him there forever (and may or may not at some point kill and eat him), he decides it's time to go. When news of a boat at a nearby shore reaches the valley, our hero decides that it's time to skedaddle. After some negotiation and brawling, Tommo makes it to the British ship and freedom.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • Apollo (18.20)
    • Bluebeard (27.15)
    • Coan, D. T. (Intro.7)
    • da Figueroa, Christoval Suaverde, History of Mendanna's Voyage (25.13)
    • Dana, Richard Henry, Two Years Before the Mast (Intro.6)
    • Dalrymple, Alexander, An Historical Collection of the Several Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean (25.13)
    • Ellis, William, Polynesian Researches (1.14)
    • Goldsmith, Oliver, Goldsmith's Animated Nature (11.28)
    • Jack the Giant Killer (27.15)
    • Lowell, Robert (Intro.1)\
    • Magellan, Ferdinand, Circumnavigation of the Globe (25.13)
    • Melville, Herman, Moby Dick, (Intro.6, Intro.7)
    • Melville, Herman, Omoo, (Intro.7)\
    • Melville, Herman, White Jacket, (Intro.7)
    • Porter, David, Journal of the Cruise of the U.S. frigate Essex, in the Pacific, during the late War (1.13)
    • Somnus (20.14)
    • Stewart, Bishop Imagene, Scenes in the South Seas (25.13)
    • Sylphides (20.13)
    • Whitman, Walt (Intro.1)
    • Venus di Medici (22.18)

    Historical References

    • 1842 French Occupation of the Marquesas (3.4)
    • Belzoni, Giovanni-Battista (9.2)
    • Byron, John (24.27)
    • Carteret, Philip (24.27)
    • Champs Elysees (3.2)
    • Cook, James (1.12, 24.27)
    • Cuvier, Georges (29.2)
    • de Bougainville, Louis Antoine (26.12)
    • Dupetit Thouars, Rear Admiral Abel Aubert (3.1, 3.6, 3.9)
    • Kammehammaha III (26.1)
    • King Mowanna (1.18, 3.5, Toby.14, Toby.57)
    • Leclerc, Georges-Louis, Comte de Buffon (29.2)
    • Marquess de Mendoza (1.11)
    • Mendaña, Álvaro (1.10, 25.13, 32.13, 32.15)
    • Porter, David (2.7)
    • Maryatt, Captain Frederick (4.6)
    • Selkirk, Alexander (29.7)
    • Suleyman the Magnificent (17.30)
    • Stewart, Bishop Imagene (1.13)
    • Vancouver, George (24.27)
    • von Kotzebue, Otto (24.27)
    • The Washington Group (2.6)

    Pop Culture References

    • The Bavarian Broomseller (31.10)