The driveway up to the big house is long, here. Melville begins Typee with a discussion of what it's like to the live on the sea, and how western European governments have lately sought to bring "civilization" to various native tribes.
His fictional avatar (representative), Tom, has taken to seafaring in the name of a little adventure. But they've been on the water for a long time without sight of land, and Tom is hungering for some non-salt-preserved meat and everything else that solid ground can offer.
When it becomes clear that his captain is disinterested in spending any time land-bound, he decides to defect from the crew. His mate Toby has a similar idea, and they tromp off A.S.A.P. when the boat stops for an afternoon of R&R (that's rest and relaxation to you land lubbers) on an island in the Marquesas, which is occupied by the French. After waiting for their ship to move on, they figure they'll circle around and catch a boat back to the UK.
Predictably (and luckily for us), the plan doesn't go quite as smoothly as expected; rather, Tom and Toby's adventure on the island is just beginning. After a wretched over-land haul—including very little food and sleep, treacherous cliffs, and rain that soaks the friends to the bone—the men arrive in a valley settlement of a native tribe. Tom has sustained a semi-serious injury to his leg and is glad to have a chance to rest. Unfortunately, they're not sure if the people are Typee (rumored to be cannibals) or Happar (who have a safer, more peaceful rep). A language barrier prevents them from figuring this out. Tired and hungry and wet, they decide to risk it and accept the extravagant welcome of the native people.
At first, things are just fine. Tommo (as Tom has been dubbed by the natives) and Toby relax, eating breadfruit and sleeping in a family's hut. The women are beautiful, the men respectful, and, with careful pantomiming, the sailors and the natives can even understand each other some of the time.
However, it becomes clear that the people are indeed Typee. But they seem nice enough for the time being, so the two men decide to proceed cautiously as Tommo's leg worsens. They make a plan for Toby to head to the French-occupied bay nearby, so they gather first aid supplies, and Toby makes departure as soon as possible. His first attempt to leave the valley goes poorly, though, and he sustains an injury at the hands of a Happar weapon.
His second attempt seems to go better, as he runs with some of the Typee to meet boats arriving to the bay. But when the Typee return, they tell Tommo conflicting stories: that Toby has left, or died, or is on his way back. He does not return, and Tommo must—with a lame leg—settle in and hope for some means for escape.
As time passes, Tommo manages a pleasant kind of life, forging a special friendship with a young lady named Fayaway, and becoming friendly with Kory-Kory—his designated manservant. He learns of the plants and animals in the valley, watches the Typee weave and build, and over and over is taken aback by the beauty of the nature surrounding him. He learns about the Typee culture, visiting their hallowed temple grounds (a sort of man cave in the jungle), and the system of "taboos," or rules of conduct, for the tribe. The women, for example, are not allowed in boats, and each of the tattoos each tribal member receives has a special story or meaning.
As much fun as Tommo is having, however, his leg is improving and he's getting more and more desperate to escape. The Typee seem to want to keep him in their valley, and he slowly realizes that, though he is well-treated and quite comfortable, he is a prisoner nonetheless. Ignorant of their endgame, and with questions of cannibalism still floating in his head, Tommo becomes increasingly depressed and restless. There's been no sign of Toby, and it becomes clear that he must find a way to leave on his own.
Four months have passed since Tommo's arrived in the valley. Through a careful system of patience and planning and pretending to get a drink of water, he tries to escape. Yeah…it doesn't really work out.
But when, one day, he hears there's a boat on the nearby beach, nothing will stop him. Some of his Typee pals-captors say okay, but others give him some trouble. But Tommo is stubborn and loud and, with the sheer force of will, he is allowed to make it to the shore. There, he is greeted by an old whaling ship, which is manned by a crew that includes a Hawaiian native sailor he knows from his old ship. Although the natives still attempt to prevent him by force from leaving, with the help of a carefully placed boat hook as a weapon, he just makes it on board. Later, he's conveyed to a British whaling ship in need of a crew. There, he's taken good care of, and his leg eventually heals.
In the final chapter, Tommo reveals the fate of Toby. As he had made his way out of the valley and toward the beach, a fight broke out between Typees and Happars, with spears flying through the air. Toby attempts to wait it out, before realizing it is actually a play fight, and it's just another ruse to prevent him from meeting ships. By the time he got the beach, there were no signs of ships. But, there was an old sailor named Jimmy who had "gone native." After some negotiations with the Typee, Jimmy told Toby that he (and only he) would be allowed to leave, without Tommo. After convincing him that he had no other choice, Toby was forced to trust Jimmy, who told the natives that Toby would be back soon. After a stop at Jimmy's Happar home, Toby leaves the island, quite regretfully without Tommo, on a French boat.
An epilogue notes that Tommo was at sea for two more years after the close of this story, and that only ten days after the publication of this book, Toby and Tommo happened to meet, and thus the story of Toby's fate was added to later editions.