Literature Study GuidesTypeeChapters 1 2 Summary

Typee | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Typee | Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

The narrator describes the sea and the sky and informs the reader that he has been at sea for six months. The ship has mostly run out of food—there is no more fruit or meat, only biscuits and one scraggly rooster who is waiting to be slaughtered. He makes fun of people who complain about crossing the Atlantic in first class, which takes two lavish weeks. The narrator bemoans the lack of greenery and vegetation, and he describes his empathy for the poor rooster, who will soon become dinner for the sailors. The captain won't dock the ship, the narrator explains, until all fresh meat is eaten. The ship itself is in tatters from having been on the sea for six straight months with no repairs.

Word spreads that the crew will head for the Marquesas Islands. The narrator has fantasies and fears about the native people and their customs, as well as the food and scenery they will find. He relates the story of how the islands were named by Mendanna, the Spaniard who stumbled across the islands, after his patron the Marquess de Mendoza. Though Mendanna returned to Spain and told stories of the islands' beauty, they weren't further explored.

Some fishing ships have stopped to replenish supplies at the islands, but stories about the native islanders scare most crews away. The missionaries have also been relatively unsuccessful on the islands. The narrator relates a story about a missionary who brought his young wife to the islands, only to have the native people strip her clothes off to make sure she was female.

The narrator then relates another tale about the French navy, who held possession of the islands a few years before the narrator's adventures. The king and queen of the islands were received on a French ship. The king, Mowanna, and his queen dressed elaborately, but many of their tattoos were visible. The queen lifted her skirt to display her tattoos, which shocked the French sailors.

Chapter 2

The ship, the Dolly, is swept toward the islands as it searches for sperm whales. While the trip is slow and pleasant, the crew finally comes in sight of land, a small cluster of islands which the narrator calls "Ruhooka, Ropo, and Nukuheva." They reach Nukuheva and sail around the island to its bay. The narrator describes the beauty of the island and its shore.

The crew finds, however, that they are not the only foreigners on the island's shores—a group of French navy ships is anchored in the bay. A drunk man in a whaling boat comes alongside their ship, and they bring him on board. He turns out to be an ex-British naval officer who has been appointed "pilot of the harbor" by the French.

As they enter the harbor, islanders in canoes come toward the ship, but are unable to board it. There are no women in any of the canoes because they are forbidden from them. Instead, some young girls swim out to the boat, climb up on it, and escort it into port.

Analysis

The background and historical context of the area now known as the French Polynesian islands increases the nonfiction tone, and the events the narrator describes seem to have historical validity. The nameless, first-person narrator creates the impression that the text is a true account of Melville's experiences in the islands. While Melville's time in the islands certainly provided the fuel for beautifully detailed descriptions of the islands and their inhabitants, it is Melville's narrator who amends other explorers' descriptions of the islands, saying "from the vague accounts we sometimes have of their beauty, many people are apt to picture ... softly swelling plains," but claims that "the reality is very different."

The crew arrives at an island cluster that was discovered in 1791 by an American captain. The narrator makes an interesting historical reference to the American Revolutionary War. Though the war took place far from the Marquesas Islands, which are located in the South Pacific Ocean, according to the narrator its reach extended there. He mentions that "Captain Porter refitted his ships during the late war between England and the United States."

The narrator describes the native people with demure and Victorian language. It's notable because, though he frequently points out that the islanders are foreign and uses terms like "savage" or "barbarian" in reference to them, he also uses very formal and eloquent language in his descriptions of them. For instance, he describes the young island girls swimming in the water and climbing up on the ship with phrases like "for each one performed the simple offices of the toilette," "their adornments were completed," and "thus arrayed" as he might describe a wealthy Victorian-era European woman doing her hair or putting on perfume.

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