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Typee | Themes



Colonialism and all its effects are frequently dwelled on in Typee. The narrator often relates stories of colonialism in various places, discusses the effects of missionary work, and compares the pre- and post-colonial states of various colonies. Overall, the narrator takes a negative view of foreign influence in the islands, and attributes many of the issues in indigenous societies to foreign interference, as opposed to inherent cultural problems. In this book, the Typee are portrayed as a civilization that has not yet been, but will ultimately be, tainted by the evils of the European colonial world.

Colonialism can be defined as the practice of a nation taking political control over another nation, settling it with their own people, and then economically exploiting the controlled area. Countries are often colonized for strategic political or resource-based reasons. Melville found this a despicable practice and deplored it. Throughout Typee Melville uses the narrator to give examples of various ways that colonialism has brought ruin to the native peoples of the colonized lands. For example, the narrator details how the French have turned a native leader of Nukuheva into a sort of puppet-king in order to control the peoples of the island. He explains that they use violence to punish anyone who rebels, just as "under cover of a similar pretence, have the outrages and massacres at Tahiti the beautiful, the queen of the South Seas, been perpetrated."

Besides the violence that inevitably comes with colonization, the narrator points out other social and health related issues that arise. Besides bringing disease that often kills large numbers of indigenous people, the European colonists bring power systems that create huge social problems. The false elevation of chosen members of the native society in order to have political puppets creates a class discrepancy that often never existed before. The narrator uses Hawaii as an example, explaining that "the chiefs are daily becoming more luxurious and extravagant in their style of living, and the common people more and more destitute of the necessaries and decencies of life."


At essence, part of this story is simply a survival and adventure narrative, detailing how the narrator survives various trials as part of his adventure at sea and on the island. In the beginning of the story, he has been six months at sea with bad food and a cruel captain. In order to stay alive and keep his sanity, he runs away as soon as they reach land. During the first week of his adventure on Nukuheva, the narrator almost dies several times. He nearly starves from not bringing enough food, and then he injures his leg, which causes him to become feverish and extremely ill. He must climb ravines and navigate over treacherous terrain and waterfalls.

When he finally arrives in the Typee valley, things become easier. However, he is still living among unfamiliar people, and in order to survive he must remain vigilant and on the islanders' good side. After Toby disappears, he suddenly is faced with surviving alone and struggles to overcome his depression. In a final act of survival, he leaves the people who have taken care of him as he escapes on a boat and leaves the island.


The theme of civilization is woven throughout the story of Typee. It is generally discussed as a negative thing, and the "uncivilized" native islanders are viewed as being happier and more pure because of their lack of "civilization." Melville paints civilization as something that results from the unnatural complication of basic living. To him, the native people of the islands have everything they need and don't complicate their lives with unnecessary rules and regulations. As a result of this, extensive education and complex social and governing systems are not necessary. Civilized cultures are portrayed in a decidedly negative light, while "primitive" cultures such as the islanders' culture are portrayed as happier, healthier cultures. Melville explains that "Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve—the heart-burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up in units the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people."

Missionaries are part of the civilization that the narrator disdains. He views missionaries, though not necessarily the religious ideas that they represent, as hypocritical and not at all interested in the actual welfare of the people whom they are converting. He describes places where missionaries have settled: "Neat villas, trim gardens, shaven lawns, spires, and cupolas arise, while the poor savage soon finds himself an interloper in the country of his fathers." The narrator sees this contrast as an illustration of the disparity between the missionary's "selfless" life and the lives that the native people live after the missionaries arrive.

Questions for Themes

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Answer one of the following questions in a brief paragraph. 1. Speech The Italian Humanists believed that speech itself is a means by which we create civilization. Is this approach too simplistic? Why
Identify the various types of hand made,not mass-produced, craft-oriented objects you own or encounter on a daily basis. Describe the value of these objects to you and their value within our civilizat
1. Speech The Italian Humanists believed that speech itself is a means by which we create civilization. Is this approach too simplistic? Why or why not? What other factors might play a part?
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