Queering Melville

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Holly Maurer

(UBC Arts One, Prof. Toph Marshall Seminar)

Herman Melville explored the art of carefully placed sexual innuendo, implied romance, and extended metaphor across multiple queer-coded texts throughout his 19th-century literary career. Typee, Billy Budd, and Moby Dick are all examples of notable work by Melville that feature queer-coded protagonists and clearly defined same-sex romantic subplots. The largely negative outcomes of these romances seem to suggest Melville’s internal grappling with the idea that an openly queer lifestyle was not achievable or accepted in the time in which he lived and wrote.

Melville’s Typeeis an allegory for queer self-acceptance in the 19th century. Tommo experiences implied homoerotic urges almost immediately upon leaving his ship, first with Toby, then with Kory-Kory and Marnoo upon entering Nuku Hiva. Tommo also experiences strained interest in the young woman Fayaway, and in navigating his compulsory heterosexuality[1], masculinizes her to the reader in a clear effort to make her more attractive to himself. Melville uses sexual innuendo to emphasize Tommo’s queerness and attraction to these individuals in lieu of explicitly described sex scenes. Tommo’s exploratory queer journey in Nuku Hiva is brought to a close in a sudden, unfulfilling, and uncomfortable way, and the negative tone suggests Melville’s takeaway from Tommo’s depicted queerness: during the era and environment in which Typee was written, the life of open queer expression that Tommo pursues is unachievable. Tommo retreats to the ship, symbolizing his return to a lifestyle in which he represses his sexuality.

Tommo’s sexualizing gaze of Toby indicates that Tommo perceives him and his masculinity as godlike, ethereal, and deeply attractive. When Tommo first meets Toby he notes his “remarkably prepossessing exterior,” “great flexibility of limb,” his “mass of jetty locks,” and his “moody, fitful, and melancholy—at times almost morose [disposition]” (Melville 32). Homoeroticism pervades this description; it is much less that of a stranger than an object of sexual interest. This initial suggestion of Tommo’s fascination with Toby reads as his unconscious acknowledgement of same-sex attraction, which takes place at the precipice of Tommo’s immersion into the open-minded, welcoming, and expressive Typee culture. While Toby is initially presented to the reader as being downtrodden and erratic, there is a notable change in his demeanour once he spends more time alone with Tommo: “[b]eing with Tommo, the beast Toby is tamed … He sleeps peacefully, becomes reasonable and calm, and uses his natural instincts in wending his way through the jungle” (Beliele 34). Toby is Tommo’s tall, dark, and handsome object of interest, who, although at first seems unfriendly, later displays tenderness and warmth upon building a relationship with Tommo. This romanticized archetype seems to fit more into a slow-burn romance than a traditional voyager novel. Tommo’s interested gaze is what illuminates this likeness, because it is through his eyes that we see the deep attraction and admiration he feels for Toby.

The interactions between Toby and Tommo while they navigate the forest revolve around subtle sexuality, innuendo, and foreplay. Tommo’s intent fixation on Toby is evident in his engaged and focused narration of Toby’s actions, which Tommo recounts in a wholly erotic way. This heavily suggests that this scene should be interpreted as a courtship between the two. Tommo observes Toby to be “[t]hrusting his hand … into the bosom of this capacious receptacle” to retrieve the “wet and dripping” sea-bread (Melville 42). Toby then rescues more of the contents of his frock, and in “drawing [the] calico slowly from his bosom inch by inch, Toby remind[s] [Tommo] of a juggler performing the feat of the endless ribbon” (Melville 43). The use of sexually suggestive words such as “thrusting,” “bosom,” “wet and dripping,” “inch by inch” (Melville 42-43) are certainly no accident by Melville; these lines serve as their own indication of Tommo’s sexual yearning and budding interest in Toby. Tommo likens Toby to a juggler, which suggests a sexual atmosphere in Toby’s subtle performance; the men carefully and intently study one another, as if Toby were performing a sort of mating call or courting routine for the aroused Tommo.

The language Melville uses to illuminate Toby and Tommo’s dangerous navigation of the forest is also incredibly sexually charged and suggestive of mutual attraction:

My brain grew dizzy with the idea of the frightful risk I had just run, and I involuntarily closed my eyes to shut out the view of the depth beneath me. For the instant I was safe, and I uttered a devout ejaculation of thanksgiving for my escape.

“Pretty well done,” shouted Toby underneath me; “you are nimbler than I thought you to be, hopping about up there from root to root like any young squirrel. As soon as you have diverted yourself sufficiently, I would advise you to proceed. (Melville 61-62)


I want to draw attention to words such as “depth,” and “ejaculation,” as well as to Toby’s open praise of Tommo’s physical prowess. Tommo is “nimbler than [Toby] thought [him] to be,” (Melville 61) which not only implies that Toby is routinely evaluating Tommo’s shape and form, but also that he is paying close attention to his friend’s strength and flexibility. In fact, Melville uses the word “ejaculation” a second time within the same interaction when Tommo “utter[s] one comprehensive ejaculation of prayer” (Melville 63). Melville uses the deliberate repetition of sexual imagery to extend the metaphor of courtship between Tommo and Toby. Beliele supports this, and adds that “Melville has created a vision of paradise: the gay adolescent dream of being alone in a secluded, preferably pastoral, setting with the beloved– away from intrusive and restrictive societal mores and laws … Tommo has Toby to himself while they are in the hills, a partner, best friend, and collaborator” (Beliele 34). This connection with Toby establishes itself among Tommo’s first queer experiences; after identifying his latent same-sex attraction, the two men share these tender moments of pseudo-courtship in the privacy of the Nuku Hiva forest.

Tommo’s supposed attraction to Fayaway indicates his compulsory heterosexuality, rather than a legitimate budding romance. The image Tommo conjures of Fayaway seems as though it were a fill-in-the-blanks activity of his description of Toby. While Fayaway has a “free pliant figure,” Toby has a “great flexibility of limb”; while Fayaway has “a rich and mantling olive [complexion],” Toby has a “naturally dark complexion … deepened by exposure to the tropical sun”; while Fayaway has eyes that “in a contemplative mood, … [seem] most placid yet unfathomable,” Toby’s “mass of jetty locks clustered about his temples … threw a darker shade into his large black eyes”  (Melville 86, 32). These parallels suggest that Tommo’s experiences with Toby lay the groundwork for how the reader should interpret Tommo’s sexual identity. Tommo’s perception of Fayaway follows the structure of his perception of Toby, therefore his supposed attraction to women is only functional using the reference of his same-sex experiences. It is as if, upon meeting Fayaway, Tommo must refer to his “Toby” notes on how to be attracted to someone to ensure that he is correctly engaging in heterosexuality.

Tommo’s canoe expedition with Fayaway is, much like the forest scene with Toby, erotically coded and rife with sexual innuendo. Tommo masculinizes Fayaway in an effort to make her appear more attractive, and Melville leans heavily into male sexuality in both his word choice and his overall description of the scene:

As I turned the canoe, Fayaway, who was with me, seemed all at once to be struck with some happy idea. With a wild exclamation of delight, she disengaged from her person the ample robe of tappa which was knotted over her shoulder … and spreading it out like a sail, stood erect with upraised arms in the head of the canoe … In a moment the tappa was distended by the breeze—the long brown tresses of Fayaway streamed in the air—and the canoe glided rapidly through the water, and shot towards the shore. (Melville 134)

The scene indicates Fayaway’s nudity and physical liberation, which in itself implies a sexually charged atmosphere. Melville plays on phallic imagery through the diction of this scene. When Tommo is sexualizing Fayaway, she is “stood erect” (Melville 134) and effectively “standing up like a big penis” (Marshall 2021). Not only is her posture phallic, but she is turned around so that Tommo can only see her from behind. Her breasts are hidden from Tommo and he is androgenizing her through his gaze. Scholar Linda T. Shealey notes that “Melville’s language is sexually suggestive: the terms ‘erect,’ ‘upraised,’ ‘head, ‘straight,’ ‘distended,’ ‘mast,’ and ‘shot’ are replete with phallic undertones … [t]he canoe, a symbol of the phallus, ‘glides’ rapidly through the feminine ‘water’ and ‘shoots’ towards the shore in another unmistakably sexual metaphor” (Shealey 62). Earlier in the book, Melville chooses words such as “thrusting” and “bosom” (Melville 42) to bring nuance to Tommo’s forest expedition with Toby. This subtle sexuality is paralleled in the canoe scene with Fayaway, where once again Tommo cross-references the framework of his sexual experiences with Toby. This is a placeholder for intercourse as well as a checkpoint of Tommo’s sexually exploratory experience in Nuku Hiva.

The autoerotic fire-starting scene involving Kory-Kory, Tommo’s obedient body servant, serves as another facet of Tommo’s erotically liberating experience. Much like the canoe scene, Kory-Kory’s act of making a fire is replete with sexual language and imagery, and therefore serves as an indication of a sexual act without explicit acknowledgement by Melville. Tommo receives a massage from a group of Typee girls while Kory-Kory watches “with the most jealous attention,” (Melville 110) making fire in a manner that seems to suggest that he is watching Tommo whilst bringing himself to orgasm. The language in this passage is sexually suggestive, with the repeated phallic image of “[Kory-Kory’s] stick,” (Melville 111) but more prominently, the success of the fire-making progresses as if it were Kory-Kory’s engagement in masturbation and eventual climax. Kory-Kory suggests the very motion of autoeroticism when he “gradually quickens his pace … plying his hands to and fro with amazing rapidity,” (Melville 111). Melville then implies an orgasm: Kory-Kory begins to perspire, and  “approaches the climax of his effort … [and] pants and gasps for breath” (Melville 111).  Dr. Robert C. Suggs conducted a study on Marquesan sexual behaviours and found that “homosexual and autoerotic play is standard for Marquesan children and adolescents” (Suggs 31), and scholar Que Jun corroborates that “[Kory-Kory’s] autoerotic act in front of Tommo strongly alludes to his queer love” (Jun 22). Jun continues that Melville’s language suggests Kory-Kory’s ejaculation: “[he] symbolically dispers[es] seed or in this passage, ‘smoke’ that dissolves into the thin air” (Jun 22). This detailed sexual encounter involving Kory-Kory and Tommo is perhaps the closest instance Melville produces of explicit eroticism in Typee. Although Kory-Kory’s interest in Tommo is implied to be unrequited, the action of masturbation in this scene serves as yet another significant point in Tommo’s queer experience in Nuku Hiva. Tommo is not only lusting after others, he has also established himself as an attractive queer person on whom others may dote as well.

Tommo meets the enchanting Marnoo and immediately dives into an extensive explanation of how tremendously attractive and beguiling he is, describing him to be “built like a Polynesian Apollo [with] curling ringlets, which danced up and down [on the] feminine softness of his cheek” (Melville 135-136) as if he were “under the most favourable developments of nature” (Melville 135). Tommo is delving into an extensive account of Marnoo’s physical beauty, just as he did with both Toby and Fayaway. Upon meeting, Tommo and Marnoo join hands in what Tommo interprets as a subtly romantic manner:

I had hardly recovered from my surprise, when he turned round, and, with a most benignant countenance extended his right hand gracefully towards me. Of course I accepted the courteous challenge, and, as soon as our palms met, he bent towards me, and murmured in musical accents―“How you do?” “How long you been in this bay?” “You like this bay?” (Melville 139)

Tommo’s desire for Marnoo establishes yet another facet of his queer identity: Tommo finally feels the freedom to express his sexuality to such a great extent that he heavily implies his attraction to Marnoo. Tommo is flustered, marvelling: “Had I been pierced simultaneously by three Happar spears, I could not have started more than I did at hearing these simple questions … [f]or a moment I was overwhelmed with astonishment” (Melville 139). His reaction indicates that Marnoo’s extension of his hand is enough to send Tommo into the throes of queer panic. Scholar Que Jun notes that “the ‘piercing’ spears contain powerful queer strains, as they are charged with phallic significance; hence, physical penetration is metaphorically presented …  Tommo’s emotional response to Marnoo’s ‘simple questions’ reflects his queer desire to be ‘pierced’ by other males” (Jun 23). This shared act with another queer-coded character symbolizes Tommo’s commitment to his free expression of sexuality in Nuku Hiva.

The character of Marnoo is presented to the reader as androgynous, which in this case codes for “taboo” and indicates that he comfortably expresses his gender identity with both traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics. Marnoo’s masculine excellence and power is highlighted in Tommo’s observation that he is “one of the most striking specimens of humanity that [Tommo] ever beheld,” but this does not deny his alluring femininity: his smooth and untattooed cheek is “of a feminine softness” (Melville 135-36). Marnoo wears a “slight girdle of white tappa, scarcely two inches in width, but hanging before and behind in spreading tassels,” which is clothing traditionally intended for a Polynesian woman (Melville 136). Scholar Que Jun comments that Marnoo’s androgyny indicates Melville’s identification of latent sexual urges of Western male readers:

Though [the scholar] Said observes that “the ‘East’ has been a psychological sphere where heterosexual men can gratify their illicit sexual desires and explore a different type of sexuality in Western world (Said 190), he does not mention “queer love” as part of that “different type of sexuality.” Considering the fact that “the target readers of sea adventure novels were mostly males” (Said 191), the feminized “Polynesian Apollo” may serve as an erotic image for the latent queer readers in the 19th century America. (Jun 24)

This perspective demands the involvement of Melville’s awareness of the heterosexual norm as well as his own latent queer desires. Marnoo not only enjoys the sexual liberation that most others cannot, but he also comfortably expresses his gender identity in what Western ideology would consider non-standard ways. Tommo is a Westerner and we as the audience view the Typee valley through his eyes, so Marnoo embodies “taboo” not only through a Nuku Hiva gaze but also through Tommo’s Western gaze.

Marnoo proudly touts and enjoys his “taboo” status, which grants him full freedom of navigating the island, and the emphasis that the islanders place on taboo is a metaphor for queerness, sexual liberation, and non-conformity to gender norms. The Typee people consider women going out on the water as taboo, and as seen from the erotically charged canoe scene with Fayaway and Tommo, Melville codes a “taboo” canoe trip as a sexual encounter. In fact, Tommo androgynizes Fayaway during this expedition, and Marnoo, who has free reign over the valley, actively presents as androgynous. The similarity between androgynous, taboo Fayaway and androgynous, taboo Marnoo indicates that Melville intentionally positioned these two characters to be compared to one another as transgressive love interests of Tommo.

Tattooing is a theme in Typeethat is not considered taboo by the inhabitants of Nuku Hiva, but certainly is considered as such by Tommo. Despite Tommo’s apparent disgust at the heavily tattooed Typee people, he still considers tattooing as a “marker for what is sexually desirable” (Marshall 2021). Tommo immediately notices Kory-Kory’s tattoos and seems at once repulsed and interested:

His countenance thus triply hooped, as it were, with tattooing, always reminded me of those unhappy wretches whom I have sometimes observed gazing out sentimentally from behind the grated bars of a prison window; whilst the entire body of my savage valet, covered all over with representations of birds and fishes, and a variety of most unaccountable-looking creatures, suggested to me the idea of a pictorial museum of natural history, or an illustrated copy of “Goldsmith’s Animated Nature.” (Melville 83)

Although Tommo likens Kory-Kory to a prison inmate, he also compares his tattoos to the objectively delightful and interesting museum of natural history. This suggests a subtle conflict inside of Tommo, as he is clearly attracted to the tattooed Typees, but he grapples with his Western preconceptions and judgments. Tommo’s inclination to judge tattooed Typees is deconstructed later in the novel upon meeting Marnoo, which emphasizes Tommo’s increased comfort in his queer identity and his abandonment of traditional Western ideals. He remarks that “[t]he tattooing on [Marnoo’s] back in particular attracted [his] attention … [t]he artist employed must indeed have excelled at his profession” (Melville 136) and continues to give a detailed account of the beauty and intricacy of Marnoo’s tattoos. Both of these natives’ tattoos serve as signifiers to Tommo of what is sexually interesting and attractive, and this idea is supported by Tommo’s direct or indirect sexual engagement with both Kory-Kory and Marnoo. Tommo’s interaction with the tattooed natives poses an important development in his sense of self and queer identity, as well as his disengagement with his prior-held Western standards.

Tommo’s abrupt, dissatisfying, and desperate departure from Nuku Hiva symbolizes his inability to commit to the expression of his queerness. His journey is that of self-acceptance: gradual, rewarding, and passionate, while his act of leaving works to dismantle that. As soon as he finds it possible, Tommo escapes on a boat and violently hurls a boat-hook at the esteemed Mow-Mow, which “[strikes] him just below the throat, and force[s] him downwards” (Melville 252) shortly after bidding a hasty and half-hearted goodbye to Fayaway and Kory-Kory who are “both weeping violently” (Melville 248). This serves as a reminder from Melville that open queerness was not a viable path to take in the time in whichTypee was written, suggesting that it is easier, albeit more horrifying, violent, and upsetting, to return to a life of repression and confinement than it is to pursue self-expression in a time where it is not widely accepted.

Melville echoes this sentiment of latent queerness and repressed identity in his other texts, which may suggest that the inspiration for Tommo’s heavily queer-coded storyline is Melville’s own queer interest. The attraction Tommo feels for individuals such as Toby and Marnoo in 1846 Typee is paralleled in 1924 Billy Budd, a novella by Melville depicting the eponymous handsome sailor whose beauty is praised and envied by his shipmates. Billy is described to be “such a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall” (Melville 53). Even the narrator, who is not ascribed to any particular character in the story, seems to be completely convinced of Billy’s ethereal beauty and superiority. This narrator may act as a manifestation of Melville and his own queer interest. Billy’s homoerotically charged dynamic with the ship’s master-at-arms Claggart is strongly implied, but the latter’s sexual advances go largely unnoticed:

Claggart, the Master-at-arms, official rattan in hand, happened to be passing along … Stepping over [the soup], he was proceeding on his way without comment, since the matter was nothing to take notice of under the circumstances, when he happened to observe who it was that had done the spilling. His countenance changed. Pausing, he was about to ejaculate something hasty at the sailor, but checked himself, and pointing down to the streaming soup, playfully tapped him from behind with his rattan, saying in a low musical voice peculiar to him at times, “Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!” (Melville’s Billy Budd, 31)

In this passage, it is clear that Claggart is engaging in subtle flirtation with Billy. His “countenance change[s]” (Melville 31) when he notices that Billy was the one who made the small infraction of spilling soup, which indicates that another individual for whom Claggart does not have nearly as much fondness may have garnered a worse punishment. He flirtatiously hits Budd on his rear with his rattan, an action which scholar Dana Sliva interprets as Claggart being “[u]nable to control his homoerotic desires,” and that “[his] actions with his rattan suggest sodomy” (Sliva 2). The courtship and sexual tension is as clearly indicated here as it is between Tommo and his objects of queer interest in Typee. Melville’s pessimism regarding the acceptability of homosexual relationships becomes evident when Billy inadvertently kills Claggart and is executed for it, thereby nullifying any potential of the two to acknowledge their mutual attraction. Melville engages with what is now a common trope of killing LGBTQ+ characters, which suggests his writing to be an outlet for his sexual repression and pain. It is highly likely that the social climate of the 19th century and Melville’s consequential sexual repression spurred the sudden misfortunes of his queer-coded characters.

Melville’s Moby Dick is yet another homoerotically coded novel which prominently features perhaps the most glaring example of queer literary fantasy: a 19th century interracial queer marriage. Ishmael feels “mysteriously drawn towards” his friend Queequeg, an individual who, “[s]avage though he was, and hideously marred about the face … had a something in [his countenance] which was by no means disagreeable … You cannot hide the soul” (Melville’s Moby Dickch. 10). Ishmael makes a clear indication of his romantic interest in his “bosom friend”: “[t]hrough all [Queequeg’s] unearthly tattooings, [Ishmael] thought [he] saw the traces of a simple honest heart; and in [Queequeg’s] large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils” (Melville ch. 10). The two routinely sleep together, and Chapter 4 opens with Ishmael reporting that he wakes up in the morning to “Queequeg’s arm thrown over [him] … in the most affectionate manner” (Melville ch. 4). Chapter 10 continues with the two engaging in an unmistakable instance of same-sex matrimony:

I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me … [Queequeg] pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need me … Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg — a cosy, loving pair. (Melville ch. 10)

Melville is clearly representing queer romance, and unlike in Typee, this account of mutual attraction is not at all shrouded in innuendo. Ishmael and Queequeg spend the following day after their “marriage” engaging in a detailed account by Melville of the two cuddling and “enjoy[ing] [each other’s] bodily warmth” (Melville ch. 11). This serves as a manifestation of what Melville did not accomplish in his other queer-coded texts: a documentation in American 19th-century literature of same-sex marriage and overt romance.

Melville’s work was potentially, but not necessarily, an outlet for fleshing out his queer fantasies and his frustration with the inaccessibility of an openly queer lifestyle in the 19th century. Typeeserves as a clear progression of Tommo’s sexual identity and his various romantic interests in the Typee valley, and the suggested queer subplots in Billy Budd and Moby Dickecho Typee’s sentiment of acknowledging and enjoying same-sex romance. Tommo’s choice to leave Nuku Hiva in an act of violence forces the reader to face an unpleasant image: a man forced to turn against himself and those he grew to love during his queer journey and retreat to the very society which birthed his repression. Melville implicitly calls on a more accepting society for queer identities, by likening Typee’s Nuku Hiva to that which did not exist at the time of publication: a queer space in which individuals can express their sexual identity to the greatest degree. Scholar Steven B. Herrmann remarks on Melville’s potential queerness that “[w]hether Melville engaged in actual homosexual activity or not does not matter so much … [t]he fact that he leaves the question open for readers stands out as one of his greatest virtues as a writer” (Herrmann 71). Indeed, whether or not Melville himself was queer is not entirely relevant. His texts pioneered the representation of same-sex romance in 19th-century literature, which in itself is an incredible feat for the historical visibility of the queer experience.


[1]I refer to compulsory heterosexuality here as the acknowledgement of a heteronormative standard to which queer individuals feel they must conform. Generally speaking, compulsory heterosexuality is experienced through a queer person’s inability to identify in themselves what constitutes legitimate heterosexual interest and what is their feigned heterosexuality due to a subconscious self-encouragement to fit into a heteronormative society.


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