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By Lillie Goodson
(UBC Arts One, Prof. Robert Crawford Seminar)
Tommo, the main character and narrator in Herman Melville’s Typee, experiences many forms of captivity throughout the novel. He is physically confined to the whaling ship, Dolly, and he is held captive by the Typee islanders, but Tommo is a prisoner to something much more significant: his own cultural values. This form of imprisonment shapes his experience on the island and dictates how he engages with the Typees. This paper will argue that the cultural values ingrained in his mindset actually hinder his ability to understand the different ways that the Typees lead their lives. To support this claim, it will consider various interactions that Tommo has with the Typees that demonstrate this divide. It will look to Douglas Ivison’s critical essay, “I saw everything but could comprehend nothing”: Melville’s Typee, travel narrative, and colonial discourse, to understand that Tommo’s desire for the familiar is dictated by his identity as a white man from a colonial state. This paper will also show how Michael C. Berthold’s “Portentous Somethings”: Melville’s Typee and the Language of Captivity illustrates Tommo’s tendency to rely on unreasonable polarities to understand what is foreign to him. It is important to consider how Tommo’s reliance on his own cultural norms prevents him from ever fully accepting the Typeean practices that are foreign to him because it shows how confined he is to his own conventions.
From the moment the captain of the whaling ship announces they will soon reach Nukuhevah, Tommo fantasizes about “naked houris—cannibal banquets—groves of cocoa-nut—coral reefs—tatooed chiefs—and bamboo temples” (Melville 5). These images, of course, originate from a collection of accounts made by travelers before him who had had little immersion into the authentic lives of the islanders and who spent their time observing the islands from their own ships (Melville 171). Their observations barely do justice to the islanders, their traditions, and their culture. Images of cannibalism and other unconventional behaviours cause foreigners, like Tommo, who visit the Marquesas to expect the worse of their fate. Before he even has the opportunity to interact with the islanders and develop a moral judgement about them for himself, he has already internalized the dramatized description of the cannibalistic Typees. This exaggerated interpretation is not the only misconception about the island that Tommo unconsciously adopts.
Once Tommo has spent a substantial amount of time living with the Typees, he begins to develop his own interpretations of their culture and no longer relies on the accounts of travelers before him. In order to understand their daily lives and rituals to the best of his ability, he compares the social customs of the Typees to his own societal norms. One example of this is when he attempts to comprehend the Typeean attitude towards sexual and marital relations. When Kory-Kory first explains that a certain combination of tattoos on a woman’s “hand and foot” are “the distinguishing badge of wedlock”, Tommo immediately ceases to “venture to indulge in the slightest approach to flirtation with any of their number”, in order to treat them with the same respect that he would treat any married woman in his homeland (Melville 190-191). He is quite alarmed when he realizes that “the peculiar domestic customs of the inmates of the valley did away in a measure with the severity of [his] scruples” and that “a regular system of polygamy exists among the islanders; but of a most extraordinary nature,—a plurality of husbands, instead of wives” (Melville 191). This sanctioning of the idea that women can have multiple husbands and lovers baffles him, when he tries to visualize this behaviour occurring back home. To a man who has spent his entire life immersed in a culture where monogamy is the norm and where sex is stigmatized outside of wedlock, this system with so little structure and so much encouragement to act on one’s free will seems entirely unimaginable. Instead of accepting the value of a system that has most likely been present on the island for centuries, he assumes that it is inherently flawed.
Tommo’s blatant rejection of the custom of tattooing is intriguing because he has remarked in other instances “that being in Typee [he] made a point of doing as the Typees did” (Melville 209). He “ate poee-poee as they did” and attentively imitated their actions, doing his best to “[conform] with their peculiar habits” (Melville 209). In his essay, Ivison also touches on the idea that a white man such as Tommo can “simultaneously [express] the horror of losing one’s identity as European and the attraction of gaining a new identity as the Other”. Throughout the novel, Tommo fluctuates between being afraid of assimilating with the Typees and experiencing a fondness for their foreign lifestyle. He demonstrates this “fear of loss of identity … most explicitly in the fears of being marked as Other by being tattooed” (Ivison). Tommo “vigorously rejects the total ideological enslavement he thinks tatooing symbolizes” because, in his eyes, to be marked with the Typeean tattoo would signify a loss of self (Berthold 564). This attachment to individual self and freedom is heavily dependent on the idea of the Typees as the “Other” (Ivison).
Tommo is given the impression by previous travelers’ reports about the Typees “that human victims are daily cooked and served up upon the altars [and] that heathenish cruelties of every description are continually practiced” (Melville 170). However, after living among them, he observes that, “in all [his] excursions through the valley of Typee, [he] never saw any of these alleged enormities” (Melville 170). It is only at this time that he begins to consider associating the Typees with “good”. But once he discovers the human heads hanging in the Ti and he later finds the freshly-stripped human bones, he perceives the Typees as cannibals, and he decides that they are “bad” after all. Despite how evident it is that they only practice cannibalism in the event of a great battle victory, Tommo is so captive to his mindset that he still believes that cannibalism is an unjustifiable savagery. It is “the signifier of the authentic Other”, and it therefore draws the line between what Tommo can and cannot accept (Ivison). From this point on, his desire to escape from their captivity becomes even stronger.
What makes Tommo a prisoner to his Western mindset and why does it matter that his interactions with the Typees are so heavily dictated by it? His inability to see beyond the walls of the cultural norms that have been developed by and for his colonial society shows how trapped he is. Because they are so ingrained in him as a person, he is unable to adapt his perspective to truly accept the different ways that the Typees go about their lives. As a direct result of this, the
Berthold, Michael C. “‘Portentous Somethings’: Melville’s Typee and the Language of
Captivity.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 4, 1987, pp. 549–567. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/365417. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.
Ivison, Douglas. “‘I saw everything but could comprehend nothing’: Melville’s Typee, travel
narrative, and colonial discourse.” ATQ: 19th century American literature and culture, vol. 16, no. 2, 2002, p. 115+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A88583553/LitRC?u=ubcolumbia&sid=LitRC&xid=3700536d. Accessed 8 Apr. 2021.
Melville, Herman. Typee. Penguin Books, 1846.