Tommo’s Imprisonment to His Own Cultural Values: Recognizing Cultural Bias in Typee

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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.

The first form of Tommo’s captivity, which is briefly described in the beginning of the novel, is his experience as a crewman on the Dolly. The conditions on this whaling ship are what motivate him to escape and flee to the island in the first place. Tommo describes how, onboard the ship, “the sick had been inhumanely neglected; the provisions had been doled out in scanty allowance [… and the captain’s] prompt reply to all complaints and remonstrances was — the butte end of a hand-spike” (Melville 202). These descriptions are convincing, but Michael C. Berthold calls attention to how “Tommo’s argument … lacks specificity”, and he points out that “[Tommo] remains strangely aloof from the abuses he cites” (551). While Tommo undoubtedly suffers the consequences of living on a whaling ship with no personal rank or command, he appears to be relatively spared from any major mistreatments. Tommo also displays this detached behaviour when he is a captive to the Typees. But before this, he is limited to the observations of travelers before him that help him make assumptions about the islanders.

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.

Tommo is certain that the Typee tribe is dangerous and to be entirely avoided, and that the Happar tribe is friendly and relatively civilized in comparison. Until he arrives in the Typee Valley and becomes fully acquainted with the islanders, he is infatuated with asking the question “Typee or Happar?” (Melville 66). For the first ten chapters of the novel, the answer to this question means either “a frightful death at the hands of the fiercest of cannibals, or a kindly reception from a gentler race of savages” (Melville 66). Berthold calls attention to Tommo’s habit of polarizing things in his effort to understand them. The “Typee or Happar?” question shows Tommo’s eagerness to categorize each tribe as “good” or “bad”, and it exposes Tommo’s inability to recognize that most things are on a continuum rather than simply black and white. While he is “in the Typee Valley, Tommo begins to realize the limitations of rubrics that are clear and contrasting” (Berthold 554). Berthold also points out that the interaction between Tommo and Toby and the Typee boy and girl they first encounter in the Typee Valley demonstrates Tommo’s keenness for polarization. In this scene, he attempts to find out whether the boy and girl are Happars or Typees by “conjoining ‘Happar’ and ‘Motakee,’ which he takes to mean ‘good’” (Berthold 557). After Tommo realizes that the boy and girl are Typees, despite the fact that they also connected “Happar” with “Motakee” (Melville 69), he gathers that “[‘Motakee’] does not denote a single standard but connotes a sliding scale of good” (Berthold 557). As he becomes acquainted with the Typees, he realizes that there is more to understanding an entire population of people than just categorizing them as “good” or “bad”.
Tommo’s life in the Typee Valley is quite favourable to him, but he still becomes dissatisfied when “[he] realizes that the Typees are holding him captive, no matter how indulgent that captivity” (Berthold 550). He continuously gives the impression that he is in danger of being harmed by the Typees. However, similar to Berthold’s discussion of how he is spared from any actual abuse on the Dolly, he never really appears to be mistreated by the Typees. Berthold even goes as far as to argue that because of “its paucity of incident” “Typee … lacks the melodramatic pleasures of the typical captivity narrative” (559). What is really causing Tommo discomfort is his own desire for the familiar. He is in a constant pursuit of a life that satisfies his yearning for comfort, but he also clings to the lifestyle and norms that he is accustomed to. This unease makes it impossible for him to be able to fully accept the unfamiliar behaviour of the Typees. Although his confinement to the Dolly and his detainment in the Typee Valley are both important forms of his captivity in the novel, they are not as significant as his reliance on his own cultural values.

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 also subconsciously scrutinizes the Typee physical body. In Douglas Ivison’s essay “I saw everything but could comprehend nothing”: Melville’s Typee, travel narrative, and colonial discourse, he discusses how “[Tommo] subjects the bodies of the Typees to the colonial gaze”. “The colonial gaze” is the lens through which a person who originates from predominantly white European colonial states or America observes a population that is foreign to them. Ivison argues that “[Tommo’s] emphasis on the nearly naked young girls participates in the colonial representation of the body of the colonized object, which is … aestheticized as an object of sexual desire”. Reminiscent of his reaction to their encouragement of non-monogamy and sexual freedom, Tommo is simultaneously affronted and endeared by how exposed these women are. Despite the fact that he clearly seems to enjoy when Fayaway removes the few garments that clothe her and uses them “like a sail” on the mast of her own naked body, he appears to remain unsatisfied with her habitual nudity (Melville 134). Not long after he recounts this story, he boasts that “Out of the calico [he] had brought from the ship [he] made a dress for this lovely girl” (Melville 134). He feels the implicit need to conceal her naked body so as to reserve it for himself in a way that is conventional to the standards of colonial societies. This specific interaction demonstrates that Tommo is a captive to Ivison’s “colonial gaze”. Tied to the conventions of his cultural norms, he instinctively desires to clothe Fayaway in order to claim her and her body for himself in a way that aligns with the customary presentation of the female body in America and Europe.
Judging by how challenging it is for Tommo to adjust to the unfamiliar habits of the islanders, it is no surprise that he has a very difficult time comprehending “taboo” on the island (Melville 221). “Situated as [he] was in the Typee valley, [he] perceived every hour the effects of this all-controlling power, without in the least comprehending it” (Melville 221). Not only does he not understand taboo, he also lacks respect for it. This is painfully evident when he persuades the chiefs of the valley to allow Fayaway to be exempt from the taboo that prevents women from boarding canoes. In doing this, he makes it clear that “although the ‘taboo’ was a ticklish thing to meddle with, [he was] determined to test its capabilities of resisting an attack” (Melville 132). His inability to fully understand the purpose of the taboos causes him to see no harm in disrespecting them. After he successfully makes an adjustment to the regulation that prevented Fayaway from boarding the canoe with him, he appears to “trust that the example [he] set them may produce beneficial effects” in the future for the Typees (Melville 133). This shows Tommo’s arrogance. Although he may be a prisoner to the islanders, he still believes that his judgement is superior to theirs. It is a wonder that he remains this confident in his own conventions at the same time that his survival is entirely dependent on the Typees. He basks in the luxury of his preferential treatment, yet he fails to even minimally remove himself from the bounds of his own frame of mind and see any value in the rituals on the island. Though he does his best to become acquainted with the aspects of the islanders’ lives that are foreign to him, he remains loyal to his own biases. Tommo embraces the features of the valley that contribute to his own comfort at the same time that he rejects those that are too much for him to tolerate.
Among other conventions that Tommo disdains, he vehemently rejects the Typee practice of tattooing. While he describes Mehevi’s “warlike personage” during his second encounter with him, he notes that “in their grotesque variety and infinite profusion [he] could only compare [Mehevi’s tattoos] to the crowded groupings of quaint patterns we sometimes see in costly pieces of lacework” (Melville 78). This description is clearly not meant to compliment the warrior’s appearance. Instead, it is meant to depict his tattoos as unattractive disfigurations of his body. While romantically describing Fayaway’s appearance, Tommo reluctantly adds that her “beauteous form … was [not] altogether free from the hideous blemish of tattooing” (Melville 86). His reaction is undoubtedly a result of the societal attitude towards tattoos in Europe and America that he has embraced. After being pestered by islanders who forcefully insisted that he get a tattoo on his face, he expresses his fear “that in some luckless hour [he] should be disfigured in such a manner as never more to have the face to return to [his] countrymen, even should an opportunity offer” (Melville 219). Such a statement, considering his helpless captivity within the valley, is profound, because it shows how partial he is to Western societal stigmas, despite his having lived on the island for months already.

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).

Ivison and Berthold both frequently use “Other” to refer to the Marquesan native islanders in relation to the European and American colonizers. The use of the term “Other” to describe the natives implies that the non-natives are the ones who are not foreign. Ivison argues that “in the terms of European civilization, the Other is always already judged to be inferior”, which further perpetuates the idea that the white men and their cultural values are superior. This is the same idea that is rooted in the biased accounts of the Typees. It is what further fuels Tommo’s sense of isolation. Long after Toby had left him, Tommo laments that “there was … no one to whom [he] could communicate [his] thoughts; no one who could sympathise with [his] sufferings” (Melville 231). Although he finds comfort in the valley, he is still not content as long as he thinks that he has no one like him to relate to.

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

reader is left to develop an understanding of the Typees based on the way Tommo presents them. By recognizing this key element, the reader can see the biases present in Tommo’s account in order to develop an impartial understanding of the Typee islanders.
Once Tommo is able to move past the misconceptions that he initially had about the Typees, he sees the richness of their lives and recognizes how each component contributes to the fluidity of the operation of the valley. Yet, no matter how much he learns to value and respect the Typees and their customs, he is incapable of fully embracing the “Other” (Ivison). To do so would mean that he would have to cut the ties that he still has with his own culture. Until he does this, he is unable to embrace the realities of the island and will continue to be caught up in how he thinks things ought to be. It is not his fear of captivity among the Typees that leads him to escape them. Instead, it is his own discomfort in a society that he cannot fully grasp that fuels his frantic desire to flee. Tommo is so firmly held in the captivity of his own cultural values that he is not even conscious of how they dictate his interactions.

Works Cited

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, 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, Accessed 8 Apr. 2021.

Melville, Herman. Typee. Penguin Books, 1846.