Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life Quotes


“More than three years have elapsed since the occurrence of the events recorded in this volume.”

The Author in his preface

This opening occurs in the preface to the novel. Today, of course, readers associated prefaces with non-fiction rather than fiction, but before the novel became a respectable literary form it was common to find prefatory material placed before the story per se began which attempted to lend a sort of non-fictional authenticity to what fabulously romantic escapades to follow. This opening line sets the stage for the story that is to be told to enter into the reader’s mind as more of a factual account than an entirely made up piece of creative writing. The reality, of course, is that it is really closer to an intermingling of both.

"I am inclined to think that so far as the relative wickedness of the parties is concerned, four or five Marquesan Islanders sent to the United States as Missionaries might be quite as useful as an equal number of Americans dispatched to the Islands in a similar capacity."


There it is in all its explicitly sacrilegious glory. The overriding theme of Typee is the corruption of the natural state of society by the influence enacted upon it by those who enforce their own values upon a culture they do not even attempt to understand. Had Typee been a greater commercial success, this one quote alone would likely have been enough to stimulate its being banned at the behest of Christian interests.

"Why, they are cannibals!"


Said in scornful, surprised and apprehensive response to Tommo's observation that he missed the Typee tribe and felt that the low status of their reputation was perhaps not entirely deserved.

“A more human, gentlemanly, and amiable set of epicures do not probably exist in the Pacific.”


Tommo’s flippant yet nevertheless heartfelt response to his friend Toby’s observation concerning the low reputation afforded the Typee tribe. Perhaps this is Melville's ironic means of conveying the reality that the fear of cannibalism--in one literal or figurative way or another--was equally applicable on sides of the primitive/civilized societal equation.

“How often is the term 'savages' incorrectly applied! None really deserving of it were ever yet discovered by voyagers or by travellers.”


Tommo is clearly indicated to be the fictional counterpart to author Herman Melville. If this is so, then one can only extrapolate that Melville shared Tommo’s perspective on the easy application of the term “savages.” And yet, one of the words found to be most generously sprinkled throughout the text of Typee is, surprisingly, “savages.” Melville may fairly face accusations that his intentions were somewhat more admirable than his practices in this volume.

“A high degree of refinement, however, does not seem to subdue our wicked propensities so much after all; and were civilization itself to be estimated by some of its results, it would seem perhaps better for what we call the barbarous part of the world to remain unchanged.”


Or, in other words, let’s all return back to our natural “savage” stage of primitive society. Doubtlessly, Melville is making a good point here about just how much difference really exists between the various levels of civilization, but the suggestion that there is something inherently superior about a lack of progress is questionable at best if only because Tommo provides not substantial evidence on the part of the native tribes that such is the case.

“It is impossible that the inhabitants of such a lovely place as we saw can be anything else but good fellows.”


Remember that Toby has traveled for a significantly longer period of time over a significantly greater portion of the globe and to a significantly larger number of destinations than Tommo when he makes what seems for all the world an irresponsibly absurd assertion. So, perhaps—just maybe—Toby informs this seemingly ridiculous calculation with the benefit of experience not readily available to most readers. Or, maybe Melville is seeing how much over the top he can drive this whole “noble savage” concept.

“Had a glimpse of the gardens of Paradise been revealed to me, I could scarcely have been more ravished with the sight.”


Just in case the fact that the islanders are intended on a thematic level to equate with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the arrival of a slithering serpent precipitated their fall from grace, Melville generously puts things into literal perspective.

“The fact is, that there is a vast deal of unintentional humbuggery in some of the accounts we have from scientific men concerning the religious institutions of Polynesia.”


Humbuggery is synonymous with a scam, an illusion, a bit of chicanery and a fake. That Melville is suggesting that scientific studies responsible for misleading assumptions about the religious practices in Polynesia may be sheer chicanery is tempered by the admonition that at least it wasn’t intentional. Take that for whatever it may seem to mean, but one thing seems crystal clear: sailors make far better anthropologists than academics.

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