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Written by Timothy Sexton
Primitive Society v. Civilized Society
The overarching theme that permeates throughout every page, paragraph, sentence and practically every word of Typee concerns the debate over which is preferable: society that is allowed to evolve naturally into a more civilized state or society in which civilization Melville’s novel is almost obsessively detailed about the ways that European influence corrupted the natural state of his Polynesian natives. To point out the extent of this corrupting influence, the novel overflows with portraits of those living in a primitive, “uncivilized” society enjoying far more happiness and a much healthier outlook on life than those who came to “civilize” them.
Within the overriding thematic thrust of comparing primitive culture with civilized culture is the very specific target of the negative influence wrought by religious orthodoxy fostered and forced upon a pagan society ill-prepared for conversion. Melville’s attack on the ruinous influence of Christian missionaries is nothing short of a scathing description of the rape of a submissive culture by a dominant culture. This demonstration of dominance extends not merely to extending the historical line of Christianity’s annihilating of existing religions throughout Europe through forced assimilation, but to even more direct and explicit physical subjugation of the natives from positions of respect and reverence into indentured laborers.
Fall from Grace in the Garden of Eden
Also located within the larger theme of primitive v. civilized societies is the inescapable truth that the purity of the nobly savage Polynesians at the center of Melville’s story is strained to the point of impossibility if not outright myth. In a savagely ironic twist that cannot have been unintended, the primitive society enjoying life in what is obviously at some point an allegorical representation of the Garden of Eden winds up being corrupted by a devilish serpent that stimulates their fall from grace that takes the form of…Christian missionaries allegedly on a mission from God to convert these heathens Adams and Eves.
What happens when the need to resort to cannibalism run dry? Once that last piece of human flesh has been consumed, literally nothing is left. Cannibalism is a literal concern of the whalers sailing into primitive societies and the potential to become a victim drives such elemental narrative aspects plot and suspends, but it is a thematic element that cannibalism becomes such a powerful looming presence in Typee. While the civilized westerners may feel a palpable anxiety over becoming literal victims of cannibalism, they fail to recognize that they are cannibals themselves. The influx of western culture, religion, philosophy and ideology figuratively cannibalizes almost every last remaining vestige of primitive culture, religion, philosophy and ideology.
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