Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life

Critical response

Critical opinion on Typee is divided. Scholars have traditionally focused attention on Melville's treatment of race and the narrator's portrayal of his hosts as noble savages, but there is considerable disagreement as to what extent the values, attitudes, and beliefs expressed are Melville's own, and whether Typee reinforces or challenges racist assessments of Pacific culture.

Typee's narrative did express sympathy for the "savages", while criticizing the missionaries' attempts to "civilize" them:

It may be asserted without fear of contradictions that in all the cases of outrages committed by Polynesians, Europeans have at some time or other been the aggressors, and that the cruel and bloodthirsty disposition of some of the islanders is mainly to be ascribed to the influence of such examples.

[The] voluptuous Indian, with every desire supplied, whom Providence has bountifully provided with all the sources of pure and natural enjoyment, and from whom are removed so many of the ills and pains of life—what has he to desire at the hands of Civilization? Will he be the happier? Let the once smiling and populous Hawaiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer the question. The missionaries may seek to disguise the matter as they will, but the facts are incontrovertible. CH 4

In Typee, the character Tommo is terrified of being permanently absorbed into native society, and critics have given much attention to his fear of cannibalism. The novel states that Typee natives ate an inhabitant of one of the neighboring valleys, but the natives who captured Melville reassured him that he would not be eaten.

Typee may have provided the writers Louis Becke, Jack London, and Robert Louis Stevenson with the themes and images of the Pacific experience: cannibalism, colonialism, cultural absorption, exoticism, natural plenty and beauty, and a perceived simplicity of native lifestyle, desires and motives.

The Knickerbocker called Typee "a piece of Münchhausenism".[3] New York publisher Evert Augustus Duyckinck wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne that "it is a lively and pleasant book, not over philosophical perhaps."[4]

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