The narrator uses the preface to say that more than three years has past since he experienced the events that he writes about. He shall tell his story in the manner of sailors who spin yarns to amuse one another while working long shifts. Despite his limited knowledge of Polynesian culture and language, he has taken pains to preserve the "unvarnished truth" of his tale to the best of his ability.
The whaling ship on which the narrator works, the Dolly, has been out to sea for six months without seeing land. Almost all of the fresh food has disappeared, with the exception of one chicken. With a crew longing for land, the captain, Captain Vangs, decides that they will head towards the Marquesas Islands and determines that they should be there in about a week. Unlike many of the other islands in the South Pacific, Europeans have rarely visited the Marquesas. Even the overzealous missionaries have generally stayed away. The reason for their avoidance lies with the reputation of barbaric cannibalism that the natives of those islands enjoy. Despite the possibility of danger, the narrator looks forward to reaching the "Cannibal Islands," and to seeing bamboo temples, coconut trees, and tattooed chiefs.
Knowing that they will soon hit land, the crew of the Dolly rests languidly watching the sights of the sea and doing little work. After a few days, they happily hear, "land ho!" They sail into the bay of the largest island, Nukuheva. A small fleet of French ships sits in the bay and the crew learns that the French have just claimed the islands for France. The crew immediately has other distractions though, because native men on canoes start approaching the ship bearing tropical fruits and goods. Simultaneously, a stream of half-dressed women are swimming towards them, soon overwhelming the all male crew. Later that night, a scene of wild debauchery takes place between these girls and the crew. The narrator criticizes the foul way that the crew deals with the young native girls. He suggests that natives are much better off on undiscovered islands to which Europeans and Americans shall never come.
It is the summer of 1842 and the French have arrived on the island only a few weeks before the Dolly. About a hundred French soldiers now live around the bay. The natives come from their huts to watch the foreigners. They appear intrigued by European customs and especially are impressed by the arrival of a European horse. One of the chiefs of Nukuheva, Mowanna, is appointed by the French to serve as a puppet chieftain. Although the French act as if they are polite and diplomatic, this behavior merely cloaks the true brutality with which they generally treat natives.
After a few days in Nukuheva, the narrator decides that he wants to abandon his ship. He has been aboard for about a year and a half and has signed a several year contract, but he is tired of the terrible living conditions. The captain treats the sailors poorly—overworking them, not feeding them enough, and punishing them if they complain. The captain is so cruel that the narrator decides to press his luck by living amongst natives until another European ship comes along to pick him up.
After deciding to flee, the narrator decides that he will have to immediately climb the high mountain above the bay of Nukuheva and stay in hiding until the Dolly leaves. The natives do not go near the top of the mountain, but rather dwell in the two valleys behind it. These valleys hold the friendly Happar tribe and the legendarily ferocious and cannibalistic Typee tribe. The narrator resolves to stay clear of the Typees, given the terrible stories he has heard of them brutally killing Europeans for no reason.
The narrator here briefly diverts us from his story to comment that many people over exaggerate the behavior of natives and misapply the term "savages." He suggests that the natives may have only become savages after meeting with Europeans, whereas when they lived on their own they were highly civilized according to their own standards.
Typee opens in a lively tone with the author speaking directly to the reader. "Yes, reader, as I live, six months out of sight of land." This direct mode of address immediately invites one to join Melville on his adventure. Yes, the tale to follow shall be an adventure tale for European and American readers who dwell in colorless cities and who know nothing of Polynesian islands in the South Pacific. In a world before television and radio, Melville shall use his text to bring a foreign land to life, much in the way that the Discovery Channel and National Geographic will later do. As such, his prose is highly descriptive. We are not just told that the ship has no more food on it. The narrator also details the type of missing food. No more bananas, oranges, potatoes, yams, chickens. Likewise, we do not just imagine the author to be surrounded by a blue sea. Rather, we see vivid pictures of the ocean wildlife: shoals of flying fish, a prowling shark, the jet of a whale, and a school of dolphins. The rich, descriptive style characteristic of these opening passages remains throughout the entire book. Along with Melville's use of the vocabulary of his time, some may find his style to be slightly hard to digest due to its density. Most, however, will revel in Melville's stylistic richness, with the colors, details, and textures that he evokes. With his forceful, rigorous writing, Melville conjures this brave new world for those to whom it is unfamiliar.
The setting for the story shall be the Marquesas Islands, particularly the largest island Nukuheva, which is now spelled "Nuku Hiva." The Marquesas are located in the South Pacific, about 500 miles South of the Equator and 1100 miles northeast of Tahiti. They were named by a Spaniard, Alvaro de Mendana, who reached them in 1595. The islands remained little touched until Captain James Cook reached them in 1774 and then, as Melville describes, the French took possession of them in 1842. The Marquesas, which contain twelve islands (six of which are uninhabited), still remain part of French Polynesia today. But the native culture that Melville describes in Typee has almost entirely disappeared. An estimated 50,000 natives populated the islands in 1842 before the French arrived, but less than a hundred years later, in 1923, the population was estimated at just over 3,000, due to the effect of violence, European diseases, and eventually migration from the islands under colonial rule. Perhaps it is appropriate then that Melville happened to land on the island just after the French took possession of it. Although Melville's account has been deemed slightly romantic, it still remains one of the few, full portraits of the Marquesan world. Melville's stay with the Typees made him the most informed non- native of his time as to their culture and rituals.
The timing of Melville's text is also appropriate because one of its major themes is the devastation that European influences inflict upon the native world. In this section, Melville says it bluntly—natives would be better off if they remained on "undiscovered" islands. Given the eventual fate of the Marquesan natives, Melville's warning seems sadly prescient. Melville's foreshadowing of terrible events to come appears symbolically in this section here as well, with the scene of sexual debauchery between native girls and the whaling crew. These girls, with their freshness and youth, represent their entire islands. The foul way that the European men use them—so foul that Melville does not even describe it—signifies the foul way that Europeans will abuse the natives in years to come. Melville thus condemns European treatment of natives both through clearly stated and through symbolic representations. This condemnation shall continue throughout his book.
The action that will drive the story can be seen here, as the narrator describes his plan to flee the ship. Life on a whaling ship is difficult, with a cruel captain, constant isolation on the barren sea, and little food. The narrator so longs for his liberty that he is willing to risk living amongst potentially- cannibalistic natives. The narrator's wanderings on the island make up the future plot. His desire for freedom from the oppressive ship continues Melville's condemnation of the European world. The narrator wants to enter the lush Polynesian land, but even as he does so his connection to the European world shall continue. This struggle for his identity and his liberty shall drive the plot of the book on a symbolic level. On the practical level, the narrator's explanation of his adventure to come motivates the reader for the journey, to leave the dull landscape of the whaling ship and head into the tropical valleys of Polynesia, where few Europeans and Americans have ever gone.