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Typee

Herman Melville

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

Do you think that Typee is truly a novel? Would it be better categorized in some other genre?

Typee is best categorized as a novel because its narrative is fictional, even if it is supposedly based upon a "true" experience. That said, Typee also shares many characteristics of non-novelistic writing. Its lengthy cultural profiles belong to the realm of anthropology. Its first person narrative could be called a memoir. Melville's extensive theorizing could almost be considered a philosophical text. Still, while these many elements exist in Typee, the book is linked together by a fictional plot—two men hiding in a Polynesian island with natives who could possibly be cannibals. The approach to the Typee valley and the escape from it both follow the format of classic adventure tales. Melville relies heavily on suspense and plot to keep the narrative moving. He attempts to shock readers by having his main characters swing over ravines and see shrunken human heads. Although it is true that Typee contains a certain hybrid quality, it still can accurately be called a novel because of its heavy reliance on its fictional plot. Ironically, of course, Melville and his publisher took great pains to stress the book as non-fiction, "unvarnished truth," in order to make it credible and salable. Later examinations of Melville's style, however, proved that like many good storytellers, he was a true master of exaggeration.

Tommo often says that he fears the Typees because he thinks he may be killed and eaten? How realistic do you think that this fear is? Are there any other reasons for which Tommo wants to flee the valley?

Whether or not the Typees are cannibals is one of the major questions in the novel. Tommo and Toby have heard terrible stories saying that they are, but the Typees consistently fail to act as Europeans have claimed that they would. Instead, they appear gentle, friendly, and hospitable. They give Tommo and Toby food, housing, and company. They never threaten them. Tommo doubts that they actually are cannibals for most of the book. After he sees the three shrunken heads and a partially eaten body, Tommo changes his mind. Soon after, he hastens his efforts to flee and finally succeeds. For this reason, it seems that Tommo's primary reason for fleeing is his fear of being killed and eaten.

The confirmation of the Typee's cannibalism, however, provides no indication that they would have ever eaten or killed Tommo. In fact, the Typees seem to have been interested in bringing Tommo closer into the tribe rather than killing him. Their desire to have him tattooed shows that they wanted to mark him as own of their own. Tommo's resistance to being tattooed takes place exactly because he understands why the Typees want it done. Tommo does not want to become a Typee and lose his previous American identity. Although he has praised their culture for its nobility and grace, when forced to become a part of it he runs. Cannibalism may be the obvious reason for why Tommo flees, but his fear of becoming part of the Typee world and society is equally important.

Discuss the gender distinctions and boundaries in the Typee culture. Do you think that Typee women had more freedom than European women of the time? What do you think Melville thought.

Melville feels that Typee women live a freer existence than many European women, but this fact is not entirely clear. The one area where they are freer is sexuality. Melville praises their open sexuality and sees their ability to have dual lovers to signify a certain status. Still, while the Typees have a women- centered, matrilineal culture, this alone does not mean that the women have more freedom. Some of the taboos that Melville profiles show that the natives, like their European counterparts, are often restricted. The taboo on letting women into the Ti, or bastion of political power, suggests that women are not involved in the governance of the tribe. Likewise, the taboo on letting women ride in canoes indicates an attempt to control their mobility. Although Typeean women are able to have sex more freely than European ones, and Melville does admire this, their sexual freedom alone does not indicate that they are entirely liberated beings.

Suggested Essay Topics

What conditions on the whaler Dolly led Tommo and Toby to flee the ship. Do you think that they were justified in doing so?

What is the importance of tattooing in the Typee society. Why does Tommo so fear being tattooed himself?

Discuss the Typee religion. Melville argues that it is unfair for Europeans to categorize it as less important than their religions? Do you agree?

Mehevi is portrayed both as a noble and yet threatening figure. Discuss his character. Should he be admired or feared? What do you think Melville thought?

Discuss the way that Tommo's opinion of the natives differs before and after he spends time with them. What do you think that he has learned from them?

Tommo feels deeply attracted to Fayaway and frequently discusses her in his tale. What do you think of the quality of their relationship? Do her feelings for Tommo equal his own?

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