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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


The negative effect of European civilization

Melville strongly believes that contact with the European and American world has a negative effect on native cultures. He opens his book by suggesting that it would be better off for natives to remain on "undiscovered" islands. Throughout the text, he ill

ustrates the terrible effect of European contact by discussing the influence of missionaries, colonists, and merchantmen. The first men who arrive in native lands merely label the natives heathens. They fail to recognize the quality of the native culture

and primarily serve to condemn perfectly acceptable native practices—differing views on sexuality for example, or the tendency of tropical people to wear less clothing. Because missionaries reject all aspects of native culture as "barbaric," their i

nfluence only serves to turn native people against whites and also against themselves, ultimately crippling their culture.

The colonists and merchantmen also serve to physically destroy native people. Colonists use their cannons to take over peaceful islands simply in the name of European empires. Merchantmen take out their sexual desires and aggressions on local women, leavi

ng a legacy of venereal disease that has decimated many a native population. Given the combined stresses of contact with the Europeans, Melville believes that the natives will remain much better off if they can simply remain in peace on their own.

The superiority of the natives

Melville argues repeatedly that the native culture is superior to most found in civilization. Although so-called "civilized" people condemn natives as "heathens" who engage in barbarism, actually natives are nothing of the kind. The Typees, for example, t

reat each other with far more civility than people do in urban cities. The Types generously share food with one another. They do not lie, cheat, or steal. Furthermore, no portions of society are left starving and destitute because of debt or poverty, as s

o frequently is the case in Europe and the States. Although the Typees live a less intellectual existence, their lifestyle is one of bliss and relative peacefulness in a kind valley. The natives could teach Europeans many things about how to be less barba

ric, Melville feels, but ironically it is the Europeans who call them savage.

Harsh conditions on a whaling ship

This is a minor theme but one that continues in many of Melville's texts, which usually either profile whaling or naval ships. In Typee, Melville just provides a general condemnation of a cruel captain who treats his crew in an inhumane manner. Captain Vangs could thus be compared to other malicious captains in Melville's tales, such as Captain Vere in Billy Budd. Even though Melville's discussion of abuses on ships affected a relatively small amount of people in the world, his attention

to such abuse did have results. Following the publication of White Jacket, for example, the United States Congress outlawed the practice of flogging on all naval ships. In Typee, Melville only briefly describes the cruelties of ship life, a

lthough the brutality of ship life is revealed in the author's willingness to go ashore.


Tommo's Leg Injury

Tommo's leg injury is a major motif in Typee that reappears whenever he feels anxious and worried. The injury appears from unknown causes after Tommo's first night on the island. Initially, the injury reflects Tommo's fear about whether the Typ

ees are cannibals who may want to kill and eat him. His fear is so crippling that it reduces him to a childlike state. It is only after Tommo receives the constant care taking of Kory-Kory that he realizes that the natives mean him well and his leg be

gins to heal. While Tommo remains happy amongst the Typees, his leg is not a problem. Towards the end of the book, however, the injury reappears in response to Tommo's fear about the Typees wanting to tattoo him, and also because he finds that they are ca

nnibals. The leg injury is a symbolic ailment that always serves more as an indicator of what is happening in Tommo's mind.


The question of whether or not the Typees are cannibals is a major motif in the text. The issue of cannibalism is raised even before the Dolly reaches the Marquesas. At that time, Tommo thinks that it sounds exotic. As the two men descend into the

valley, they worry constantly about the possibility of being eaten. Even after they reach the Typees, the question of whether or not the natives are cannibals shall continue to create suspense within the narrative. Ultimately, we shall learn that yes, the

Typees are cannibals. Even though they also serve the story thematically, the constant references to cannibalism serve primarily as a device of suspense and plot used to drive the action in the novel.


Sexuality is a subtle motif in the text, but one that plays an important role in the development of Tommo's identity. Initially, Tommo appears to be an asexual creature. When the Dolly arrives in Nukuheva, the crew and the native girls join in a sc

ene of wild debauchery, of which Tommo does not appear to be a part. On the ship, sexuality appears foul and licentious. As Tommo enters and becomes a part of the valley though, he is more able to embrace sexuality with a certain innocence. He falls in lo

ve with Fayaway. Sexuality and nudity become innocent and pure, as opposed to how they are normally seen in the European/American world. Essentially, the Typee valley represents sex before man's fall from grace. It is still innocent and fresh, with no

sinful connotations.



Although a character, Fayaway is a largely symbolic one. She represents the ultimate state of beauty and innocence that can be found in the Typee valley. In a landscape that is akin to Eden, Fayaway appears to be "Eve." Her purity suggests the condition o

f man before his fall from innocence. Although a sexual being, Fayaway has no sin and remains permanently innocent and fresh.


With a tattoo on his face or even on his arm, Tommo would be marked for life as someone who is different and possibly even part "savage." Tommo is unwilling to become so marked, which is why he remains adamantly opposed to the idea. The Typees want Tommo

to join the culture, but instead he chooses to flee. The threat of being tattooed is one of the major reasons for why he feels compelled to go.

The Ravine

The steep ravine that Toby and Tommo descend suggests a return from the outside world to a mother's womb. By the time that the two men move successfully to the bottom of the ravine, they are in the heart of the valley. Since the valley represents

paradise, they essentially are in the womb of all humanity—the landscape from whence all humans once came. Tommo and Toby are attempting to go backwards in history, to step back towards the humans that existed in the Garden of Eden. The steep and da

ngerous climb over the ravine is the first major exercise in heading backwards towards an existence far from the civilization that they now rely on. It will be a worthwhile trip however. In making it, they are stepping back towards innocence and towards t

he idea of truth.

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