Preface & Chapters 1–4

Summary Preface & Chapters 1–4

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.