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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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 influence 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.
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, treat 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 so 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 barbaric, Melville feels, but ironically it is the Europeans who call them savage.
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, although the brutality of ship life is revealed in the author's willingness to go ashore.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Typee!