In Typee A Peep at Polunesian Life by Herman Melville, the theme of anti-colonialism is fairly obvious. It is under a very thin veil that Melville is asking the questions; how is one culture better than another? , Why are the same rights not enjoyed by all societies? , What gives any country the right to colonize? and basically, Who the Hell do the French think they are? With his description of the Typee natives, Melville makes several comparisons and parallels between the savages and the more “civilized” European-based peoples.
The Typee are shown to have the same human needs, similar family structure, and in some cases, are better off than more advanced societies. Melville is obviously fond of the Typee and speaks of them with definite nostalgia. His first person narrative changes tense often throughout the novel to describe the action then switches to explain Melville’s later understanding of what happened. In this way, the point of view is a blend: of the young inexperienced adventurer and the older, more experienced writer recalling the events of four years previous.
The constant tension in the book is created by these two perspective constantly juxtaposed to one another. The younger narrator is full of action and excitement and the older narrator is more logical but still cynical. I don’t believe that this was intentional on the author’s part, but this constant contrast symbolizes the rigors and the sea and high-speed life of mainlanders to the more tranquil and slow-moving life of the islander. Melville wants the reader to feel that stress and also experience the serenity in which he lived most of his time on the island.
The novel opens with Melville’s first description, the miserable months at sea, “Yes, reader, as I live, six months out of sight of land… beneath the scorching sun of the Line… Weeks and weeks ago our fresh provisions were all exhausted… why so pathetically relate the privations and the hardships of the sea… (3)”. This sets the negative feeling about the life that Tom had been living and leads into his desire for a drastic change. Then in a passage entitled “Anticipations”, Tom excitedly describes what he expects to see when they arrive at the Marquesas, “Hurra, my lads!…
The Marquesas!… What strange visions of outlandish things… Naked houris-cannibal banquets-groves of cocoa-nut-coral reefs-tatooed chiefs-and bamboo temples… savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols-heathenish rites and human sacrifices. (5)”. Here, Melville not only begins the comparison of island life to European life but also expresses the ignorance of the world’s view of Polynesian life. His explanation is exaggerated to make his point. He even refers to the olden voyagers as being responsible for these myths which are taken for reality.
The Typee are then compared directly to the French when the leaders, Du Petit Thouars and the leader of Tior meet. Even with the different appearance and odd presence of the patriarch sovereign of Tior, Melville begins to convey the possibility that the better life is in Tior, “insensible as he is to a thousand wants, and removed from harassing cares, may not the savage be the happier man of the two? (29). ” These “wants” are quite relative. What one society desires is not necessarily that of another. But Melville is also saying that perhaps the happier life is that of one without constant want (i.e. , colonialism).
This poses the question of the intensity of desire vs. need. The inhabitants of the west are aware of so many choices that their needs are vast. The natives, on the other hand, have seen very little of the world and are happy with the basics of life: food, shelter, and family (community). The natives are content with the island as a home in which they inhabit and have no nagging desires to take over the home of another. Perhaps the burden of greed is what the inhabitants of Nukuheva are free of.
Melville strongly believes that contact with the Western world has a negative affect on native cultures. He opens the book by suggesting that it would be better off for natives to remain on “undiscovered” islands. Throughout the book he illustrates the terrible effect of western contact by discussing the influence of missionaries, colonists and merchantmen. The first men who arrive on the islands immediately label the native heathens. They obviously fail to recognize the quality of native life, which Melville helps to highlight to the reader.