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Symbolism and irony in Melville’s Typee Moore, Donald Stanley

Abstract

Taking issue with the most significant modern interpretations of "Typee", I have attempted to illustrate that Melville's first novel is a conscious, serious, and largely successful work of art. My interpretation focuses on the ironic presentation of the symbolic quest in "Typee", a pattern which Melville was to use repeatedly as a symbol of the inevitable defeat of all rational attempts to comprehend an ineffable universe. I explore this thesis through close examination of two main topics: the quester and the symbolic world through which he pursues his search for singularity of vision. Tom is Melville's first quest hero, and represents the active, inquisitive intellect. However, the process of human understanding, as it is presented in Tom, is in constant flux. It is finite and unreliable; ultimately, it is a relative process. Moreover, the secrets of the world through which Tom pursues his quest are inscrutable, symbolized by the towering mystery of Nukuheva's central mountain. These, then, are the two sides to the ironic quest in "Typee": the finite rationality of Tom, and the infinite natural mystery of Nukuheva. Tom and the absolutes of his world, understanding and mystery, are brought finally into confrontation in Typee Valley, and the outcome serves to confirm the inevitability of defeat for the quest after rational singularity of vision. In Typee Valley Tom meets with a culture that is fundamentally strange to him. But his failure to comprehend the whole reality of Typee goes far beyond a cultural gap. The dark and awful secrets of the Typees are linked symbolically to the fullness of Nukuheva's mystery. When Tom confronts the Typees, he comes face to face with the human embodiment of the mystery at the heart of things. He retreats because his rationality cannot carry him beyond appearances and into the irrational and inscrutable essence of Typee culture and of Nukuheva as a whole. The failure of Tom's quest is a failure of understanding. He retreats finally to the world from which he had initially fled, bringing the quest in Typee full circle, and leaving the mysteries of Nukuheva unpenetrated and absolute. In the end Tom's quest meets with the defeat to which, in Melville's eyes, it was predestined. Ultimately, then, the vision of human understanding Melville presents in "Typee" — the essential human urge to quest after knowledge and the essential inevitability of the frustration of that urge — is profoundly ironic.

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