Islandscapes and Savages: Ecocriticism and Herman Melville's Typee
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In Herman Melville’s debut work Typee, he describes and characterizes the largest of the Marquesan islands, Nukuheva, and fictionalizes his encounter there with the native Marquesans. A partly fictionalized travel narrative, Typee was based on an actual whaling voyage made by Melville at the age of twenty-one. It proved to be his best selling book (although not an overall bestseller of its genre), thanks to readers in both England and America. In Typee, Melville provides detailed descriptions of Marquesan island landscapes and of the savages’ interactions with these islandscapes, relying on his own personal sojourn in the Marquesas as well as those of other travel writers, such as David Porter. In so doing, he embarks on a philosophical quest to make sense of the civilized world (America) by contrasting it to the savage world of which he partakes in Typee. What readers receive from Melville is a mixed creation: travel narrative, fiction, philosophical discourse, and quasi-autobiography. And this creation (specifically—fictionalized travel narrative), when analyzed with an approach such as ecocriticism, provides a uniquely “green” interpretation of the environmental and cultural values embedded in the story.
Ecocriticism (which has also been called literary-environmental studies, literary ecology, environmental literary criticism, and green cultural studies) can be defined as an “earth-centered approach” to literary and cultural studies. Ecocriticism examines the relationships between literature and the environment. It is primarily motivated by a concern for the planet in an age when environmental issues have mushroomed. Thus, “ecocritics” form a group of environmentally conscious literary scholars, writers, historians, and activists whose common interest is to bring an ecologically critical demeanor to (which is often referred to as “greening”) the arts and humanities. Their efforts are focused on heightening cultural awareness about the ways in which human beings interact within their own environments (natural and man-made) and how those relations have had short and long-term global effects. This ecological emphasis in literary criticism has been a direct result of the realization that the environmental movement not only depends on technology and science, but on the arts and humanities as well: “The success of all environmentalist efforts,” writes prominent ecocritic Lawrence Buell in Writing for an Endangered World, “finally hinges not on ‘some highly developed technology, or some arcane new science’ but on a ‘state of mind’: on attitudes, feelings, images, narratives” (i).
This thesis analyzes the depictions in Typee through an ecocritical lens and theorizes Typee’s influence on American arts and culture upon (specifically in regards to attitudes toward “nature”) reception and internalization. To do this, it is necessary to pose several important ecocritical questions and then to consider them using the narrative and additional secondary sources. These questions include but are not limited to: How are nature, landscapes, and cultures represented in Typee, and how would these representations have “heightened awareness” in the nineteenth century? What role did Typee and other travel narratives play in the nineteenth century literary market place, in representing nature, ecology, and culture? How might Typee, and the ideas therein, have been received, processed, and internalized (e.g., the influence of place on imagination—individually, culturally, and nationally)? And in what ways can Typee, and other texts like it, help to define a Western identity in terms of relationships to nature and the exotic. I attempt to use these questions to examine Typee and the role it plays, and what that entails ecologically, within American culture and imagination.
Chapter 1 briefly reviews the publishing history and reception of Typee and discusses the way in which fact and fiction are intertwined within the text. It explores why the text can be considered partly fictionalized travel narrative and where such a genre fits into the corpus of ecocriticism. It also discusses the history of ecocriticism and the two streams of thought that have developed over the years and the way in which both of these fields of thought can be applied to Typee. In addition, it analyzes the way in which Typee’s exotic setting, with its islandscapes and inhabitants, is imagined and portrayed thus contributing to place (an important literary element of ecocriticism). It outlines Buell’s “Five Dimensions of Place-Connectedness” and describes the way in which Typee fits into these dimensions and, conversely, how the conception of Typee may inform Westerners’ sense of place.
Chapter 2 focuses on the first ten chapters of Typee (in which Melville describes his release from civilization) and the juxtaposition of civilization and primitive life throughout the plot. It discusses the dichotomy established by Melville in plot and setting and uses concrete detail to show how such conflict informs not only the narrative at large but the discourse therein as well. In addition, it considers Melville’s acknowledgement and creation of space and place in the narrative.
Chapter 3 uses Mary Louis Pratt’s book, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation to inform the interpretation of interactions between “savage” and “civilized.” In addition, it analyzes, using the “theory of domination” set out by Val Plumwood, the dualisms in the narrative, including male/female, colonized/colonizer, nature/civilized, and mind (reason)/body (nature), as these dualisms can be seen in Typee. The goal here is to expose such dualisms for the sake of our own awareness and to challenge such dualisms when the opportunity arises.
Lastly, this thesis concludes by briefly discussing Typee’s ending and reflecting on the moral questions present throughout the narrative, linking it back to ecocritcism and the importance of the arts and humanities within this particular body of literary criticism.