Herman Melville, “Mardi” Thematic Summary

As anyone who has attempted reading Mardi knows, it is a strange and largely opaque novel.  At best, it is allegorical and impressionistic.  At worst, it is a messy garble of ideas without any concrete center, theme, or message.  I will not attempt to find one in these posts.  Instead, I will attempt to highlight a few ideas to convince the brave to take another look at Mardi.

Its plot follows the narrator, who takes the name Taji after being deemed a demi-god, as he deserts from a doomed whaling ship.  Taji and his comrade take a boat out and eventually run into a brig, which they take and sail along with the two surviving members of an annihilated company.  That ship sinks, leaving them again on a small boat.  The survivors run into a priest and his sons carrying a imprisoned woman, Yillah, a Polynesian woman with bleached skin and hair.  She is to be sacrificed, so Taji kills the priest and saves her, but will be followed by his three cons throughout the novel.  The narrator falls in love with Yillah and begins to learn more about her story.  She believes her origins are supernatural.  They arrive in Mardi (“the world” in Polynesian and in the world of the novel a series of islands).  At the island of Odo, they meet king Media.  After a visit from the handmaidens of Queen Hautia.  Soon after this Yillah is missing.  For the rest of the novel, Taji searches for his love.  He is accompanied by his initial comrades, King Media, Babbalanja (a philosopher), Mohi (a historian) and Yoomy (a poet).  The plot of the rest of the novel is their travels through Mardi, visiting islands and meeting people that provided allegorical critiques of Melville’s own world.  During this voyage, Yillah becomes more and more of an abstract ideal.  The novel ends with their arrival at the island of Queen Hautia.  Here Taji is nearly seduced by the queen and her worldliness.  They never find Yillah and Taji ends the novel continuing his wanderings.  Taji becomes the ultimate “Omoo” (wanderer), traveling the entire world and seeking an unreachable ideal.  His travels expose him to numerous realms, kings, good, evil, wisdom, foolishness, violence, and peace.  As readers of this blog already know, I am a supporter of the rootless, the unsettled, and the malcontent, for until we are malcontent with the bravery to recreate ourselves and our worlds we are easily enslaved.

150px-Mardi,_and_a_Voyage_Thither

Everyplace that Taji visited lacked Yillah.  What they all seemed to have were kinds, hierarchies, criminal foolishness, and slavery.  This is the reading C. L. R. James gives in Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways.  James believed that Melville was writing on the Revolutions of 1848 (Mardi was published one year after these tumultuous events).  “He was for example an extreme, in fact a fanatical democrat.  Some of his views he expressed would change in his next book.  But Mardi shows that he already believed that a future of continually expanding democracy was an illusion, for America as for the rest of the world, that he considered politics a game played by politicians.” (James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, 75)  If this reading is correct, Yillah suggests that vision of an expanding democracy which is  not achieved (and seemingly impossible) by the end.  “And thus, pursuers and pursued flew on, over an endless sea.” (1316)

In the next two posts, we will further explore Mardi.  First, we will consider the failed visions, including those provided by Taji’s companions.  Next, we will attack the one tempting island in Mardi, Serenia – a democratic and anarchist utopia.  On the final page, Taji is given the choice of Serenia or the “endless sea.”

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