Herman Melville, “Omoo,” Part 2: Transgression

The second part of Melville’s Omoo follows the narrator “Typee” as he and his fellow shipmate (and now jailmate) Dr. Long Ghost as they seek happiness and freedom in the South Seas.

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Part two begins with the mutinous sailors in the jail.  It is an easy-going jail.  They can come and go during the day as the please, interact with the local Polynesians, and are fairly well-cared for.  They decide to stay there even after their ship Julia leaves to continue its whaling voyage.  Melville devotes some of the time that his narrator is in jail to continue the anti-missionary and anti-imperial arguments that he started in Typee.  Melville argues for a degree of religious environmentalism suggesting that the missionaries are not only importing degradation into Tahiti but also that the Polynesians are incapable of being true Christian converts.  “There is perhaps no race upon earth less disposed, by nature, to the monitions of Christianity, than the people of the South Seas. . . . Added to all this, is that quality inherent to Polynesians; and more akin to hypocrisy than anything else.  It leads them to assume the most passionate interest, in matters for which they really feel little or none whatever.”  (500-501)  An incompatible religious is perhaps anodyne enough, but much more devastating to the Polynesians is the destruction of their economy: the depopulation by disease, the destruction of the tappa manufacturing industry, and the establishment of sugar plantations.  These sugar plantations pose one of the greatest threats to the Polynesian way of life.  This rejection of Western civilization is Typee’s first transgression in this part of the novel.

After these digressions, the narrative continues with a scheme by Dr. Long Ghost to improve the living conditions in their jail.  With the Julia gone, there is no need to restrain the sailors any longer.  They are becoming an economic burden.  The sailors, content with a life of luxury scheme to demand higher rations.  Like many working-class people, turned off by the failure of work in the achievement of their dreams, choose the “dole” as a way to take advantage of a system that has exploited them for years.  The first scheme, by Long Ghost, is to fake a fit and blame his condition on poor rations and poor conditions.  This fails and they next march on Wilson.  With little hope in jail for an improved life, Long Ghost and Typee set off for the island of Imeeo, where they heard from two deserters that a pair of foreigners established a sugar plantation.  This way, they can at least leave on their own terms.  They are certain that Wilson will get rid of them someway.  Interestingly, and powerfully, Typee “longed for a change.”  It is these whims that drive so much of the plot of Melville’s first two novels.  A form of attention-defect-disorder that is a powerful tool of subtle resistance.  Allowing our whims to drive us is certainly better than allowing the bosses desires control us.  The name of the novel “Omoo” refers to a Polynesian word for “wanderer.”

A Sugar Plantation.  The gift of "civilization."

A Sugar Plantation. The gift of “civilization.”

They take up a job laboring on the plantation, but it is not long before they find the work too odious and seek to venture out to find the employment of a Polynesian queen.  He is searching for a pristine Polynesian way of life, perhaps closer to what he experienced among the Typee but was quickly being lost in places of greater European control, such as Tahiti.  They venture off by lying to their employers.  The second transgression of the narrator and his companion is their rootlessness and vagrancy along with their unabashed ability to take advantage of their captors and employers.

The remainder of the novel follows the “Omoo” as they go deeper into the areas of the Society Islands they hope are untouched by European empire.  Even in Tamai, the Western influence is visible.  A hermit salesman tries to sell them Western-style trousers and Westerners often populate the courts of local kings and queens, working in various fashions.  These people serve as other examples of “Omoo” seeking a place for themselves and averting work by any means possible.  Of course, the Polynesians can play this game too, taking advantage of the Western presence however they can.  Some, like the hermit, sell their artifacts.  Others made their living turning in deserting sailors for the bounty.

Their next stop is Imeeo, where they find a more pristine culture.  They are taken in by Marharvai, the local chief.  They enjoy a dinner party, the company of three girls, fishing, swimming, and relaxing.  Their next to last stop in the novel is a visit with a “dealer in the contraband,” a hermit called Varvy.  Long Ghost drinks heavily with him and losses his boots under suspicious circumstances.

Even in distant Partoowye, the European impact is felt.  Here it is reflected in the native Christian Ereemear, who takes in the “Omoo” as guests.  They also encounter a carpenter from a ship (another deserter) who falls in love with a native girl.  Long Ghost falls in love with Ereemear’s daughter Loo, who rejects his advances.  After a failed attempt to work from the Queen of Partoowye, the omoo part ways.  Long Ghost stays on the island and Typee sails off with a whaling ship.

The major theme of the novel is resistance to capitalism and empire through the individual acts of working people.  Sometimes it took the form of running away other times in fencing stolen goods.  For many it was just the refusal to work when other options presented themselves.  This is a strategy that has been used for centuries to oppose the alienation and exploitation of capital.  I think we should all become “Omoo.”

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2 responses to “Herman Melville, “Omoo,” Part 2: Transgression

  1. Pingback: Langston Hughes, “Not Without Laughter”; Work, Mobility and Freedom | Neither Kings nor Americans

  2. Pingback: William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs” (1820-1861) | Neither Kings nor Americans

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