Melville wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Lord, when shall we done growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not t he biggest fish;–I have heard of Krakens.” In Mardi, Yillah may represent this unachievable goal. The fact that she is not discovered after 700 pages is part of the novel’s greatness since it challenges us to always be discontent. Those ideals in our mind (for that is where Yillah exists by the end of the novel) are never achieved fully and we are cowards for not striving for them. Better to be the reckless fool, like Taji, than the content.
Only Taji succeeds in achieving this transcendent ideal. It is him to ventures out at the end. Many of his companions stayed behind in places that seemed “good enough.” Some of these died as a result.
Who are these companions? His first is Jarl (“The Viking”) who deserts from the whaling ship with him. He is an old salt. Melvilles narrators are often sailors who are inexperienced. Characters like Jarl exist in all his novels. They are the people who devoted their life to the sea. He is left behind in the island of Mondoldo, ruled by King Borabolla. He dies on the island, killed by the priest Aleema’s sons.
His next companion is Samoa, who he meets when he sets out on the all but abandoned brig. He is a Pacific Islander. His wife Annatoo is an early antagonist in the story. He is a pilferer and risks the survival of the company on the brig. She might suggest the blind drive for material gain. Her death during the destruction of the brig opens up the way for the discovery of Yillah, an ideal woman for Taji — our protagonist.
After the disappearance of Yillah, Taji is accompanied by four figures representing government (King Media), philosophy (Babbalanja), history (Mohi), and poetry (Yoomy). Of these the most interesting and fully developed alternative to Taji’s quest for Yillah is Babbalanja. He provides most of the novels discourses on life, death, good and evil. Indeed, he is personally conflicted, housing an demon he calls Azzageddi. He is the figure that attempts to convince Taji to stay in Serenia, which is an anarchist utopia based on peace. Taji’s rejection of this option, promoted by his most vibrant companion suggests the ultimate failure of pure philosophy and the philosophically-ideal society.
Media is the model of a benevolent despot. He exercises absolute control over his empire of Odo. His is a powerful state, receiving envoys from many other islands in Mardi. He accompanies Taji on the expedition and like Babbalanja stays behind in Serenia, renouncing absolute monarchy and his status as a god.
What about the many places that Taji visits? None of them are satisfactory. All of them reflect some of the evils of human nature. Doxodox rules a small wooded island but cannot match Babbalanja in the philosophical arts and is clearly an inferior imposter. In Padulla they meet a trickster salesman of oddities. Tribonnora is a crazy prince who enjoys the sport of hunting humans. Ohonoo of Uhia is a absolutist imperialist monarch.
Later in the novel, the travelers visit islands that resemble the great powers of Melville’s day. Clearly none of these are aqueduct. Dominora (England) is too busy in conflicts with Vivenza (America) and crushing internal revolts. Even Vivenza, a great and expanding republic, is plagued with slavery.
I have no doubt that most readers will find these seemingly endless series of islands, each representing some of the worst characteristics of man, tedious and burdensome. The novels is, as contemporary reviews noticed, a mess. But it is intriguing and courageous. I think that Melville here is on a quest much like is protagonist to find a place where democracy and human freedom can exist. His failure is certainly not due to his lack of imagination, which explodes on every page of Mardi. Rather, Taji’s failure is due to the true impossibility of perfection in this world. He asks us, from the first page until the last, to search for this, even if the journey is endless.