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.”

Herman Melville, “Omoo” Part One: Authority and Resistance

Omoo is a continuation of the story laid out in Typee.  Like the earlier work, it is semi-autobiographical and is based on Melville’s time in Tahiti and the Society Islands.  Like Typee, it is critical of the missionaries and challenges the division between “civilization” and “savagery” promoted by the Western imperialists in the Pacific.  It is also a tale of power, authority, resistance, and transgression.  It speaks of islands in rapid transformation due to the arrival of white “rovers,” who like “Typee” (the narrator takes on a new name here, sailor fashion) seeking a place for themselves in the islands.  For the modern reader, Omoo also works as a study in roving.  Typee never finds a place for himself in the South Seas but tries half a dozen places.

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The plot of the first half of the novel is as follows.  Typee signs onto an English whaler to escape the events of Typee.  The authority structure of the ship is dysfunctional and the sailors nearly mutiny.  Typee talks the crew into submitting a petition to the English consul.  This fails and on Papeetee, the crew is imprisoned in the “Calabooza Beretanee.”  They live a reasonable life in this “prison.”  The English whaler, Julie, finally leaves with a new crew.  During these events, Typee strikes up a lasting friendship with the doctor “Long Ghost,” who has earlier left the leadership structure of the ship and stayed with the sailors in the forecastle.  This act of class-betrayal in the book is important because it highlights the breakdown of authority on the Julia and solidarity overcoming difference (He is Australian and part of the old authority structure of the ship).

Much of the first part of the book is a dissertation on the failures and absurdities of the disciplinary regimen of the sailing ship.  The Julia‘s captain, Guy, is incompetent and often ill.  The first mate, John Jermin, who takes over the ship, is a drunkard but fairly effective, but is still unable to forestall a near-mutiny.  The second mate, Bembo, seems near mad in his blood-thirsty desire to hunt whales and fights with a common sailor, “Sydney Dan.”

The sailors explore three ways of resisting the their bosses.  One method is desertion.  Desertion plagues Jermin from the earliest pages.  Before the novel began, the Julia suffered from mass desertion leading to a low company.  In chapter five, five crew members desert only to be recovered.  Throughout the South Seas we see evidence of massive sailor desertions.  Many of the whites working in service to local chiefs deserted from ships.  Others, picked up to work on the passing whaling ships deserted form earlier ships.  A mobile and flexible labor force existed as a result of these desertions.  Deserters who frustrated one captain became the ready labor supply for another captain.  Like the post-modern worker, drifting from employer to employer these sailors left due to personal conflicts with employers or a fleeting desire for new adventures.  Those who fled the Julia did so out of frustration over low provisions, illness (in an interesting passage, a crewman with believed supernatural powers predicts the deaths of most of the crew), an incompetent captain, or a grim realization that they would remain at sea as long as it took to fill the ship with whale oil.  Deserters prove to be some of the most colorful characters in the novel, all having interesting histories and experiences, often lost to standard maritime history.

The sailors attempted a mutiny, the pinnacle of all maritime resistance.  Typee talks them down to a petition, which is rejected by the British consul, Wilson.

Another, weaker, form of resistance is that reflected in the massive consumption of Pisco – a locally-produced alcoholic drink.  It provides an escape from the fears of sickness. In the end, drink is used to help prevent the mutiny.  When ordered to return to the ship by Wilson, one justification is the full provision of Pisco on board.  This fails to convince the rebellious sailors.  A much more rebellious form of escape is Long Ghost’s escape from the cabin to the forecastle.  “Aside from the pleasure of his society, my intimacy with Long Ghost was of great service to me in other respects.  His disgrace in the cabin only confirmed the good-will of the democracy of the forecastle; and they not only treated him in the most friendly manner, but looked up to him with the utmost deference, besides laughing heartily at all his jokes.” (363)

The only resistance that has any real effect on the men is “opting out.”  Which is why it was so commonly used in the South Seas.  It was not a final solution.  For most, the best they could hope was a better captain in the future, but it was effective for creating  a zone of freedom in an otherwise hierarchical and oppressive environment.  The effectiveness of the “temporary autonomous zone” of sailor desertion is fully developed in the second half of the novel as Typee and Long Ghost seek out a permanent freedom.

The mutinous sailors are eventually sent to a jail with the help of the local French authorities and the English consul.  Believe it or not, the jail is an improvement from the Julia in many ways.  They are more well freed and enjoy considerable freedom during the day.  They can make full use of the citrus orchards.  When the Julia leaves the mutineers behind, they decide to stay for the time being in the jail, which offers more freedoms and security than the ship.

At the half-way point in the narrative, the sailors have achieved some successes.  Through desertion and resistance, they escaped the regimen of Jermin and the incompetence of Captain Guy.  At no point were their actions driven by ideological concerns.  They simply found themselves in a precarious, unsettling, or demeaning position and asserted their natural desire for liberty.  Perhaps the choice of many of us to desert, which might be mistaken by employers, the government, parents, or friends are rootlessness, recklessness, or vagrancy, is our way of unknowingly creating temporary spaces of individual freedom in an economic system that demands service.