MARDI AND A VOYAGE THITHER (1849). The third of Herman
Melville’s* published books, Mardi, in its use of symbolism and allegory,
its experimentation with fictional forms, and its interest in metaphysical
questions, anticipates the later preoccupations of Moby-Dick* (1851). Like
its predecessors Typee* (1846) and Omoo* (1847), Mardi begins as a conventional travel narrative based loosely on Melville’s experiences in the
South Pacific. But the narrator soon abandons in midsea a whaling voyage
he finds dull and begins a succession of fabulous adventures when he encounters a brigantine adrift on the open sea with two survivors of an attack
on it. In a later engagement, one of the survivors, Samoa, helps the narrator
to rescue a beautiful and mysterious woman, Yillah, from a canoe where she
is about to be offered as a human sacrifice. Proceeding to an archipelago
called Mardi, the narrator, now infatuated by Yillah, assumes the persona of
a demigod, Taji, and becomes the guest of Media, one of the islands’ kings. The sudden disappearance of Yillah prompts a voyage throughout the archipelago that occupies the remaining two-thirds of the work.
In his quest for the idealized Yillah, Taji is accompanied by Media and
three sages: Mohi, a historian; Babbalanja, a philosopher; and Yoomy, a
poet. As they journey through the archipelago, the sages debate such matters
as death and immortality, faith, fame, kingship, power, evil, and truth—
usually displaying the biases of their respective perspectives and often
coming to no conclusion. Through these discussions, Melville repeatedly
examines the issues of what constitutes authoritative knowledge, the differences between scientific and imaginative renderings of experience, and the
relationship between fact and truth. When they come ashore, they scrutinize,
often satirically, the islands and their rulers. For example, King Peepi, the
ten-year-old-ruler of Valapee, rules entirely by whim; his counselors have
flattened noses from bowing to him. Uhia, the ruler of Ohonoo, wants to
move his island to the center of the archipelago to consolidate power over
all of Mardi. The only ambition of Borabolla, the lord of Mondoldo, who
lives from one feast to the next, is to increase his already considerable girth.
Later islands such as Dominora (England) and Vivenza (the United States)
allow Melville to engage in political satire on topical issues such as England’s
colonial ambitions and slavery in America.
The discursive structure of Mardi, its irreverent tone, and the inconclusive
nature of most of the discourse portend the failure of the search for Yillah,
called an Albino when first introduced, and prefigure the catastrophe of the
search for the more ominous albino in Moby-Dick. Toward the conclusion
of the narrative, Taji—reminded by an enchantress throughout the journey
of the futility of his quest for the evanescent ideal of Yillah—visits Hautia
on the isle of Serenia. Failing to overcome the hazards of deep diving for
precious pearls, the west-journeying Taji sets off in endless pursuit of the
ever-elusive Yillah.
FURTHER READING: Davis, Merrell R. Melville’s Mardi—A Chartless Voyage.
New Haven: CT: Yale UP, 1952; Foster, Elizabeth S. “Historical Note” in Herman
Melville, Mardi and a Voyage Thither. Ed. Harrison Hayford et al. Evanston, IL, and
Chicago: Northwestern UP, 1970; Moore, Maxine. That Lonely Game: Melville,
Mardi and the Almanac. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1975.