Places: Mardi, and a Voyage Thither

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1849

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Allegory

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedMardi

Mardi. Mardi, and a Voyage ThitherFictional archipelago located in the west-central Pacific Ocean. Melville’s narrator Taji places the islands about sixty degrees west of the Galápagos Islands and to the north of the Ellice, Marshall, and Kingsmill Islands of what is now Kiribati. Taji happens upon the previously undiscovered islands after jumping ship from a whaler and experiencing a series of increasingly improbable high seas adventures. Eventually, he lands on an island ruled by Media, a philosopher-king who represents Herman Melville’s ideal platonic ruler. A search for the abducted maiden Yillah takes Taji and Media throughout the islands, on which they observe the variety of “Mardian” customs and discourse at length upon the philosophic, aesthetic, and moral implications of what they see. Mardi serves as a microcosm of world cultures and a convenient mechanism for Melville to sally forth on ideas ranging from such political questions as New World slavery to such philosophic issues as free will versus determinism. By the end of the novel, with a deconstructive stroke, Melville identifies the seemingly endless fictional Mardi islands with his own vast, unfolding fictional text Mardi.

*Pacific Ocean

*Pacific Ocean. Despite its allegorical structure, the novel is often realistic in tone. Melville cannot refrain from incorporating highly detailed descriptions of South Seas flora, fauna, and customs into his otherwise fanciful description of the Mardi Islands. For example, early in the work he pauses in his adventure plot to lavish upon the reader a fascinating catalog of the various species of shark encountered in the Pacific. A later dissertation on the swordfish is equally impressive. Similarly, his sharp eye for Polynesian architecture is evident in his realistic description of the wood-carved palace in the otherwise fanciful island of Juam. The fictional island of Yammo contains stone idols of the Mardians’ supreme god, reminiscent of the striking stone sculptures of Easter Island.


Vivenza. Island in the Mardi archipelago that is a representation of the contemporary United States. Melville skewers his native country’s mix of self-congratulatory idealism and rampant materialism. The U.S. Congress becomes a “Temple of Freedom” known more for windy monologues than for effective action to solve problems such as the slavery issue. An arch before the temple has a quotation in hieroglyphics that translates “In-this-republican-land-all-men-are-born-free-and-equal”–to which is added the deflating graffiti, “except the tribes of Hammo.” A sojourn to South Vivenza lays bare both the cruelties of the “peculiar institution” and inhumane pseudo-philosophy used to support it. A caricature of John C. Calhoun as the slavery-defending chieftain “Nulli” caps this episode.


Dominora. Island ruled by the warlike King Bello, who dominates Mardi through a combination of naval supremacy and cultural imperialism. An allegorical representation of Victorian England, Dominora reveals Melville’s anglophilia in literature and politics. While he satirically reveals the economic underpinning of Great Britain’s “glorious” empire, he too easily apologizes for its harsh treatment of the Irish (whose island is here called Verdanna), culminating in the effective genocide of the potato famine.


Serenia. Island that owes more to Melville’s uneasy flirtation with American Transcendentalism than to contemporary political allegory. Devoted to the “true teachings” of Alma (the Mardian equivalent of Jesus), the Serenians seek unity based upon the mystic reception of divine love rather than shared intellectual dogma. One of Taji’s companions, a skeptical philosopher, decides to remain on this island after having a dream reminiscent of a beatific vision. However, in a move that prefigures Melville’s own rejection of Transcendentalism in Moby Dick (1851), Taji leaves the island to continue his unfulfilled quest to rescue Yillah.

BibliographyDavis, Merrell. Melville’s “Mardi”: A Chartless Voyage. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1952. The first book-length study of Mardi. Demonstrates Meville’s ambition through analysis of letters to publisher John Murray. Asserts that the novel is an important harbinger of Moby Dick but in itself a failure.Moore, Maxine. That Lonely Game: Melville, “Mardi,” and the Almanac. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1975. Argues that Melville wrote Mardi as an elaborate riddle based upon the almanac and the recent discovery of planet Neptune, all to get back at British critics’ attacks on his first two books. Fascinating but farfetched.Olson, Charles. Call Me Ishmael. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1947. Poet Olson’s analysis of Moby Dick, central to understanding Melville’s compositional process. Contains several essays that relate Olson’s poetic theories to Melville’s practice.Pullin, Faith, ed. New Perspectives on Melville. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1978. Excellent collection of essays on Melville, including Richard Brodhead’s “Mardi: Creating the Creative,” a strong reply to Davis’ thesis.Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Geneologies: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Incisive psychological and Marxist reading of Melville’s life and work, arguing that Melville was one of the leading thinkers of his age. Its reading of Melville’s family’s place in the historical context of the 1840’s is unparalleled.
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