James A. Michener

Tales of the South Pacific

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Tales of the South Pacific Summary

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Tales of the South Pacific is a 1947 novel by American author James Michener. Its plot is split into nineteen stories, each of which takes place as a direct consequence of the previous story, sharing the themes and characters of the others. The book’s primary subject is World War II; in particular, how real humans grappled emotionally and existentially with the intense and alienating moral atrocity of international war. Now known as Michener’s first novel, its status as such was in contention within the Pulitzer Prize board, which expanded its official definition of the genre in order to award Michener the Pulitzer for Best Novel in 1948.

The novel begins with two short narratives, “The South Pacific” and “Coral Sea.” These establish the setting and mood of the succeeding episodes, while hinting to the looming specter of World War II. The third, “Mutiny,” is told by a man who has been stationed in Norfolk Island in the South Pacific near the Australian coast, and instructed to cut down a large swathe of forest to enable the construction of a military base airstrip. The section’s title alludes to a 1932 work, Mutiny on the Bounty. In the story, an old woman and a young girl with an intellectual disability work together to plant Norfolk Island with the very pines that the narrator is later sent to destroy. Michener depicts the process of destroying the pines as unfeeling and evil, suggesting that any war victory is negated by the moral cost incurred by the human spirit.

Another story, “Our Heroine,” follows Nellie Forbush who wishes to court a rich French agriculture investor, Emile DeBecque. She falls in love with the exotic colors of the South Pacific but is unable to tolerate the varying skin colors of DeBecque’s eight children, who were conceived outside of wedlock. Through this story, Michener makes an appeal for racial tolerance. Several other episodes touch on the feelings of despair experienced by young men who might be in the prime of their youth if not for the war raging around them. In “Dry Rot,” hundreds of men become infected with a fungal infection. The narrator Joe Cable, writing to a woman he loves, analogizes his chronic itchiness to his and his comrades’ itches for sex, combat, and domination.

“Fo’ Dollar” takes place after Cable’s lover dies. He falls in love with a Tonkinese woman, Liat, but is unable to marry her because he is about to help stage a military invasion of her home. Cable resists bringing Liat back to America, fearing that they will be ridiculed and ostracized. Here, too, Michener highlights the destructive ironies of racial intolerance in the World War II era, particularly that which was fomented by American powers. “Those Who Fraternize” also deals with toxic wartime relationships. It features the four daughters of Emile DeBecque as they desperately try to court sailors to secure their long-term security. Because the sisters are nonwhite, they are only ever able to coax the sailors into simulating loving relationships; moreover, all of their lovers ultimately die in combat.

“A Boar’s Tooth,” documents a horrific ritual put on by a tribe in the South Pacific. Its narrator, the western doctor Dr. Benoway, experiences a revelation that virtually all the world’s religions are obsessed with relics and other objects that signal power and virtue. He relates the arbitrary importance of totems in the tribal ritual to American Christianity’s obsession with constructing tall church steeples. One of the novel’s concluding episodes, “Frisco,” follows the people onboard a landing vessel on its way to Kuralei. They connect over their memories of the last part they saw of America. The following episode, “The Landing on Kuralei,” covers their assault on the Japanese territory, in which nearly 1,000 Japanese die, as well as over 200 American soldiers. The narrator is baffled at the incomprehensibility and pointlessness of war particularly when he hears news of the death of a hero, Tony Fry, and the survival of a defector, Bill Harbison.

The concluding story, “A Cemetery at Hoga Point,” depicts a burial ground for the dead, but juxtaposes the scene against the conversation between two black gravediggers, who ultimately reach the philosophical agreement that war is insatiable and capable of consuming all good men, should societies continue to perpetuate war. With these small but highly meaningful episodes, written in the wake of World War II, Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific humanizes the international tragedy, aspiring to help prevent war from happening again.