Places: White-Jacket

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1850

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of work: 1840’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedUSS <i>Neversink</i>

USS White-JacketNeversink. U.S. naval frigate that is the novel’s primary setting. The narrator describes its crew and the vessel in great detail, delineating the various roles of the seamen and the functions of different parts of the ship. The narrator devotes entire chapters to character sketches, each of which not only delves into the psychological make-up of the individual described but also in some instances includes detailed descriptions of his physical labors, the tools of his trade, and his working environment. Through these character sketches, the narrator outlines the distinct hierarchical structure upon which life on the ship is based, an organizing principle that he decries as being fundamentally undemocratic and inhumane.

As the narrator works his way through the ship’s colorful and diverse crew, he points out that each crew member has not only specific and limited duties but also a well-defined physical space in which to fulfill those responsibilities. Consequently, a seaman may typically work in only one part of the ship and have little or no knowledge of what goes on in other parts of the vessel. The officers have free run of the entire ship and therefore know more than most, but they impose their own limits, preferring to remain among fellow officers rather than mixing with those beneath their rank. Common sailors, on the other hand, have no choice but to accept their boundaries, and thus their environment, already constricted by the physical limits of the ship on the perilous ocean, closes in on them even more, adding to the oppressive nature of their already limited freedoms.

The narrator also describes the relative monotony and somewhat domestic nature of daily life on board the naval vessel, thereby debunking the romantic misconception of sea adventures inspired in the popular imagination by Melville’s contemporaries and, even to some extent, by Melville himself. Readers learn that a seaman’s life is rarely about glorious battles and heroic escapades. A sailor is more likely to spend his days and nights cleaning the ship and washing clothes, sitting for hours on watch and staring off at a limitless horizon of sameness, drying out from the frequent storms and finding consolation only in his daily allotment of grog.

However, the narrator also points out that the common sailor overcomes the dehumanizing character of his lowly life through all sorts of creative outlets, including the performing arts and literary interests. This ship is full of coarse, weather-beaten men but also contains lively human minds devoted to the writing of poetry and the performances of plays, thus demonstrating that even in the midst of oppressive social structures and fearsome natural boundaries, humans still strive to make their voices heard. With that in mind, the narrator uses his own platform, his narrative, to voice his concerns regarding the injustices perpetrated upon American sailors, including most notably the deplorable practice of flogging.

*Cape Horn

*Cape Horn. Treacherous stretch of water along the southern tip of South America through which the Neversink sails to cross from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. The narrator rarely focuses on specific locales outside the boundaries of the ship, but he dedicates three chapters to his description of the cape, detailing many of its dangers, including unpredictable weather, violent currents, and icebergs from Antarctica.

BibliographyAnderson, Charles Roberts. Melville in the South Seas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939. Deals with Melville’s life on board the frigate United States, a source for White-Jacket. Notes that despite the obvious biographical relevance of his maritime experiences to his sailing novels, Melville’s intention was to write fiction.Arvin, Newton. “Mardi, Redburn, White-Jacket.” In Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard Chase. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Unlike many other critics, Arvin believes that White-Jacket is inferior to the novel written prior to it, Redburn. The title, White-Jacket, symbolizes the wearer’s isolation from the majority of the crew.Branch, Watson G., ed. Melville: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974. Eleven rather favorable reviews published when White-Jacket was released in 1850 attest to early appreciation of Melville’s talent as a writer re-creating life at sea.Justus, James H. “Redburn and White-Jacket: Society and Sexuality in the Narrators of 1849.” In Herman Melville: Reassessments, edited by A. Robert Lee. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1984. Discusses the fact that in White-Jacket the unnamed protagonist identifies himself with a highly select group of friends while criticizing both the grog-swigging members of the crew and the silk-stockinged officers on a U.S. man-of-war.Seelye, John. Melville: The Ironic Diagram. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1970. Using Homeric and domestic similes, Melville contrasts the natural leader, Jack Chase, with the politically appointed, incompetent Captain Claret to exemplify the undemocratic, irrational conditions aboard U.S. naval ships.
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