The protagonist of White Jacket (1850) is an unnamed American sailor who seeks passage home from the South Seas on an American man-of-war. He is given the name 'White Jacket' by his shipmates because of the white jacket he wears, and which he made himself. The narrator's relationship with this garment is vexed. He made it himself in order to keep him warm around the Cape, and it has capacious pockets so that he can keep his belongings always at hand. However, the jacket is not waterproof and absorbs the water like a sponge, and once nearly costs the narrator his life. As the ship nears home latitudes, the narrator is able at last to jettison the jacket overboard. The other crew members, mistaking it for a white shark, hurl harpoons at it, and it slowly descends through the water.
We know that Ishmael, the narrator of Melville's next book, Moby Dick has an uneasy relationship with the colour white, and we may suspect that this feeling was shared by his creator after reading White Jacket. In Mardi also, the colour white is associated with horror and curses.
Realism and the Sea Novel
Redburn, White Jacket and Moby Dick may be seen as three linked attempts to deal with the problem of realism in a sea novel. In order for a sea novel to be realistic, a great part of the text must necessarily involve explication of the specific features of shipboard life. The landlubber reader must understand the total context in which the narrative is taking place in order for the true realistic (symbolic, dramatic) import of the narrative to be understood. This then involves the inclusion of large stretches of text where nothing happens, but where things are simply described or explained. Melville experimented with various solutions to this problem in all his sea novels.
In Redburn, the expository passages are kept to the absolute minimum required only for the illumination of the themes of education and the passage from innocence to experience. The book is weighted towards narrative. The named protagonist is a literary character who undergoes change and whose internal life is presented to the reader. White Jacket swings the other way. There is no single overarching narrative as there is in Redburn. White Jacket is constructed of separate narrative incidents strung together; the expository passages occupy a greater place in the text. The unnamed narrator, who often refers to himself as 'White Jacket' and 'he', is less a character in a novel and more a window onto the world of a state-of-the-art warship. This protagonist documents and records the abuses, injustices and random cruelties of his environment, but never tells us what changes they have wrought on him. If Redburn is a feature film, White Jacket is a documentary. In Moby Dick, Melville got the balance between narrative and documentation just right.
However, this is not to say that nothing happens, or that the book is boring. It contains a wealth of anecdote, marvellous yarns, fabulous prose, as one would expect from Melville, finely etched characters, unforgettable images and wholly engrossing scenes. Three stand out.
First, is the account of an operation carried out on an unfortunate sailor who has been shot in the leg. The leg must come off, and the operation is carried out in full ceremony on the half deck. The ship is in port, and surgeons from all the other ships in the fleet have been invited to attend and observe the renowned Dr Cuticle perform the operation. The chapters in which this operation is described are some of the funniest and horrific in Melville's work. Once the audience are assembled, all dressed in their finest in honour of the occasion, Dr Cuticle makes a long speech lauding the army and the navy as the best place for young surgeons to practice their profession. He then removes his jacket, his wig, his false teeth and his glass eye before calling on the patient to be brought in, transforming himself into a living skull. This death's head then advises the patient, who is speechless in terror and pain, to repose every limb: "The precision of an operation is often impaired by the inconsiderate restlessness of the patient." Commenting on his work and asking for volunteers to handle the saw and so on, the operation proceeds. The patient is entirely invisible throughout: focus is placed on the audience, the surgeon, the assistants. At the end, Dr Cuticle invites the audience to wash their hands in water if they feel inclined, as for himself, he will just wipe his on his handkerchief. As the participants leave the half deck, word is brought that the patient has died. The whole scene is gruesomely funny, and reminded this reader of the terrible scenes involving the infamous Dr Benway in the work of William Burroughs.
Second, is the mutiny that almost takes place involving the matter of beards. All the mariners have grown splendid facial hair on the voyage, and the progress and style of the beards is a matter for immense pride and curiosity among the crew. The text displays great pleasure in describing and naming all the various types of beard. As the ship nears home, the captain passes word that all beards are to be trimmed in accordance with navy regulations. This almost starts a mutiny, and Melville has great fun satirising the double standards involved between following two different texts: the Articles of War which govern navy life, and Leviticus, one of the books which forms the basis of Christian hypocrisy the war ship is designed to uphold: According to a then recent ordinance at Washington, the beards of both officers and seamen were to be accurately laid out and surveyed, and on no account must come lower than the mouth, so as to correspond with the Army standard--a regulation directly opposed to the theocratical law laid down in the nineteenth chapter and twenty-seventh verse of Leviticus, where it is expressly ordained, "Thou shalt not mar the corners of thy beard." But legislators do not always square their statutes by those of the Bible. (85)
The third incident is when White Jacket falls from the weather-top-gallant-yard-arm into the sea. His whole life passes before his eyes as he flounders in the sea, dragged down by his water impregnated jacket, as the huge black hull of the ship glides slowly past him, like a black world in the water. (92)
The Uses of Allegory
The subtitle to the novel is The World on a Man-of-War, and the image of the ship as a microcosm of the world (ship of state, ship of fools) is developed as an allegory throughout the novel. Great attention is given to the details of the social organisation of the ship, of the divisions between crew, petty officers, officers, captain and commodore. Such are the principal divisions into which a man-of-war's crew is divided; but the inferior allotments of duties are endless, and would require a German commentator to chronicle. (3) Like the real world, all the various branches of government and society are present: education, health, trades and professions (carpenters, barbers, cooks, purser, surgeons), overseers, and of course a police force, both open and secret, with a network of spies and informers. The ship is huge, with a population of at least 500, and each member has their role to play, their allotted function in the smooth functioning of the ship. Each part of the ship and its special uses is described in detail; great attention is given also to the ad hoc social divisions among the men, the mess kits, their sleeping, cooking and eating arrangements, and the internal economy of the ship is also foregrounded. The realism of this documentation is contrasted, however, with the highly allegorical and symbolic names given to the characters: Captain Claret; Mad Jack, the First Lieutenant; Surgeon Bandage; and the two gunners mates, Priming and Cylinder. The name of the ship itself is highly ironical and allegorical: the Neversink.
Melville uses the allegory to launch a bitter attack on the random cruelties of naval life, particularly of the daily floggings for all kinds of petty infringements. You see a human being, stripped like a slave; scourged worse than a hound. And for what? For things not essentially criminal, but only made so by arbitrary laws. (33) White Jacket rages against the injustice and blatant hypocrisy of a system that allows one man to exercise tyranny over all those under him. Not least is he enraged by the fact that captain and men come from a democracy, whose express purpose and origin was a reaction to this kind of unrestrained autocracy; and that once the ship is at sea, all the democratic, human rights of the crew are totally suspended, and unbounded despotism is established: In the American navy there is an everlasting suspension of the Habeas Corpus. (35)
White Jacket is the angriest of Melville's books in this regard. It constantly emphasizes the gap between the crew - the people, as White Jacket calls them- and the officers, who are all described as incompetent rogues. In a competition between the officers of the various ships of the fleet as to which vessel can set all canvass the fastest, a topman falls to the deck and is killed, as a result of the officer's urging him on to greater speed and less caution. And thus do 'the people' of the gun-deck suffer, that the Commodore on the poop may be glorified. (46) White Jacket ironically passes comment. The anger here is undoubtedly personal, but it also places the book firmly in the stream of the mid-Victorian novel of social criticism by writers such as Dickens, Gaskell, Hugo and Harriet Beecher Stowe. What gives the book its especial power and beauty is that the realism of its documentary method unites with the allegory and satire, resulting in a double image: the text represents both a real ship in a real world and at the same time a symbolic ship in an allegorical world.
As a man of war that sails through the sea, so this earth that sails through the air. The port we sail from is forever astern. And though far out of sight of land, for ages and ages we continue to sail with sealed orders, and our last destination remains a secret to ourselves and our officers; yet our final haven was predestined ere we slipped from the stocks at Creation. (93)
So long as a man-of-war exists, it must ever remain a picture of much that is tyrannical and repelling in human nature. (49)