White-Jacket Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

White-Jacket, as he is later nicknamed, is a common sailor, a member of the crew of the United States frigate Neversink on a cruise of the Pacific Ocean during the 1840’s. After the ship leaves Callao, Peru, the sailor tries to purchase a heavy jacket that he will need as protection when the Neversink passes into the colder climate off Cape Horn. Because a heavy jacket is not available from the ship’s purser, the vessel having been at sea for more than three years, the sailor has to make a canvas jacket for himself.

The jacket is full of pockets and quilted with odds and ends of rags and clothing for warmth. When the maker requests some paint to make it waterproof and to darken its color, he is told that no paint is available for the purpose.

As the ship moves southward toward the Antarctic, the sailor gradually comes to be called White-Jacket by the crew because of the strange garment he wears. Some of the sailors, superstitious as old wives, dislike him because of the jacket; they say that White-Jacket is too much like a ghost when he goes about his duties high in the rigging of the frigate.

The offensiveness of White-Jacket’s strange apparel is revealed only a few days after the ship reaches Callao. White-Jacket is forced to leave the mess group to which he was assigned, because the sailors tell him that anyone who wears such a weird garment is unwelcome. That White-Jacket proved himself a very poor cook during his tour of duty for the group did not help his cause.

White-Jacket is taken into the mess to which belongs the petty officer of the maintop under whom White-Jacket serves. Jack Chase, a gentlemanly Britisher who shares White-Jacket’s love of literature and who returned to the Neversink after an absence of months, during which he served as an officer on a Peruvian insurrectionist vessel, is admired by the rough sailors and respected by all the officers aboard the ship.

As the Neversink sails southward along the western coast of South America the general ship’s duties continue. White-Jacket and his fellows set sails and take them in, wash down the decks, stand their watches, and prepare for colder weather. To relieve the tedium of the long voyage, Captain Claret gives out word that the men will be permitted to stage a theatrical entertainment. The captain permits such entertainments in the earlier stages of the cruise but discontinues them because one of the actors behaves in an objectionable manner. White-Jacket notes that before the play, the captain peruses and censors...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)