The fifth of Herman Melville’s novels dealing with his travels around the world—on board a merchant ship, a whaler, and finally, a U.S. frigate—White-Jacket immediately precedes his greatest work, Moby Dick (1851). Critics usually group Redburn (1849), White-Jacket, and Moby Dick together because of their thematic similarities dealing with initiation, isolation, and communal relationships.
Melville was not the first author to use an extended sailing experience as the setting for a novel, but he was the first to publish a poetic, philosophic, maritime novel. Only the later works of Joseph Conrad rival this accomplishment. Several critics believe this work should not be identified as a novel. The many parts of the work—vivid characterizations, harsh depictions of punishment at sea, descriptions of scenes, information about the various divisions of labor, and the account of the daily experience aboard the closed world of a vessel at sea for many years—are insights and information about life at sea rather than incidents in a conventional plot. Although there is a protagonist, the author, by not giving this protagonist a Christian name or surname, seems to warn the reader not to expect conventional character development. Instead, Melville emphasizes his protagonist’s symbolic significance by identifying the protagonist with his wearing apparel and calling both him and the work White-Jacket.
The title is significant because “white” identifies the fictional persona as a novice on board a man-of-war. It also calls attention to the fact that the protagonist, different in appearance from all the other men on board, who wear navy pea jackets, sees himself as different in character as well, a point he insists on as he relates his maritime experiences. White-Jacket believes he is not like the rough, uneducated, sometimes brutal common seamen who have no other professional alternatives, but he is also unlike the educated, overly genteel officers who seek this profession only because it is appropriate for someone in the upper social class. Out of the hundreds on board the Neversink, White-Jacket identifies only with a very select small group: the natural...
(The entire section is 915 words.)