Study Guide

White-Jacket

by Herman Melville

White-Jacket Analysis

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

USS Neversink

USS Neversink. 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...

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White-Jacket Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Anderson, 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.