Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1056
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 script. Neither the captain nor the commodore who is aboard the Neversink dignifies the men’s entertainment by being present.
During the coastal voyage, a man falls overboard and drowns. The incident demonstrates to White-Jacket how risky life aboard a ship is and how quickly a lost man is forgotten. The Neversink is becalmed in the waters off Cape Horn. After three days of cold and calm, the captain gives the unusual order for the crew to “skylark.” The men give themselves over to all kinds of activity and games of a rougher sort, all in an attempt to keep warm and to prevent frozen hands and feet. Shortly thereafter a wind comes up. The ship rounds the cape and begins to cruise steadily northward.
One day the lookout sights a number of casks floating on the ocean. When they are hauled aboard, it is discovered that they contain very fine port wine. The discovery causes great joy among the crew. In the 1840’s, the Navy still serves spirits to the men twice a day, but the Neversink’s steward, for some unaccountable reason, neglects to replenish the ship’s supply of rum during the stop at Callao.
The most significant events during the run from Cape Horn to Rio de Janeiro, so far as White-Jacket is concerned, are a series of floggings, at that time still a punishment for offenses at sea. White-Jacket hates the cruel whippings, which all crew members and officers are forced to watch. White-Jacket reflects that even in Rome no citizen could be flogged as punishment and that the great naval officers of the nineteenth century are opposed to a practice so brutal and unnecessary.
The Neversink finally reaches Rio de Janeiro. During many days in port, the men are not to be permitted ashore. At last, the petty officers appoint Chase, the captain of the maintop, to request shore leave for the men. At first, the captain is unwilling to grant leave, but the commodore intercedes and gives his approval. Once again, Chase is the hero of the men aboard the vessel.
One day, the emperor of Brazil is expected to visit the vessel. White-Jacket, amazed at preparations made by men and officers for the royal visit, wonders how men from a democratic nation could so easily fawn upon royalty. He decides the men would make fewer preparations to receive the president of the United States.
On the voyage northward along the eastern coast of South America, one of White-Jacket’s shipmates falls ill and dies. White-Jacket watches the preparations for burial, including the traditional final stitch of the shroud through the nose, then stands by during the service. That event is as moving to him as an amputation demonstrated by the ship’s doctor while the Neversink rested in the harbor at Rio de Janeiro. The operation was performed, White-Jacket believes, because the surgeon wished to show off to colleagues from other vessels anchored there at the same time. Convinced that the operation was unnecessary, White-Jacket is very bitter when the injured man dies of shock.
White-Jacket has a close escape from death when the ship is off the Virginia capes. Sent aloft to reeve a line through some blocks, he loses his balance and falls from the rigging a hundred feet into the sea. He has to cut away his white jacket to keep afloat. He is barely out of his garment when a sailor, mistaking the jacket for a white shark, throws a harpoon into it. White-Jacket, rescued from the sea, is sent aloft ten minutes later to complete his task. White-Jacket is content to close his story of the voyage with the loss of his unlucky garment.