“It was not a very white jacket, but white enough, in all conscience, as the sequel will show.”
That’s how White-Jacket opens: with the whiteness of the jacket. White enough for what? “[W]hite, yea, white as a shroud”; “in a dark night, gleaming white, as the White Lady of Avenel!” And of course, white enough to name our narrator after it.
White-Jacket finds himself without a coat and bound for Cape Horn. He transforms a shirt into one by slicing up the front and quilting the inside with everything he can get his hands on to keep him warm. He designs it especially for himself; there are numerous roomy pockets so he can get at his possessions more than the regulation once per day (and keep a pocket edition of Shakespeare on him in the top). But the jacket that gives him his name is nearly the death of him.
For one thing, it isn’t waterproof—a critical flaw for a sailor. And since it’s a modified duck frock with bits and pieces of woolens quilted on the inside, it seems to actively soak up as much water as possible. White-Jacket wanted to waterproof it by giving the outside a coat of paint, but so late in the USS Neversink‘s three-year voyage too much paint has been used by other sailors for him to be allowed any. That pocket Shakespeare doesn’t do so well stored in soaking wool.
This unusual garment also makes White-Jacket stand out in a crowd. He laments the way he has to work harder than other men, because it’s so easy to notice if he is slacking off but also because it’s so easy to call out to him, rather than pick someone out of a faceless multitude, anytime an individual task must be performed.
The jacket also puts him in some direct danger. One night, White-Jacket is dozing on one of the upper yards, where he likes to go to be alone and meditate, when he’s taken for a ghost. His superstitious fellows drop the yard from under him, 200 feet above deck:
“Here it comes!—Lord! Lord! here it comes! See, see! it is white as a hammock.”
“Who’s coming?” I shouted, springing down into the top; who’s white as a hammock?”
“Bless my soul, Bill, it’s only White-Jacket—that infernal White-Jacket again!”
In a rage I tore off the jacket, and threw it on the deck.
“Jacket,” cried I, “you must change your complexion! you must hie to the dyers and be dyed, that I may live. I have but one poor life, White Jacket, and that life I can not spare. I can not consent to die for you, but be dyed you must for me. You can dye many times without injury; but I can not die without irreparable loss, and running the eternal risk.”
He begs again for a bit of black paint, to keep him dry and save his life, but still he is denied.
Inspired by an auction of the possessions of dead sailors, White-Jacket tries to get rid of the white jacket that way, but there are no takers for the garment that is now mildewed and untidy on top of being white. The sailors mock the auctioneer for calling it a jacket at all, and White-Jacket, listening in unobserved, feels his “heart swell within” him as he realizes that he is stuck with it forever, unable even to weight it and throw it overboard:
But though, in my desperation, I had once contemplated something of that sort, yet I had now become unaccountably averse to it, from certain involuntary superstitious considerations. If I sink my jacket, thought I, it will be sure to spread itself into a bed at the bottom of the sea, upon which I shall sooner or later recline, a dead man.
All this whiteness—is Moby-Dick prefigured here? I’ll feel more confident talking about that after my Moby-Dick re-read, but here I’m much more struck with the whiteness as a simple, stark marker of identity—an identity that names and defines White-Jacket, haunts him, makes his life more difficult, nearly kills him, and remains inescapable. Until the end, that is, when it nearly kills him again by getting in his way in the rigging and causing him to fall from the main-top into the ocean.
I essayed to swim toward the ship; but instantly I was conscious of a feeling like being pinioned in a feather-bed, and, moving my hands, felt my jacket puffed out above my tight girdle with water. I strove to tear it off; but it was looped together here and there, and the strings were not then to be sundered by hand. I whipped out my knife, that was tucked at my belt, and ripped my jacket straight up and down, as if I were ripping open myself. With a violent struggle I then burst out of it, and was free. Heavily soaked, it slowly sank before my eyes.
Sink! sink! oh shroud! thought I; sink forever! accursed jacket that thou art!
“See that white shark!” cried a horrified voice from the taffrail; “he’ll have that man down his hatchway! Quick! the grains! the grains!”
The next instant that barbed bunch of harpoons pierced through and through the unfortunate jacket, and swiftly sped down with it out of sight.
On second thought, if that doesn’t prefigure Moby-Dick… But what a powerful final image of the jacket, no?
I also love the whiteness of the jacket because it keeps the focus of what is a rather social novel on the individual. White-Jacket is very politically minded and has certain obvious wider concerns, but Melville knows the action is really in the soaked stuffing of “that unfortunate and indispensable garment.”