The Revolutionary Spirit? Egalitarianism and Elitism in Melville's "White Jacket"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002
22 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Revolutionary Spirit

3. The Elitist Spirit

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Though Herman Melville’s White-Jacket is a polemical novel that directs its satirical voice against cruel practices and oppression on American Navy vessels, it nevertheless exhibits a “profound ambivalence”[1] toward rebellion, ideals of democracy, and authority. The narrator, innocently white and young White-Jacket, confronts the reader with powerfully colorful descriptions of flogging scenes on board the United States frigate Neversink; he lists innumerable examples of the infringements on the civil liberties of the common sailor – the common man – and he tells how well the abused sailors would be justified “in the act of mutiny itself.”[2] White-Jacket even openly acknowledges that a man-of-war’s-man, especially an American, “would be morally justified in resisting the scourge to the uttermost; and, in so resisting, would be religiously justified.”[3] When the captain orders the sailors to cut off their beards, the symbols of their identity and manhood, mutiny seems to be at hand.

And yet there is no trace of resistance, not even the nimblest refusal to quietly tolerate the meanest cruelties on board. The beard incident resembles a comic episode rather than a description of a profound violation of personal rights. It is not an example of the sailors’ good reasons for rebellion, but rather of a childish recalcitrance that implies the ironical question: “Who in the whole world would start a mutiny for such a cause?” In fact, the novel even concludes with a piece of advice to the sailors in which White-Jacket calls for quiet acceptance of the captain’s tyranny:

From the last ills no being can save another; therein each man must be his own savior. For the rest, whatever befall us, let us never train our murderous guns inboard, let us not mutiny with bloody pikes in our hands.[4]

Compared with the narrator’s powerful diatribe against flogging that called for mutiny, this statement pushes the reader in the opposite direction, towards rejection of rebellion. One explanation for these contradictory attitudes can be found in the treatment of the revolutionary ideals by the narrator, White-Jacket. In numerous rhetorical passages, White-Jacket alludes to revolution or passionately affirms ideals connected with the rising of the people against tyrannical authority, such as the dignity inherent in man, or the inalienable rights that White-Jacket thinks every man possesses. On board the frigate Neversink, which I perceive as the microcosm of a pre-revolutionary society rather than that of the democratic, post-revolution America[5], allusions to these ideals must seem an expression of revolutionary spirit. But although the revolutionary sentiment undeniably dominates the novel, certain contradictory elements subvert the “pure democratic emphasis and form often attributed to it.”[6] What lurks behind White-Jacket’s intention to drag the captain, who had ordered him to be flogged without just cause, with him to death, or what almost drives the sailors to mutiny when they are forced to shave their beards, seems to be a revolutionary spirit, and yet an examination of White-Jacket’s social thought reveals “the subtle yet vigorous antidemocratic thrust of the novel.”[7]

2. The Revolutionary Spirit

Melville’s revolutionary spirit and his view of revolution in White-Jacket is influenced by his knowledge of famous revolutions, most notably by the legendary revolution that had inspired them all, the American Revolution, which had taken place roughly 70 years before Melville wrote White-Jacket in 1849. It had profound influence on the French Revolution, which shook the European continent up until and including the revolutions of 1848. With those revolutions still fresh in mind – uprisings continued to flare up all over Germany and Austria way into 1849 – Herman Melville could see how democratic ideals that had first been realized in the creation of the United States continued to inspire ideals and hopes all over the so-called Old World. Democracy as the reward for the daring, the revolutionary, is the political system the narrator of White-Jacket perceives as the future not only for America, but for the rest of the world as well:

The Past is the text-book of tyrants; the Future is the Bible of the free. […] We Americans are driven to a rejection of the maxims of the Past, […] We should, if possible, prove a teacher to posterity. […] Long enough have we doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us[8]

The revolutionary spirit is openly displayed in the novel. It is not, as Dominique Marcais assumes, “smuggled into the text, assuming various guises, hiding in puns, in words inscribed within others, in strange names and curious episodes.”[9] White-Jacket is a “pioneer”[10] of a system that promises freedom and justice through democracy, although he is confined to the ship he serves on, although he is treated like a prisoner or even slave by his superiors, and although the world on the ship he lives on resembles the “Past” he wants to leave behind rather than the “Future” he advocates in his passionate orations on freedom. His pioneer’s thirst for freedom is stilled when he rids himself of all restrictions at the end of the novel: White-Jacket discards his jacket and with it his whiteness, the symbol of the superiority of one man over another, and he leaves the ship for a better world, cursing the Navy’s “illiberal laws” that make “many of our people […] wicked, unhappy, inefficient.”[11] As soon as the white jacket is lost in the sea, the narrator is free of a part of the Past – the prejudices that come along with the jacket as a symbol of restrictions and as a racial signifier – and is made ready to enter a democratic society. However, the narrow, restrictive law code governing the Neversink does not permit such an entrance. White-Jacket has to leave the ship in order to attain the liberty he had been striving to achieve all throughout the voyage.

Herman Melville himself served fourteen months, August 1843 till October 1844, on an American man-of-war, the United States, which served him as a model for the Neversink. As early as his first day on board the United States Melville saw four men flogged; and he was to witness over 150 more floggings – a monthly average of 12 occurrences of a man being tied to the shrouds and almost beaten to pieces.[12] Consequently, it is not hard to share the belief in White-Jacket’s repeated allusions to the world of the man-of-war as a microcosmic world representative of a world characterized by autocratic rule and tyrannical arbitrarity. The metaphor of the “world in a man-of-war,” which appears as early as in the very title of the novel, is does not simply refer to White-Jacket as a novel that promises insight into a different world from that known to the average reader, but an elaborate metaphor for a microcosm, “the projection of the larger world into a smaller one.”[13] It is important not to identify this microcosm with American society, but instead with a society yet untouched by the blessings White-Jacket sees in the American Revolution, or as a part of the American society that still clings to pre-revolutionary values. To the democrat, such a society virtually yearns for its dissolution by revolutionary forces – and in his account of the man-of-war-world, the narrator does not fail to make multiple allusions to revolutionary forces that are silently at work in the darker corners of the ship.


[1] Margaret E. Steward: “The ‘Romance’ vs. the ‘Narrative of Facts’: Representational Mode and Political Ambivalence in Melville’s White-Jacket.” American Transcendental Quarterly, 3(2), 1989. p. 189-202: p. 189.

[2] Herman Melville: White-Jacket. Or: The World in a Man-of-War. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000: p. 147.

[3] White-Jacket: p. 147.

[4] White-Jacket: p. 404.

[5] I strongly disagree with Priscilla Allen’s claims that Melville “wished to identify the universal battleship with the country of its origin, the United States.” (“White-Jacket: Melville and the Man-of-War Microcosm.” American Quarterly, 25. 1973. p. 32-47: p. 46.

[6] Larry J. Reynolds: “Antidemocratic Emphasis in White-Jacket.” American Literature 48(1), 1976. p. 13-28: p. 14.

[7] Reynolds: p. 15.

[8] White-Jacket: Ch. 36, p. 152-3.

[9] Dominique Marcais: “Revolution and Identity in Melville’s White-Jacket and Israel Potter.” Viola Sachs (ed): L’Imaginaire Melville. A French Point of View. Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, Saint-Denis, 1992. p. 53-64: p. 54.

[10] Marcais, p. 55.

[11] White-Jacket, The End, p. 403.

[12] Based on his analysis of the log books, H. Edward Stessel estimates that Melville must have seen 163 floggings during his enlistment on the United States, and innumerable more on other American and British man-of-war ships. In fact, it seems as if the unmerciful floggings must have been Melville’s first sight when he entered the ship: at 9 am, only minutes after he was admitted on board, two men were flogged right next to the gangway. (H. Edward Stessel: “Melville’s White-Jacket: A Case Against the ‘Cat’.” Clio, 13 (1), 1983. p. 37-55: p. 37.)

[13] Allen: p. 39.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


The Revolutionary Spirit? Egalitarianism and Elitism in Melville's "White Jacket"
University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth  (English Department)
English 796 Independent Studies: New England and the Sea
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
535 KB
Double spaced
Revolutionary, Spirit, Egalitarianism, Elitism, Melville, White, Jacket, English, Independent, Studies, England
Quote paper
Silja Rübsamen (Author), 2002, The Revolutionary Spirit? Egalitarianism and Elitism in Melville's "White Jacket", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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