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A Jacket Not Worth Looking At: Shipboard Boredom aboard Herman Melville’s Neversink

Arturo Corujo


This article reads Herman Melville’s White-Jacket as an exploration of shipboard boredom, which oscillates between mechanized labor (tedium) and periods of idleness at sea (ennui). The story, which revolves around a sailor wearing a white jacket among navy-blue uniforms, gives an account of the perils of shipboard boredom. My contention is that this sailor (subject) gets so attached to his jacket (object) that he becomes unable to tell the difference between himself and the object, which alerts us to the passage from boredom to depression and solipsism. Like the narrator, his fellow sailors find his jacket so disgusting that they do not even want to look at it, condemning the sailor to ostracism and buttressing naval homogeneity. I conclude that White-Jacket is a logical transition from the lack of interest in difference (boredom) to the excitement about encountering the Other (curiosity) in Moby-Dick.

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1. Melville’s White-Jacket, a Text for Our Times

It seems that at very great crises in human history, and they must be very great, an author appears who becomes aware that one great age is passing and another beginning. But he becomes aware of this primarily in terms of new types of human character, with new desires, new needs, new passions. (James 117)

1Every time the name of US novelist, poet, and short-story writer Herman Melville is invoked, his novel on a captain’s frenetic hunt for a white whale is what immediately comes to mind, whereas his preceding novel on the bond between a sailor and his white garment remains largely unknown. The reason why the former awakens our interest, whereas the latter does not, is straightforward: the transoceanic quest for a whale is extraordinary; a sailor’s journal on a garment is ordinary. In short, Melville’s White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850) deals with shipboard boredom.

2In a world characterized by what Josefa Ros Velasco calls a “pandemic of boredom” (169), in allusion to the 2019 outbreak of the acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), Melville’s White-Jacket stands as one of the novels that speak to our critical times. More precisely, it tells the story of a nameless working sailor who makes a jacket in order to protect himself from the bad weather he is to encounter on board the USS Neversink, a homeward-bound man-of-war, which sails from Callao (Peru) to the coasts of Virginia (USA). But White-Jacket is not an account of war at sea, let alone a patriotic celebration of victory. The novel depicts what happens afterward: an unvarying labor routine devoid of stimulus; alienating, mind-numbing naval tasks; and physical torpor. In this context, the sailors are inevitably chained to the tedious tempos of shipboard boredom, sometimes surrounded by the visual lack of variation of “the torrid, monotonous sea” (223), and sometimes stagnant over “the monotony of lying in foreign harbours for weeks together” (90). On board the Neversink, even menus contribute to the induction into boredom due to “the monotonous round of salt beef and pork at the messes of the sailors—where but very few of the varieties of the season are to be found” (132). Whether in open waters or in foreign harbors, in times of nautical labor or idleness, White-Jacket portrays the weight of boredom in times of peace, particularly in relation with the construction of subjectivity onboard a frigate, where individuality is overshadowed by the mass of what Melville calls “the domestic communism” proper to the world in a man-of-war (322).

3The experience of shipboard boredom is narrated by the nameless working sailor himself, who, after making the aforementioned jacket, is doomed to wear it day in, day out aboard the frigate. As a result, the navy-blue jacketed members of the crew give the narrator (subject) the nickname of his garment (object): White-Jacket. From this very moment, the narrator engages in a love-hate relationship with his jacket, which exposes him as different from the other sailors and puts him in mortal danger on two occasions. To make matters worse, the crew gets so disgusted with White-Jacket as days go by that they no longer differentiate the sailor from the white garment. Neither does the ostracized protagonist, who, at the end of the narrative, withdraws into himself. White-Jacket thus becomes an exploration of the perilous ways in which the nauseating shipboard boredom might cycle into depression. Why something as banal as a jacket deserves critical attention, and what it has to tell us about the transition from boredom to depression in confinement will be the subject of my article.

4My reading of White-Jacket as a novel that centrally deals with shipboard boredom is divided into four main sections. First, I will challenge the novel’s contemporary reviews and argue that this allegedly boring novel is a deep exploration of shipboard boredom. Subsequently, I will discuss the dialectic between the tedious repetitions of nautical labor—which reveal the performative character behind the construction of militarized masculinity— and at the opposite pole, the naval ennui induced by the time off duty and the leisure at sea. And finally, I will comment on the novel’s problematic subject-object relationship, suggesting that the transition from indifference to difference to sheer disgust for it, condemning the narrator to ostracism. As a result, he gets so attached to his jacket that he becomes unable to tell the difference between himself and the object. This final incorporation alerts us to the perilous passage from shipboard boredom to severe depression.

2. Bored Critics, Boring Novel? A Literature Review

5The judgment that White-Jacket is a boring text is not new. In this respect, I will begin by drawing attention to two reviews published in 1850. The first one, an unsigned London Britannia review, criticizes Melville for “exhibiting all the phases of sea life during a long voyage” as well as revealing “something of its monotony” (307). The reviewer goes so far as to say that “[u]nless he changes his style, his popularity, at least with those who read for amusement, will not survive the issue of another White Jacket” (307). Melville failed to provide his readers with an entertaining account of intrepid sailors and created instead a detailed description of seamanship with an episodic structure (“all the phases of sea life”), lengthy narration (“during a long voyage”), and ultimately, a realistic representation of naval boredom (“something of its monotony”). The second review, published in the Boston Post under the name of Charles Gordon Greene, is even harsher. Like the London Britannia reviewer, Greene accuses Melville of simply portraying shipboard reality, thus engaging in “a description of fact rather than a romance of fiction” (331). Long gone were the glory days when this so-called “writer of sea-novels” published “a spirited and beautiful romance like Typee, or an autobiography like Redburn, running over with a Defoe naturalness and verisimilitude” (331). Regarding his political stand against naval discipline, Melville, Greene argues, is just a man of “theories, fancies and enthusiasm,” who is not qualified to discuss whether flogging is a just or an unjust punishment for sailors in the American Navy. At the heart of this harsh review is the dangerous ideology that literature should not be political and is just a form of entertainment for readers, who desperately want to escape their daily boredom. To be political, in Greene’s view, is to sound “smart, witty and entertaining on no capital,” which “becomes dreadfully tedious.” The final remark is unforgiving: “his stupid invention of a white-jacket... appears to be a stream of egotism, vapidness and affectation, with, here and there, a fragment of amber waters.” So, for Greene, Melville bores his readers to death.

6Here I contend that White-Jacket is not a boring novel but a novel about boredom. This is not to say that Melville’s contemporary reviewers completely missed the mark; rather, this is to say that, despite having gotten the point, they dismissed it as a literary flaw. As Brian Tucker reminds us, to judge a text as boring is problematic for two main reasons. Firstly, because “academic criticism’s task is generally not to disparage its object but rather to unfold that object’s complexity.” And secondly, because “it is an emotionally laden appraisal that ventures away from the work itself and into the realm of affective response” (185). Although I find his argument slightly prescriptive on what literary criticism should or should not aim to do, Tucker, who reads Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1895), argues that the act of declaring a work boring might also be a legitimate critical claim if boredom is treated not a “narrative defect, but a narrative strategy” (185). Overall, even though Melville’s novel is performing a similar narrative strategy and successfully expresses the tedium of nautical labor and the monotony of free time at sea, White-Jacket does not qualify as boring but rather as a reflection on shipboard boredom. Otherwise, no one would ever finish its reading, especially its contemporary reviewers.

7My article aims to respond to Melville’s reviewers by questioning where boredom lies. If his realistic style is to be blamed for the readers’ inability to enjoy the novel, boredom would be an intrinsic characteristic of the literary text because it constitutively bores readers. And so, following this reasoning, Melville would be guilty of having crafted a boring text. But if the reviewers’ harsh criticism is the result of their emotional response, the great disgust at White-Jacket, boredom would not be intrinsic to the text. My approach to Melville’s (allegedly) boring text blurs these seemingly competing poles: on the one hand, the representation of the ways in which war sailors confront boredom sets the mood for grasping the pervading slow-paced atmosphere onboard the Neversink; on the other hand, the experience of uneasiness throughout the reading of Melville’s novel demonstrates the reader’s affective engagement in the narrative from beginning to end. This blend of the objective representation of boredom and the subjective experience of it is what Sianne Ngai would call tone: “the dialectic of objective and subjective feeling that our aesthetic encounters inevitably produce” (30). According to Ngai, the tone of a piece of artwork should not be reducible to the representations of feelings within the work itself or to the complex emotional responses that the work might demand from its interpreters. The reason why Melville’s White-Jacket might be a boring novel for some readers is not only related to the text; it is also embedded in the reader’s subjectivity. In what follows, I will attempt to account for the experience of shipboard boredom and the different forms it takes in the novel.

8In my reading, what I mean by shipboard boredom is related to affective processes, which, depending on the circumstances, might grow from just mild disgust to severe nausea. The former state corresponds to “simple boredom” as defined by Peter Toohey: “a social emotion of mild disgust produced by a temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstance” (Boredom 45). In contrast, the state of nausea has existential undertones; therefore, it seems to be more related to depression, which, as Toohey argues, “entails a powerful and unrelieved sense of emptiness, isolation and disgust in which the individual feels a persistent lack of interest in and difficulty with concentrating on his current circumstances” (Boredom 141). Interestingly, there is an etymological connection between the word “nausea” and the sea, and seasickness since Greek naus originally means “ship,” which is exposed in White-Jacket. In Melville’s novel, the narrator grows from boredom to depression as his life on board the frigate enters a downward spiral.

9My analysis of shipboard boredom aims to account for the nautical connection between boredom and disgust in an attempt to decipher what the novel’s eponymous object might stand for. Although I find Melville’s contemporary reviewers’ perspective on boredom rather superficial, I do acknowledge Greene’s exceptional merit in identifying three core hermeneutic keys: firstly, the novel’s emphasis on identity formation and the perils of self-absorption (“egotism”); secondly, its allegedly uninteresting atmosphere from beginning to end (“vapidness”); and thirdly, its ostentatious prose for as trivial a subject matter as a white jacket (“affectation”). Like Greene, I will also draw attention to the novel’s eponymous object as a key interpretative element. I contend that the relationship between the sailor and his jacket is not static but dynamic: it evolves as the narrator’s attachment to his white garment grows. This relationship describes the passage from simple boredom (emotion) to existential boredom (mood). According to Antonio Damasio, the difference between the two is related to their duration because existential boredom “suggests that the ‘sustaining of a given emotion over long periods of time’—depression, for example—should be thought of as a mood” (qtd. in Toohey, Boredom 33). In addition to duration, Lars Svendsen points out that “we can say that an emotion normally has an intentional object, while a mood is objectless. Moods have more to do with the totality of all objects, i.e., the world as a whole” (110). In this article, I want to argue that a trivial object such as a jacket (external to the body) bores the character and reader alike until, at the end of the narrative, becomes a body part (internal to the body), thus inducing depression.

3. Nautical Labor: Performative Repetition as Militarized Masculinity

10In her close examination of first-person narratives of working sailors, Hester Blum states that the romantic idea of escaping domestic responsibility and looking for adventure onboard a ship is soon betrayed by “the difficulty and monotony of nautical labor” because, as Bennet Forbes points out, “a boy would soon become disgusted with the absence of that poetry of the sea, about which he had heard so much” (qtd. in Blum 6). In White-Jacket, the disappointment with naval life reveals the importance of the novel’s episodic narration in representing the tedium of nautical labor. Unlike more traditional novels, where the male protagonist grows into a man after experiencing a life-changing journey, Melville’s narrator is not going through a rite of passage per se. Rather, he observes the boring pace of life at sea. In short, White-Jacket is not a teleological narrative but an account of shipboard life where the protagonist does not carry the plot but the mood.

11If there is an element that Melville’s contemporary reviewers emphasized more than any other, it is the novel’s monotonous narration, in which nothing (interesting) ever happens. I want to argue that such a lack of a clear cause-and-effect sequence of events is significant for Melville’s exploration of shipboard boredom in connection with militarized masculinity. Such correlation between monotony, boredom, and masculinity becomes clearer if one considers the ancient antecedent to Melville’s White-Jacket, Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus. This work, which records the military life of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, shows a related story. Although Pyrrhus has succeeded in all warlike matters, he does not enjoy his retirement since, according to Plutarch, he is only satisfied when he participates in destructive armed conflicts. In the last effort to escape his dull existence, Pyrrhus returns to the battlefield. Unfortunately, he pays too high a price: defeat and death. In his reading, Toohey observes that “[b]oredom, therefore, and its avoidance is seen as the motivating force in Pyrrhus’ life” to the point that it becomes “a spiritual malady and is seen as capable of devouring a whole life” (“Some Ancient Notions” 163). This life narrative, based on the disappointment that comes after victory, which is also present in Melville’s text, poses a challenge: how to survive monotonous peacetimes?

12This conflict between shipboard boredom and militarized masculinity is performative insofar as the routinized acts of preparing the crew for war mask a gender-based menace: when the war is over, the navy loses its purpose, weapons become redundant, and ultimately, the naturalized construct of western, militarized masculinity becomes a disappointing fiction. In the novel, Melville defamiliarizes militarized masculinity by stripping the war sailors of their conventional naval setting—namely, the sea as a public battlefield—and relegating them to the domestic sphere of the Neversink, where they also devote themselves to cooking, reading, writing, and mending clothes. Thus, the male characters are symbolically emasculated.

13The domesticity of the frigate, together with its isolation, also accounts for boredom, which, according to Toohey, is caused by lengthy duration, predictability, and inescapability, or simply by confinement (Boredom 7). Chapter 26, “General Training in a Man-of-War,” describes the practice of general quarters. White-Jacket criticizes this practice—or rather, performance—because it consists of “a mustering of all hands to their stations at the guns on the several decks, and a sort of sham-fight with an imaginary foe” (86). The insistence on fight training without any enemy or war shows the constructed and performative character of militarized masculinity. As Judith Butler rightly argues, “The subject is not determined by the rules through which it is generated because signification is not a founding act, but rather a regulated process of repetition that both conceals itself and enforces its rules precisely through the production of substantializing effects” (198). And this “regulated process of repetition” is exemplified by the performance of “general quarters” but also by music and the repetitive chorus in the war songs that the sailors sing. The lyrics show the performativity of masculinity at its best: “Hearts of oak are our ships, / jolly tars are our men, / We always are ready, steady, boys, steady, / To fight and to conquer, again and again” (85). As J. M. Barbalet points out, “Habitual action is precisely action in which conscious involvement is absent” because the repetitive task is not meaningful (635). In White-Jacket, therefore, the tedious pace of nautical labor and the performance of militarized masculinity lose their meaning in times of peace, bringing about a feeling of shipboard boredom, which, as I will discuss in what follows, contrasts with the absence of activity in periods of harbor leisure: whether it is an excess of stimulus or the lack thereof, shipboard boredom is inescapable.

4. Naval Ennui: Narrated/Narrative Lack of Repetition in Harbor

  • 1 Captain Claret is probably the best character to represent the evils of chronic boredom, which, acc (...)

14The middle section of the novel coincides with the middle of the voyage from Callao (Peru) to Norfolk (USA): from chapter 39 to chapter 65, that is for one-third of the book, the Neversink stays in Rio in order to bring provisions and supplies of food and drink to last for the remaining journey home. However, when the repetitive pace of nautical labor ceases and the sailors become unemployed, the jacketed narrator tells us that “they lead the laziest of lives” (160). And then, boredom strikes; or rather, “the intolerable ennui of nothing to do, and nowhere to go” that torments the sailors (176), which is particularly visible in the case of Captain Claret, who attempts to alleviate his dissatisfaction by resorting to alcohol. In this respect, Samuel Otter points out that Melville’s novel “details mechanisms of intimate oppression, such as the use of alcohol as a regulatory tool and the function of holidays as a safety valve to release frustrated energies” (58). These “mechanisms of intimate oppression” accentuate the carceral and, to use Michel Foucault’s terminology, panoptic character of the Neversink, which, according to the narrator, bears a close resemblance to “a lofty, walled, and garrisoned town, like Quebec, where the thoroughfares are mostly ramparts, and peaceable citizens meet armed sentries at every corner” (75). In harbor, the Neversink becomes “a main-land fortress” (160).1

  • 2 My use of “meridional” is related to the spatiotemporal connection between 1) the Southern hemisphe (...)
  • 3 For an analysis of acedia and boredom, see Zuzanna Ladyga, “Acedia and David Foster Wallace’s The P (...)

15Unlike the tedious repetition of nautical labor, the festive interruption associated with the harbor is related to what the narrator calls “ennui in Rio” (167), which, despite its existentialist flavor, shows the way in which boredom is motivated by the temporary immobility in Rio. As Georges Teyssot rightly argues, “Ennui is to be bored by rest, not weariness. Ennui is to be bored by idleness, not work. Ennui is to be bored by happiness, not sadness” (50). Indeed, the main problem that the narrator faces in harbor has to do with whiling away his free time. While the idle sailors devote themselves to pursuits such as sewing, tattooing, and cleaning, the narrator’s “antidote” to ennui in Rio is reading (167). These pastimes—especially sewing and cleaning—stress the fact that, in times of peace, naval duties become redundant and domestic activities take precedence. This domesticity is reminiscent of the connection Arthur Schopenhauer establishes between the phenomenon of ennui, on the one hand, and the everydayness of living spaces, on the other. For him, ennui is a domestic demon (qtd. in Teyssot 48). For Melville, it is also meridional in the many meanings and associations the term triggers.2 From chapter 39 to chapter 65, the narrator portrays boredom in meridional latitudes and explains how the sailors confront the weight of dead time upon their shoulders. Moreover, the middle section of the novel constitutes a symbolic encounter with the medieval Meridian Demon, a personification of acedia, “the pre-modern forerunner of boredom” (Svendsen 17).3 As a result, the medieval sin is transformed into a modern form of ennui, defined in terms of naval domesticity, and symbolically represented by the narrator’s white jacket, which sets the mood of the narrative.

16As the USS Neversink remains motionless in harbor for weeks, so does the sailors’ perception of the passage of time. On the one hand, the narrator complains that “[n]owhere does time pass more heavily than with most men-of-war’s-men on board their craft in harbour” (167) as if time became a weight that bound him to his current circumstances. Similarly, Svendsen points out that “[b]oredom is mainly defined characterized by the present, or rather: boredom knows neither past nor future, whereas melancholy is characterized by a longing for a time that once existed (or possibly a future that is hoped for)” (92). For White-Jacket, his naval life is an eternal present: he does not disclose personal details about a past life, nor does he project himself into a future. Rather, his narrative methodology is defined by the temporal rootlessness proper to boredom. On the other hand, the readers also experience the deceleration of time onboard the Neversink as the narrative speed slows down and oftentimes, especially in Rio, comes to a complete halt. Gérard Genette defines the concept of narrative speed as “the relationship between a duration (that of the story, measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years) and a length (that of the text, measured in lines and in pages)” (87-88). Inspired by this narrative distinction, Tucker coins two analytical categories: first, narrative time, meaning “the amount of time—usually measured in terms of printed space—devoted to the representation of a scene”; and secondly, narrated time, meaning “the time that passes within the diegetic scene” (190). What Tucker calls narrated time is what Melville’s narrator loosely measures in “some weeks” (160). And what Tucker calls narrative time is what the readers experience from page 160 to page 268. In other words, Melville’s White-Jacket is not only a novel on boredom; it is also a novel that performs boredom. This coincidence between the novel’s narrated and narrative time is a structural device, which is complemented by its focus on an object, in this case, the white jacket. This garment shrinks as the narrative speeds up from Callao (Peru) to Cape Horn (Chile) on account of “the repeated soakings and dryings it had undergone” (100). However, by the time the Neversink reaches Rio, the jacket no longer shrinks; it just looks old. In the following pages, I will argue why such an unimportant object—at least according to contemporary reviewers—is worth looking at.

5. A Jacket Not Worth Looking At

17The narrator’s white jacket puts him in the spotlight and marks him with nonhuman qualities as the eye-catching white garment is reminiscent of other figures, such as animals and ghosts. In chapter 2, “Homeward Bound,” the narrator is carrying out one of his duties “where he belonged,” that is, up in the sails, in order to loose the main royal, “so far up aloft there [that] it looks like a white albatross’ wing” so much so that “[i]t was White-Jacket that was taken for an albatross himself, as he flew out on the giddy yard-arm!” (7). In chapter 19, “The Jacket aloft,” the narrator is not mistaken for a living organism but for a ghost. This episode takes place during one of his night watches aloft, on one of the upper yards, where he has privacy to “give loose to reflection” (76). However, the narrator’s stargazing is interrupted by his fellow sailors, who collapse the sails because they mistake him for the ghost of the ship’s cooper, who passed away only some days earlier. Fortunately, the narrator does not fall off and keeps his balance when “after hailing me, and bidding me descend, to test my corporeality, and getting no answer, they had lowered the halyards in affright” (78). Yet, from now onwards, the jacket puts its wearer in mortal danger.

18If the narrator is mistaken for nonhuman figures on two occasions at the beginning of the novel, it is not so because he is deliberately submitted to processes of animalization and spectralization; rather, it is so because his white garment is difficult to identify from a distance. Turning to the episode of the ghost, Otter argues that “White-Jacket becomes a target of interpretation and the victim of an almost lethal misreading” because the garment “invites the testing of his corporeality, an operation that almost proves fatal” (89). Although I do agree with Otter that the white jacket is the source of trouble here, I do not believe that this scene describes an instance of “misreading”: it is simply an exemplification of a perceptual error. After all, the sailors do not read the narrator’s corporeality wrongly; they do not even read it at all because, once they realize that the jacket is not what they previously thought it was, they turn away from it with a feeling of disappointment. The impulse to interpret is aborted: the extraordinary is ordinary and therefore, not worthy of any hermeneutic effort.

19To talk about perception, and not interpretation, makes perfect sense because, as Horace Beck and Richard J. King observe, alleged visions of ghosts onboard ships are a traditional trope in maritime lore, which “can be rationalized by fatigue, cold, bad food, poor visibility, anxiety, and especially a subliminal response to minute atmospheric and oceanic changes, which can lead to a dreamlike trance where fantasy and reality merge” (155-56). It is no wonder that the Neversink is on its course to Cape Horn, where, only five chapters later, “a horrible mist far and wide spreads over the water” (97). As the weather changes and exposure to humidity increases, visibility is reduced, especially at night, when the sailors are likely to commit perceptual errors. For this reason, if the narrator’s white jacket represents a difference in the homogeneous blue Navy, the crew’s unconcerned attitude to this “moving white spot” (78) is indifference to difference: the sailors take no notice of the white jacket; and when they finally do, they cannot identify it as such.

  • 4 Melville’s novel chronicles the clash between regimented clothing and fashion consciousness. The fo (...)

20The sailors’ perception of the garment is not fixed; in fact, it changes throughout the narrative. In chapter 15, “A Salt-Junk Club in a Man-of-War, with a Notice to Quit,” the narrator recounts his negative experience as a member of one of the many naval messes of the frigate, where the common seamen share their own provisions and cook them together in allotted shifts. One day, White-Jacket cooks duff, a flour pudding meant to diversify their boring meals. Unfortunately, none of the sailors likes his dish since it is too hard to bite. Thus, this culinary failure becomes the pretext that the sailors finally find to bully the narrator, who is attacked on the grounds of his cooking skills but also because of the “disagreeableness of a perpetually damp garment in the mess, especially when that garment was white” (62). Hence, when the sailors finally perceive the white jacket as an actual white jacket, it becomes stigmatized because, onboard the Neversink, difference is suppressed in favor of the naval law, which reads: “all in one uniform” (174). Not surprisingly, a jacket like the narrator’s is ill-fated in a frigate.4

  • 5 According to Theresa Anna Kwon, Ho Jung Choo, and Youn-Kyung Kim, “[o]ne means of overcoming boredo (...)

21This transition from indifference (lack of interest in the jacket) to stigmatization (complete disgust with it) is brilliantly illustrated in one of the key episodes of the narrative. In chapter 47, “An Auction in a Man-of-War,” the narrator describes one of the modes of alleviating “the weariness experienced by the man-of-war’s-men while lying at anchor” (198): the Purser’s auctions, where those clothes left behind by deceased sailors are put back on sale. The narrator, aware of the inconveniences of keeping his garment aboard the frigate, expresses his desire to get rid of it. He is aware that the jacket is problematic: “To how many annoyances had it subjected me? How many scrapes had it dragged me into? Nay, had it not once jeopardized my very existence? And I had a dreadful presentiment that, if I persisted in retaining it, it would do so again” (201). It also becomes redundant since, at this stage, “[t]he weather in Rio was genial and warm” (200). Accordingly, the narrator makes a tough decision “to sacrifice [his] jacket and recklessly abide the consequences” (201). Unfortunately, his participation in the auction is doomed to failure: the Purser does not manage to sell the white garment because it is not a commodity of interest. At this point in the narrative, the sailors are not indifferent to the narrator’s white jacket anymore; they are rather bored with it. And so is the narrator, who struggles to get rid of it because, after wearing it day in, day out for months, his attachment to it becomes extraordinarily high.5

22The narrator makes the tough decision to dispose of his jacket because he grows tired of it due to the increase in temperature in Rio and its social unsuitability in a naval environment. But his fellow sailors refuse to bid for it because of the wear and tear due to its repetitive usage. The jacket looks aged, as if “[a] premature old age had now settled upon it”; badly damaged, displaying the “melancholy sears of the masoned-up pockets” and broken and cracked buttons; and dirty, since “[s]ome parts of it were slightly mildewed from dampness” (201). And then, they identify the jacket (object) with its wearer (subject) due to its many identificatory features: “‘The white jacket!’ cried fifty voices in response; ‘the white jacket!’ The cry ran fore and aft the ship like a slogan” (202). For the bidders, these identificatory features are major defects that show that the garment has depreciated heavily throughout the homeward-bound voyage. For the narrator, such identificatory traces are not defects but personal inscriptions, which, on the one hand, record his love-hate relationship with the jacket throughout time (memory), and on the other hand, lay bare his symbiotic bond with it from the beginning to the end of the journey (identity). In other words, the jacket exudes the narrator’s personal meaning in the form of identificatory traces.

23Among the many objections against the white jacket, its apparent unworthiness is unanimous. Grummet, the sailor who inaugurates the bidding, first calls the item a “bunch of old swabs” (202), and then, he asks the Purser for something “worth looking at” (203). If the jacket is not worth looking at, that is so because it is no longer an interesting commodity for anyone, except for its original owner. According to Sara Ahmed, affects direct us towards certain objects. In the case of happiness, “objects accumulate positive affect value as they are passed around” (29). But in the case of Melville’s uninterested bidders, the jacket is not a happy object; rather, it is a boring object filled with negative affect value.

24Imbued by her phenomenological sensitivity, Ahmed sustains that happiness involves affect (to be happy is to be affected by something), intentionality (to be happy is to be happy about something), and value judgment (to be happy about something makes it good) (29). On the contrary, although boredom also involves affect, intentionality, and value judgment, this affect inevitably directs us toward boring objects, such as the eponymous jacket. Firstly, boredom is affective because the sailors are bored by the white jacket. Secondly, it is intentional because they are also bored with it just when they are reluctantly oriented toward it during the auction. And thirdly, it is judgmental because they value it as a negative object just as Melville’s contemporary critics approached his novel as a boring text. Both Melville’s piece of work (White-Jacket) and the narrator’s piece of clothing (white jacket) constitute, to use the narrator’s own words, “a white duck frock, or rather shirt” (12), onto which readers project their own affects. And so, either text is always susceptible to being perceived as boring.

25But why is not the white jacket worth looking at? Ahmed tells us that when people are surprised to find we like objects that, in their view, we are not supposed to like, they make a judgment “against another by refusing to like what another likes, by suggesting that the object in which another invests his or her happiness is unworthy” (35). So, the white jacket is an unworthy, boring object. For its wearer, the reason is just weariness about its aesthetic and physical attributes, its stigmatizing meaning, and its thermal unfitness. For the bidders, though, I argue that the reason is disinterest in reading a jacket saturated with self-meaning and by the same extension, a reluctance to read the narrator, that is, the subject that the garment is nominally identified with. In other words, if the sailors are not interested in investing their time in reading this white jacket, let alone orienting their bodies toward it, it is so because the unpopular object is so charged with personal meaning that many sailors feel disgusted at the sight of such a solipsistic texture. Therefore, onboard the Neversink, the narrator’s difference is perceived as boring by the sailors.

26At the end of chapter 47, when the auction is over, the white jacket remains unsold. After many objections against its suitability for sale, the narrator suffers in silence because, “[w]hile this scene was going forward, and my white jacket was thus being abused, how my heart swelled within me! Thrice was I on the point of rushing out of my hiding-place, and bearing it off from derision” (203). Thus, this chapter ends with the narrator’s final surrender: “unable to conjure it into the possession of another, and withheld from burying it out of sight forever, my jacket stuck to me like the fatal shirt on Nessus” (203). Like the poisoned Tunic of Nessus, which killed Heracles, the narrator (subject) and his white jacket (object) are condemned to be joined together forever. In this respect, Svendsen alerts us that “[t]here can be an otherness only insofar as there can be an ownness and vice versa. If the polarity between the two is lost, everything becomes identical, indifferent and immanent” (87). The inability to tell the difference between subject and object is a distinctive trait of boredom since the polarity between the two is lost. Like the erasure of the boundaries between the sea and the sky, which become identical because of chromatic monotony, Melville’s narrator can no longer tell the difference between himself and his boring garment, which, from this moment onwards, becomes a body part. As Silvan Tomkins reminds us, disgust is useful insofar as it helps the individual to defend against the “psychic incorporation or any increase in proximity to a repulsive object” (qtd. in Finkielsztein). But in Melville’s novel, the incorporation of the object of disgust results in an existential crisis, which finally leads to depression as time passes by, and the narrator closes upon himself.

6. Conclusion

27To be in confinement, onboard a frigate, is boring, but as White-Jacket demonstrates, to be trapped in a jacket is even worse. Melville’s novel concludes with the narrator’s definitive—and nearly fatal—accident at sea, before reaching port in Norfolk, Virginia, where the naval voyage would be finally completed. In chapter 92, “The Last of the Jacket,” the narrator introduces the story’s denouement by shifting from the first to the third person, as if to distance himself from his old nickname: “Already has White-Jacket chronicled the mishaps and inconveniences, troubles and tribulations of all sorts brought upon him by that unfortunate but indispensable garment of his,” which, for the second and last time throughout the story, “came near proving his should” (391). The narrator, by then still identified as White-Jacket, carries out one of his duties aloft but, suddenly, loses his balance and tries to grab the sails in order to quickly find a point of support. However, he mistakes his jacket for the sails and subsequently falls overboard into the ocean, momentarily feeling relief that he will sink “into the speechless profound of the sea” and avoid being dashed on the decks (392). The still-jacketed sailor loses consciousness underwater but manages to come to the surface “like a buoy,” and his head is “bathed in the blessed air” (393). Immediately afterwards, he attempts to swim to the Neversink but cannot move his hands since the jacket “puffed out above [his] tight girdle with water” (394). His decision is final:

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. (394)

28Melville’s White-Jacket ends in a birth-like episode, where subject and object are torn apart. The narrator’s survival depends upon the act of drawing boundaries between the self and the other. Inspired by Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1966), Bill Brown stresses the importance of understanding “the alterity of things as an essentially ethical fact,” which is to say that “accepting the otherness of things is the condition for accepting otherness as such” (12). Nevertheless, as Svendsen warns us, the lack of polarity between subject and object might prove fatal to the object and by the same extension, to the recognition of otherness. In the end, the narrator survives only when he dares to get rid of what is weighing him down, regardless of how hard it might be for him to let go of his (affective bond with the) self-made white jacket.

29But the narrator cannot celebrate his victory until he is finally rescued by his fellow sailors. Paradoxically, the crew finds him thanks to the third and last perceptual error in the novel: “‘See that white shark!’ cried a horrified voice from the taffrail; ‘he’ll have that man down his hatchway! Quick! the grains! the grains!’” (394). The narrator’s fellow sailors again mistake the white jacket for a nonhuman figure, in this case, a shark. In order to save the narrator from the supposed shark, the sailors throw their harpoons, which “pierced through and through the unfortunate jacket, and swiftly sped down with it out of sight” (394). As the jacket helplessly sinks into the bottom of the ocean, the narrator is taken back to the frigate and symbolically reborn.

30If Melville’s White-Jacket is about the perilous disinterest in directing ourselves to difference, Moby-Dick, the author’s following sea novel, published only one year later, transitions from the boredom of slow-paced naval life to the curiosity about an exciting, whale-hunting voyage. This aperture is represented by Ishmael, the novel’s first-person narrator, who meets Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Pacific, at the very beginning of Ishmael’s adventure. Unlike the war sailors from the Neversink, who do not even orient their bodies toward the jacket, Ishmael opens up to the racial otherness embodied by Queequeg and tries to read him out of genuine curiosity and affection. Thus, White-Jacket is a logical transition from the lack of interest in difference (boredom) to the excitement about encountering the Other (curiosity) in Moby-Dick.

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Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke UP, 2010, pp. 29-51.

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1 Captain Claret is probably the best character to represent the evils of chronic boredom, which, according to Peter Toohey, is closely linked with anger: “Most people suffer occasional feelings of anger—transient bursts of frustration or rage, it could be said. But everyone has known people who seem to be persistently angry. Whether it’s politics, the weather or their boss, they remain in a permanent state of incandescence” (53). According to the narrator, the war sailor is the kind of person who “flies to the bottle to seek relief from the intolerable ennui of nothing to do, and nowhere to go” even if he must pay “the most exorbitant prices, breaks through all law, and braves the ignominious lash itself, rather than be deprived of his stimulus” (176). Although the captain’s difficulties in staying teetotal are not related to boredom, his inability to tolerate this lack of stimulus leads him to drink compulsively, particularly in harbor. And unlike his subjects, he is allowed to break the law at wish without fearing “the ignominious lash” of naval flogging.

2 My use of “meridional” is related to the spatiotemporal connection between 1) the Southern hemisphere (space) and 2) midday (time). This connection is etymological: the adjective “meridional” derives from the Old French meridien, which both means “of the noon time, midday” and “a southerner,” which also derives from the Latin meridianus, meaning “of midday, of noon” and “southerly, to the south.” Of course, it is no coincidence that the Latin meridies originally derives from the locative medius (middle) and dies (days).

3 For an analysis of acedia and boredom, see Zuzanna Ladyga, “Acedia and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King” in this issue.

4 Melville’s novel chronicles the clash between regimented clothing and fashion consciousness. The former was part of the modernization of the set of rules specifying the required appearance of the naval service in Melville’s time, which resulted in the publication of the fourteen-page guide Regulations for the Uniform and Dress of the United States Navy (1841). Stephen Matterson points out that “[a]lthough the guidelines were for the uniforms of officers only, they were part of the increasing standardization for all naval ranks” (71). In fact, White-Jacket shows this modern standardization not only in the case of officers, but also in the case of working sailors. In chapter four, “Jack Chase,” the narrator describes his admired friend Jack Chase, who, despite his many virtues, can be “a little bit of a dictator; not peremptorily, or annoyingly so, but amusingly intent on egotistically mending our manners and improving our taste, so that we might reflect credit upon our tutor” (15). The narrator complains about his fastidiousness, since Jack “made us all wear our hats at a particular angle—instructed us in the tie of our neck-handkerchiefs; and protested against our wearing vulgar dungeree trowsers; besides giving us lessons in seamanship” (15). Jack thus anticipates uniform regulations for working sailors.

5 According to Theresa Anna Kwon, Ho Jung Choo, and Youn-Kyung Kim, “[o]ne means of overcoming boredom with a product is to dispose of it. In fact, researchers have noted boredom as one of the major reasons for clothing disposal” (2). Of course, it is no wonder that the narrator aims to dispose of his jacket when he finally sees the chance (“Why do we feel bored with our clothing and where does it end up?”).

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Electronic reference

Arturo Corujo, A Jacket Not Worth Looking At: Shipboard Boredom aboard Herman Melville’s NeversinkEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-4 | 2022, Online since 26 December 2022, connection on 21 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Arturo Corujo

Arturo Corujo is a doctoral researcher at the University of Barcelona. He is interested in domestic studies, queer theory, and the literature of the American Renaissance, with a focus on Herman Melville. In 2022, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, where he is working on a project that re-interprets White-Jacket as a constitutive text in Melville’s political, philosophical, and literary work.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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