Cast by Means of Figures: Herman Melville's Rhetorical Development

By Bryan C. Short | Go to book overview

7
"The strong shunning of death": White-Jacket

I wondered whether I was yet dead, or still dying. But of a sudden some fashionless form brushed my side -- some inert, coiled fish of the sea; the thrill of being alive again tingled in my nerves, and the strong shunning of death shocked me through.

-- Melville, White-Jacket

White-Jacket, written immediately after Redburn in the summer of 1849, combines the rhetorical insight of Melville's two previous novels with the vocal coherence of Omoo. It demonstrates how quickly he gains control over and becomes comfortable with the results of his figurative experiments. Setting aside the subversive force of tautology which tints his treatment of the emigrants, it integrates the synecdochic perspective of Mardi with the metaphors (and engagement with death) of Redburn in a spectacularly unified ethos. White-Jacket flies apocalyptic colors, in a way that none of his earlier works has, as its deadly world expands rhetorically to appropriate the dialectic of origins and outcomes which Typee had put into play in establishing Melville's voice. 1 Apocalypse takes its place alongside death among his central literary themes, making it possible to argue that delight in the intellectual insights and persuasiveness of his fourth and fifth novels, as much as financial pressures, explains their "maniacal" pace of composition.

In White-Jacket, death, doubleness, the disjunction between self and other, and the secret inwardness of truth again condition meaning, only now the provisional, in-between, shipboard world expands synecdochically to include everything. The glass-ship metaphor for selfhood, with its hidden treasure, becomes the world-ship in which "the vast mass of our fabric, with all its storerooms of secrets, forever slides along far under the surface" (399). Key tropes from Redburn inflate in a manner which recalls the microcosmic island-hopping of Mardi, although White Jacket avoids bagginess because of the metaphoric program and the focus given by the presence of death, inherited from its immediate predecessor. By balancing figurative programs, the novel swerves equally from the fragmented perspective of Redburn, the ironic Romance of Typee valley, and the internalized "metaphysics" and "conic sections" of Mardi.

-82-

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