Billy Budd, Herman Melville
Billy Budd Herman Melville
American novelist, short story writer, and poet. The following entry presents criticism on Melville's novella Billy Budd (1924). See also Bartleby, the Scrivener Criticism, Benito Cereno Criticism, Pierre, or, The Ambiguities Criticism, and Redburn: His First Voyage Criticism.
Began in 1888 and completed in 1891, the year of Melville's death, Billy Budd is deemed one of his most finely crafted and mature works. Focusing on the execution of a young sailor aboard an English warship, the novella has amassed a diversity of critical responses seeking to determine Melville's final views on such issues as justice, morality, and religion. Billy Budd is also consistently praised for its philosophical insight, multifaceted narrative technique, and complex use of symbol and allegory. Billy Budd has been adapted into a celebrated play, a highly praised opera, a popular motion picture, and a television drama.
Plot and Major Characters
Set in 1797, Billy Budd begins with a preface elaborating on the preceding crises of the French Revolution and the mutinies aboard British naval ships at the Nore and Spithead. Billy is introduced as the archetypal “handsome sailor,” homeward-bound aboard an English merchant vessel, the Rights-of-Man, when he is impressed by an English warship, the Indomitable (denoted the Bellipotent in the revised transcription, as the 1924 text later proved erroneous). Billy, a foretopman, is popular with the crew, but learns from a shipmate that the master-at-arms, John Claggart, harbors a mysterious antipathy toward him. Although Billy refuses an invitation to join in a subversive effort left undefined in the narrative, Claggart later confronts Captain Vere and accuses Billy of fomenting mutiny. Vere is unconvinced, yet brings the two into his cabin and repeats the charge to Billy. Stunned and unable to speak because of a pronounced stutter, Billy fatally strikes Claggart, a superior officer. An impromptu “drumhead court” is held by the captain in which he convinces his officers to hang the foretopman and thus enforce discipline and deter any threat of mutiny. Vere subsequently conducts a private interview with Billy, after which the two appear reconciled. Billy is executed the following dawn, and his only words before he is hanged are “God bless Captain Vere!” The novella ends with three reports: an account of Vere's death after a battle against the Athéiste; a journalistic rendering of the events surrounding Billy's execution; and a description of the crew's remembrances of Billy, concluding with the ballad “Billy in the Darbies.”
Although Billy Budd is relatively straightforward in plot, the work's complicated interweaving of historical digression, mythological and biblical allusion, and multiple narrative viewpoints has inspired an abundance of interpretations. Melville's novella has been noted predominantly for its biblical allusions, especially the parallels to the Christian concept of the Fall of Adam and the crucifixion of Christ. In these interpretations, Billy is associated with Adam and Christ, Vere with God, and Claggart with Satan. A political dimension of the work has also been detected in Melville's references to the French and American revolutions, British admiral Horatio Nelson, and predominant political theories of the eighteenth century. Psychoanalytic perspectives on Billy Budd generally interpret Vere as a superego repressing the instinctual vitality embodied by Billy, and focus on the theme of homosexuality in the work, particularly in the interactions between Billy and Claggart. Autobiographical aspects of the novella have garnered attention, as commentators debate whether Billy Budd is an accurate reflection of Melville's philosophy before his death; moreover, the story has been viewed as a reworking of the author's relationship with his sons.
The major body of Billy Budd criticism has been grouped into two camps: the “testament of acceptance” and the “testament of resistance.” In the former view, early commentators generally found that Melville condoned Captain Vere's actions, recognizing the limitations of society, law, and religion, and expressing what E. L. Grant Watson termed a “testament of acceptance.” However, Joseph Schiffman's 1950 interpretation of the novella, in which he asserted that Vere is presented as an autocrat whom Melville condemned ironically through an unreliable narrator, inspired numerous critics to explicate the text based on this position. While most subsequent criticism of Billy Budd has focused on this debate, other critical approaches have also been applied to the story. Recent criticism has explored the narrative technique of Billy Budd and the text's self-reflexive statements on language and art. The status of the short novel's original manuscript has also been an object of debate since the publication of a revised transcription in 1962. Attempting to redress earlier transcriptions, the editors identified and amended misreadings of Melville's handwritten words and punctuation marks, excluded corrections they attributed to Melville's wife, and clarified the chronology of the work's composition. Among the significant differences arising from Melville's revisions of Billy Budd, the new transcription more clearly displays the author's ambiguous treatment of Captain Vere and has renewed the dispute over his portrayal of the captain. Today, Melville's novella remains highly lauded for its narrative craftsmanship, and its ethical complexity has been compared with classical tragedy and the later dramas of William Shakespeare. Critics concur that the work represents one of Melville's most significant fictions, second perhaps only to Moby-Dick(1851), and stands as a major accomplishment of nineteenth-century American literature.
The Piazza Tales 1856
The Apple-Tree Table and Other Sketches 1922
*Billy Budd and Other Prose Pieces 1924
Shorter Novels of Herman Melville 1928
Complete Stories of Herman Melville 1949
†Billy Budd Sailor (An Inside Narrative): Reading Text and Genetic Text 1962
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (novel) 1846
Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Sea (novel) 1847
Mardi: And a Voyage Thither (novel) 1849
Redburn: His Voyage, Being the Sailor-Boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service (novel) 1849
White-Jacket; Or, The World in a Man-of-War (novel) 1850
Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale (novel) 1851
Pierre; Or, The Ambiguities (novel) 1852
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (novel) 1857
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (poetry) 1866
*Written between 1885 and 1891.
†This volume contains the first definitive edition of this work.
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SOURCE: “The Genesis of Billy Budd,” in American Literature, Vol. XII, No. 3, November, 1940, pp. 328–46.
[In the following essay, Anderson traces the origin of Billy Budd.]
After a decade of prolific authorship as a young man, Herman Melville abandoned his pen in mid-career for reasons not yet altogether clear. The long quietus of thirty years that followed was unbroken save by two ventures into poetry: the thin and halting Battle Pieces (1866) and the unhappy Clarel (1876). It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to find literary aspiration still latent in the former author who, nearing his biblical allotment of years, emerged from the New York Custom House in 1886. It is still more surprising that for his swan song he turned back once more to prose and to his first chosen and best milieu, the sea. For even at the close of his early period of authorship he had been casting about for new matière in the miscellaneous tales and essays collected in two posthumous volumes, in Pierre and The Confidence Man, and in most of Israel Potter and The Piazza Tales—forsaking the sea for philosophy, grasping at straws, and finally turning in desperation to verse. But now the harassed artist of the fifties had made his peace with ambition. Billy Budd, Foretopman, was the child of his old age, completed less than six months before his...
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SOURCE: “The Unity of Billy Budd,” in Hudson Review, Vol. V, No. 1, Spring, 1952, pp. 120–27.
[In the following essay, West provides a reading of the final, generic version of Billy Budd, maintaining that it “established a text which we can be reasonably certain represents Melville's final and deliberate intention.”]
Melville's last complete work, Billy Budd, was not finished until 1891, the year of Melville's death, and it did not appear in print until 1924. Even then, the first printed version, prepared by Raymond Weaver, was not completely authentic because of the chaotic condition of the manuscript. A final, scholarly transcription was made by F. Barron Freeman in 1948. Freeman's verified version, however, revealed nothing startling in itself. What it did do was indicate the tremendous seriousness with which Melville took the labor of composing his final work, the conscious effort and energy which he expended on it almost up to the last hours of his life. Most important, it removed doubts concerning the finality with which Billy Budd could be read critically, for it established a text which we can be reasonably certain represents Melville's final and deliberate intention.
This is important because so much that has been written about this short novel has been tentative and uncertain. In brief, the criticism of Billy Budd has represented...
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SOURCE: “Expediency and Absolute Morality in Billy Budd,” in PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 68, No. 1, March, 1953, pp. 103–10.
[In the following essay, Glick asserts that Billy Budd “is the cogent fruition of a lifetime of observation and study of the eternal conflict between absolute morality and social expediency; and the digression on Nelson, though it intrudes upon the plot, is central to an understanding of Melville's final resolution of this crucial problem.”]
“Resolve as one may to keep to the main road,” Melville wrote in Billy Budd, “some bypaths have an enticement not readily to be withstood. Beckoned by the genius of Nelson, knowingly, I am going to err in such a bypath.”1 With these words of caution to the reader who might object to the “literary sin” of digression, the author of Moby Dick launched into a spirited encomium upon the heroism of Lord Nelson, defending the Admiral against any “martial utilitarians” and “Benthamites of war” who might interpret his acts of “bravado” at Trafalgar which had resulted in his death to have been foolhardy and vain. For what reason, the question arises, did Melville feel that the eulogy on Nelson could justifiably be included in Billy Budd? What is the meaning of the attack upon Benthamites and utilitarians? This was no pot-boiler which...
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SOURCE: “The Hanging Scene in Melville's Billy Budd,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 70, No. 7, November, 1955, pp. 491–97.
[In the following essay, Giovannini provides an interpretation of the hanging scene in Billy Budd which emphasizes the dualism of the story and rejects the conventional view of the ending as nihilistic and pessimistic.]
In some recent scholarship on Billy Budd, and particularly in studies by [Joseph] Schiffman and [H. M.] Campbell, the irony in the hanging scene is urged against the generally held view that this last novel shows a changed and more or less orthodox Melville who has ceased to rebel.1 In Billy Budd we are to see the Melville of the earlier novels, still bitterly protesting against social and cosmic evil and making, according to Campbell, a compelling case in Billy's execution for a nihilistic belief in a doomed universe. Campbell construes the symbolic references to Christ's ascension and the Lamb of God in the hanging scene as a refinement of Melville's irony which brings into horrid relief the doom of even the Christ-like in a universe like ours: Billy ascends and arrives at the yard-end; but “The ‘arrival’ is considerably this side of heaven or heaven's gate,” and Campbell concludes that Billy experiences no salvation. When emptied of its religious and transcendental meaning the symbolism appears to carry out this...
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SOURCE: “The Hanging Scene in Melville's Billy Budd: A Reply to Mr. Giovannini,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 70, No. 7, November, 1955, pp. 497–500.
[In the following essay, Campbell responds to Giovannini's analysis, deeming his treatment of dualism as contradictory.]
Mr. Giovannini says that I fail to see the “basic dualism” in Billy Budd and therefore I oversimplify the philosophical implications in the story. But Mr. Giovannini's treatment of this so-called “dualism” is so contradictory that I am afraid that I still fail to see it. At the end of his essay, apparently attempting to hedge in his argument, he explains this “dualism” as a kind of balance between opposites: “The issue,” he says, “is not simply between pessimism and optimism, unbelief and orthodox belief, but a complex at a point beyond them—perhaps at that point defined by Ishmael (Moby Dick, Ch. 85): ‘Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eyes.’” This contradicts his statement at the beginning, which is supposed to be referring to this same “basic dualism”:
Here as elsewhere in his works Melville's symbolism is double-edged; for while the religious symbolism [in the hanging scene] sharply outlines the brutal...
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SOURCE: “Billy Budd: Two Concepts of Nature,” in American Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, November, 1957, pp. 249–62.
[In the following essay, Noone finds connections between Billy Budd and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's and Thomas Hobbes's version of the primitive man.]
Billy Budd, the last will and testament of Herman Melville, has long been a source of contention among his intellectual heirs. A simple story cloaking a complicated structure and spotted with apparent digressions, it inevitably stimulates the curiosity of the speculative intellect. In response to this stimulus a variety of interpretations ambiguously testifies to its richness, confusion, or both. This [essay], risking further confusion, proposes still another theory in the belief that within its framework other interpretations may find their justifications as elaborations of its several parts.
Perhaps the first impression a student receives upon reading Billy Budd, Foretopman is that it reflects something of that clash of ideas which gave such vitality to the 18th century. Without asserting an historical connection between specific works of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau on the one hand and Billy Budd on the other, it appears that Melville has drawn upon these systems insofar as they are symbolically represented in some vague “climate” or “stream” of...
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SOURCE: “Billy Budd,” in The Fine Hammered Steel of Herman Melville, University of Illinois Press, 1957, pp. 206–39.
[In the following essay, Stern explores the nature of sacrifice and the role of the hero in Billy Budd.]
Translated Cross, hast thou withdrawn, Dim paling too at every dawn, With symbols vain once counted wise, And gods declined to heraldries? .....The atheist cycles—must they be? Fomenters as forefathers we?
Morally, philosophically, emotionally, socially, Melville's search for the complete man is not the search for the knightly hero, but for the Governor. The Governor must repress man's anarchic atheism and must reorient man's frantic activities.
The quester is an atheist because he denies history and thereby rejects man's only possible God. The quietist is an atheist because he denies human commitments and thereby rejects possibility itself. The banded world is an atheist because it denies reality and thereby rejects the true nature of God and of man's potentialities. All these confidence men-atheists have one denial in common: they reject man. They deny man because they cannot recognize the importance of man-self and the subordinate position of one-self; they cannot recognize anything by means of the naturalistic perception wherein the importance of man's morality shrinks on a cosmic scale,...
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SOURCE: “Billy Budd: The Catastrophe of Innocence,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 73, No. 3, March, 1958, pp. 168–76.
[In the following essay, Miller considers the symbolism and significance of the character Billy Budd, focusing on the nature of his innocence.]
Billy Budd has the distinction of being Melville's final fiction, the last embodiment of his complex vision.1 In it Melville did not attempt to find new truth through an old form but discovered a new form for an old, familiar theme. The theme may be found explicitly formulated as early as 1850 in White Jacket. There, placed in one of the inconspicuous chapters is the narrator's comment, arising from his witnessing the paradoxical Christian prayer of a “murderous,” death-dealing man-of-war canoneer, that given the current social construction of the world, which seems so “ill-adapted to the practical adoption of the meekness of Christianity,” there is some basis for believing “that although our blessed Saviour was full of the wisdom of heaven, yet His gospel seems lacking in the practical wisdom of earth.” And there follows the vital qualification: “But all this only the more crowns the divine consistency of Jesus.”2
This minor note in White Jacket becomes the major theme of Pierre. Just as the meaning and consequences of this “truth” are dramatized in...
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SOURCE: “Billy Budd as Moby Dick: An Alternate Reading,” in Studies in Honor of John Wilcox, edited by A. Dayle Wallace and Woodburn O. Ross, Wayne State University Press, 1958, pp. 157–74.
[In the following essay, Wagner traces Melville's thematic development from Moby Dick to Billy Budd.]
It seems to me that in Billy Budd Melville continued to ask what he had asked in Moby Dick, Pierre, and The Confidence Man nearly forty years before: “What is it all about anyway, evil and good and all that?” He tempered the view by eliminating the italics—thus giving the thoughtless the comforting suggestion that he had quieted down.1 But he enriched his picture of disharmonies in this story by pushing further into why's than ever before. Seventy years of living refined, subtilized, and deepened his speculation. The more than thirty years that followed the publication of his last prose work, three decades of silent fermentation relieved only by poetic bursts that seldom hit the mark, this long period of time did not end in any craven conclusion. I am sure Melville never forgot his ideal Bulkington in Moby Dick who saw glimpses of
… that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and...
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SOURCE: “Billy Budd: Testament of Resistance,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, June, 1959, pp. 115–27.
[In the following essay, Withim rejects the theory of Billy Budd as a testament of Melville's acceptance of evil, instead perceiving the story as an ironic narrative.]
When E. L. G. Watson wrote his famous article, “Melville's Testament of Acceptance,” he made no attempt to prove his view. All he attempted, all he achieved, was to suggest a way of looking at the story. “Melville,” said Watson, “is no longer a rebel.”1 He has come to accept the presence of evil, and he has ceased to blame God for its existence. Other critics began to write on Billy Budd in the same vein. Their positions varied somewhat, but the tenor, the direction of the viewpoint was always the same: Melville had mellowed, he was resigned, as Freeman says, to the recognition of necessity.2 In F. O. Matthiessen's words, “He has come to respect necessity. … Melville could now face incongruity; he could accept the existence of both good and evil. …”3 Or as Willard Thorp remarks, “In the end Melville called the truce.”4
There was, however, some dissent; both Alfred Kazin5 and Richard Chase6 indicated dissatisfaction with the “testament of acceptance” theory. In 1950 Joseph Schiffman, in an...
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SOURCE: “Billy Budd: The Nightmare of History,” in Criticism, Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer, 1961, pp. 237–50.
[In the following essay, Stein offers a stylistic analysis of Billy Budd, focusing on the role of history in the story.]
The question of Billy Budd is the question of historical authority and justice. Only in this view does the novel possess a unity of form, for then each digression from the central action mediates the moral significance of the hero's fate. The total structure thus can be reduced to a design of interacting perspectives, the logic of which determines the way Melville says what he has to say. But even though the artist is the ultimate architect of this house of fiction, he assigns its building to a first-person narrator. And since this surrogate re-creates the past in order to illuminate the present, he is, in the literal sense, an historian.
Melville's preface to the novel establishes this outlook. It proposes an examination of the consequences of the nineteenth-century belief in historical determinism:
The year 1797, the year of this narrative, belongs to a period which as every thinker now feels, involved a crisis for Christendom not exceeded in its undetermined momentousness at the time by any other era whereof there is record. The opening proposition made by the Spirit of that Age, involved the...
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SOURCE: “Billy Budd: The Plot against the Story,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall, 1964, pp. 32–43.
[In the following essay, Lemon investigates the discrepancy between the characterization of the hero in Billy Budd and the story's major themes.]
Billy Budd rubs against the grain, and it rubs intensely and persistently enough to be irritating. Our sympathies are all with the innocent Billy, and we are accustomed to having authors exploit our sympathies directly. Most typically, a pattern of meaning emerges from a narrative because our responses to the pattern of values embodied in the hero and his story are reinforced by the thematic implications of the setting, characterization, tone, symbolism, authorial intrusions, and so on. If there is an ironic discrepancy between hero and theme, we expect an author to let us know what it is.
In a relatively simple novel like For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan seems to embody Hemingway's ethic, and Jordan's world is conveniently built to make that ethic appear acceptable. If I may simplify somewhat, we know that Jordan is good because he is for Good Things and against Bad Things; and where the morality of the things is doubtful, we judge it by Jordan's response. Generally, we sympathize with Jordan because he is on the side of humanity; and because we sympathize, we judge the world as he judges...
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SOURCE: “The Problem of Billy Budd,” in PMLA, Vol. LXXX, No. 5, December, 1965, pp. 489–98.
[In the following essay, Rosenberry surveys the myriad of critical perspectives on Billy Budd.]
When a monumental new edition of Billy Budd appeared in 1962, it was the hope of the editors that their exhaustive scholarship might contribute to a definitive interpretation of the novel. Such a wish might seem unnecessarily restrictive, but the extreme critical divergence on Billy Budd has created a genuine threat to its artistic integrity as a result of its apparent failure to support a demonstrable reading. This essay is an attempt to end the war, or to make the end more predictable.
Let it be clear at the outset that I am not proposing to limit the range of parallel and compatible interpretations. Billy Budd is sufficiently complex to present the many-layered phenomenon which criticism rightly expects in a fine work of art. The kind of imaginative but disciplined discussion which has been generated by, say, “Rappaccini's Daughter” is constructive and I have no quarrel with it. The kind which will not do and which this study is expressly committed to combat is the kind that has plagued The Turn of the Screw: a factious dialog between two mutually exclusive points of view, one of which is more ingenious than the other but less soundly supported by the...
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SOURCE: “Billy Budd: Political Philosophies in a Sea of Thought,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1970, pp. 164–72.
[In the following essay, Kinnamon explores the various political ideas referred to in Billy Budd and assesses their impact on the story.]
The ideals embodied in the novel Billy Budd are much like the hidden currents of the sea; under the surface of the printed word the concealed meanings flow.
In exposing one current of thought that moves beneath the water's surface, this perception should not by implication negate the presence and the value of so many others. For amidst the pages of Billy Budd, the political thought and the other currents of thought bring forth a confluence that portrays the essence of life itself. Though this sea of thought is seemingly endless, this vastness need not compel us to deal in general terms, for if man does not perceive what particular currents move within the sea, then surely our ships will swiftly sail off the end of the earth.
The political ideals portrayed in Billy Budd serve to heighten the character development by disclosing additional motives for the behavior of the novel's characters. The persons depicted in Billy Budd are given an extra dimension in that much of their action and thought is shown not only to have a literal implication but a political one...
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SOURCE: “The Narrative Voice in Billy Budd,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 3, September, 1973, pp. 283–91.
[In the following essay, Merrill analyzes narrative technique in Billy Budd.]
The possible interpretations of Billy Budd have been argued and reargued for more than forty years.1 New readings must justify themselves by helping to resolve the critical problem which has so divided the critics: how should we interpret the actions of Billy Budd and Captain Vere? I hope to do this by elaborating Lawrance Thompson's insight concerning the narrative technique of Billy Budd: “Melville used the narrative manner as a device for controlling and illuminating his intended interpretation of the action.”2 This is probably the single feature of Billy Budd on which Thompson and I agree. The narrative manner does indeed “control” and “illuminate” our response to the novel's action.
I doubt that it invites us to view this action ironically, as Thompson has argued. Nor can I believe that we are supposed to see the narrator as a victim of Melville's satire (Thompson, p. 365). Among critics who have adopted the so-called ironist position on Billy Budd, Thompson is alone in questioning the reliability of the narrative voice. Since he does not show why we should believe that Melville used his narrator for...
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SOURCE: “Vere's Use of the ‘Forms’: Means and Ends in Billy Budd,” in American Literature, Vol. 47, No. 1, March, 1975, pp. 37–51.
[In the following essay, Sten evaluates the implications of Vere's decision to execute Billy in Billy Budd.]
Since the 1962 appearance of the Hayford-Sealts edition of Billy Budd, Sailor, there has been no break in the critical inquest, initiated by Joseph Schiffman's ironist reading in 1950, into Melville's view of Vere's decision to execute Billy.1 Edward H. Rosenberry and Paul Brodtkorb, Jr., each attempted to settle the dispute in the mid-1960's, but the more recent conflicting assessments by Bernard Rosenthal and B. L. Reid seem to imply that the two traditions in Billy Budd criticism will live as long as Melville's most controversial novel continues to be read.2 The very difficulty of resolving the controversy may, however, indicate that Melville intended neither to endorse nor to condemn Vere's judgment. Indeed, Hayford and Sealts have concluded that the effect of Melville's “noncommittal ‘alienation,’” achieved by his late dramatizations of what earlier had stood as partisan statements, was “often—perhaps usually—deliberately sought.”3 Still, perhaps some progress in this celebrated case can be made, first by arguing for the necessity of Vere's decision and then...
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SOURCE: “Billy Budd: A Psychological Autopsy,” in American Imago, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp. 28–49.
[In the following essay, Floyd offers a psychological interpretation of Billy Budd.]
“I see your drift. Ay, there is a mystery … a ‘mystery of iniquity,’ a matter for psychologic theologians to discuss.”
—Captain Vere in Billy Budd, Sailor Herman Melville
“Keep still! … you must keep quite still now, or your screaming will frighten the horses even more, and the coachman will not be able to hold them at all.”
—Emmy Von N. (speaking of the origin of her stammering) in “Studies in Hysteria” Sigmund Freud
With so much written about Billy Budd, so much subjected to analysis and interpretation, why should a psychologist come to meddle here in this, perhaps, the most poetic of Melville's work? Is it the attraction of an unfinished piece, still germinal and growing? Cut off from the author's labor by his own death, does it call out for a little critical midwifery? Abandoned in the formative stages, we might say, it seems to have been left as on a “good man's door in Bristol,”1 a literary foundling. Does it ask, as Billy himself does, to be fathered, reared, readied...
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SOURCE: “The Measured Forms of Captain Vere,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer, 1977, pp. 227–35.
[In the following essay, Reed examines the conflict between aesthetic and legal forms of order and expression in Billy Budd.]
The figure of Captain Vere in Melville's Billy Budd is a particularly enigmatic one, as generations of critical controversy testify. He proves to be a harsh, even savage disciplinarian but is presented as a man of considerable culture and civilization as well. In one of the last chapters of the story, after Billy's execution, the author reports something of Vere's social philosophy and reflections on the revolution in France; the author credits Vere with a curious application of the myth of Orpheus. “‘With mankind,’ he would say, ‘forms, measured forms, are everything; and that is the import couched in the story of Orpheus with his lyre spellbinding the wild denizens of the wood.’ And this he once applied to the disruption of forms going on across the Channel and the consequences thereof.”1 To the modern reader, this interpretation of the legend is apt to seem highly inappropriate, an irony on Melville's part directed at Captain Vere, showing the distortion of literary values by a military mind. How can Orpheus' “measured forms,” traditionally symbolizing the eloquence of the poet, be compared with the punitive measures of the...
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SOURCE: “‘Something Healing’: Fathers and Sons in Billy Budd,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 34, No. 3, December, 1979, pp. 326–36.
[In the following essay, Hays and Rust interpret Billy Budd as a reworking of Melville's relationship with his own sons.]
Every thoughtful reader of Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) feels to some degree or another the great power of the book which Richard Harter Fogle calls a “profound meditation upon a tragic theme of great magnitude.”1 Indeed, we are led to wonder about the motivation of Melville to write such a work out of the “quiet, grass-growing” years of his life, especially since he had devoted the last thirty years of his life to poetry. While considering Billy Budd a relative failure as a fictional character, Richard Chase asserts that Billy was highly meaningful to Melville: “Whether he was picturing his own son Malcolm … or speaking of his own youth or of Christ … the idea of Billy Budd appeared so overwhelmingly moving to the aged Melville that he was not able to express it in artistically cogent language.”2 Recognizing that Billy Budd is perhaps too innocent, too beautiful to be real, nevertheless, we with Melville are moved, and moved deeply. This power may well derive from the soul-baring experience of an old man who retrospectively analyzes his relationship with his oldest son...
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SOURCE: “Final Flowering,” in Herman Melville, Twayne Publishers, 1979, pp. 141–44.
[In the following excerpt, Hillway discusses Melville's philosophical, religious, and scientific views and their impact on Billy Budd.]
Billy Budd comes close to being Melville's “Everlasting Yea,” though the affirmation is oblique, not positive. In Mardi Melville considered and rejected various creeds, philosophies, and political and social theories in the search for truth; although he offered primitive Christianity as a social ideal and safe refuge for those willing to forego the quest of the absolute. Moby-Dick, while Promethean in certain respects, makes plain the folly of a stubborn defiance of man's fate. Pierre defines man's helplessness in the search for the meaning of true virtue and his inability to understand fully even himself. In Clarel the arguments for blind faith are tediously reviewed and one by one rejected, but the impression is conveyed that even in a state of weakness and ignorance there may be some hope. In Billy Budd the basis for idealism and hope is made more explicit.
Like Moby-Dick, Billy Budd can be read as merely an intensely interesting episode of maritime history. Its hero is not a cold abstraction or a personification but a living person, and his awkward speech impediment which occurs during moments of...
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SOURCE: “A New Look at Melville's Claggart,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 4, Fall, 1980, pp. 445–53.
[In the following essay, Matheson disputes the conventional view of John Claggart as a conniving, evil character.]
It is surprising to find so little critical disagreement over the role played in Billy Budd, Sailor by John Claggart, the master-at-arms having been depicted almost without exception as an evil, Satanic figure who entraps Billy in a diabolical lie of his own creation in order to destroy him. Most critics agree with Nathalia Wright's observation that Claggart “has a seaman offer Billy two guineas to join a proposed mutiny group”1 as the initial step in his plot to bring the Handsome Sailor down. It is further assumed Claggart uses “all the deceits, strategems, and temptations he can to destroy Billy,”2 and “bears false witness”3 in the scene when he confronts Vere with supposed proof of Billy's complicity in a contemplated mutiny.
But when the pertinent scenes are examined closely, no evidence can be found proving indisputably that the above interpretation was the one Melville had intended. At no point can the reader justifiably conclude that Claggart has engineered the entire spectacle; indeed, the scenes in question are full of ambiguities. So little in the way of factual information is provided us that...
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SOURCE: “Captain Vere and Upper-Class Mores in Billy Budd,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 1, 1982, pp. 9–18.
[In the following essay, Durer considers the effect of societal mores on Billy Budd, contending that the character of Captain Vere acts as the “mouthpiece” for upper-class society.]
Insufficient attention has been devoted, in my view, to the role of different societies and social settings in Billy Budd,1 as shapers of individual psychologies and determining forces limiting man's outlook and aspirations. When one considers psychological imprisonment to which at least one character in Billy Budd falls victim (and a variety of characters in Melville's other works), one begins to see social settings and groups in Melville's works in their true light, as imprisoning or restraining forces emasculating individuals of whom at first sight we expect nobler deeds. This is precisely what happens in Melville's final work.
The purpose of this [essay] is to show that tragedy in Billy Budd, the hanging of Billy, a man patently innocent of the capital charge levelled against him, but rash and “natural” in his fatal response to his accuser, is due to the pressures which upper-class civilization exerts upon the true judge of the case, Captain Vere. Vere is a prisoner of high societal values, and his verdict on Billy is not so...
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SOURCE: “‘Too Good to Be True’: Subverting Christian Hope in Billy Budd,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3, September, 1982, pp. 323–53.
[In the following essay, Evans places Billy Budd within the context of Melville's own spiritual crisis, as well as nineteenth-century religious beliefs.]
When Herman Melville's large collection of theological books was sold for scrap paper following his death, a fruitful source of research was lost to future generations of scholars.1 Yet even without these books, the evidence of his own works clearly shows that Melville was familiar with the advanced theological thought of his day and that he largely accepted its skeptical, freethinking conclusions. Thus in The Confidence-Man (1857), when the cosmopolitan refers to the Bible as “the very best of good news,” a voice calls out from the darkness of the gentleman's cabin, “Too good to be true.”2 Later the cosmopolitan deftly undermines the distinction between divinely inspired Scripture and the so-called Apocrypha, and the same voice cries out, “What's that about the Apocalypse?”
The first quotation indicates Melville's skepticism about the Bible's truth-claims; the second alludes to the belief, widespread in Melville's day, that the discreditation of the Bible's divine authority was apocalyptic for...
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SOURCE: “The Cross of Consciousness: Billy Budd,” in Melville's Major Fiction: Politics, Theology, and Imagination, Northern Illinois University Press, 1983, pp. 221–48.
[In the following essay, Duban locates Billy Budd within the liberal political tradition.]
Though not as preoccupied as The Confidence-Man with moral certainty, Billy Budd still shows that an “undemonstrative distrustfulness” is essential for survival: “[U]nless upon occasion [a person] exercise a distrust keen in proportion to the fairness of the appearance, some foul turn may be served him” (BB, 87). Billy, however, initially has neither a direct apprehension of evil nor any inclination to heed moral evidence of its existence. His is a simple-minded innocence, oblivious to what Melville elsewhere called “that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.”1 Whereas, however, The Confidence-Man addresses the epistemology and the theological consequences of evading evil, Billy Budd takes up the political ramifications of liberality. Billy, after all, begins his service aboard a ship named the Rights of Man, the Dundee owner of which is a “staunch admirer of Thomas Paine” and is said to resemble “Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, whose...
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SOURCE: “Billy Budd: Reclaimed by the Nineteenth Century,” in Essays in Arts and Sciences, Vol. 13, No. 9, 1984, pp. 43–59.
[In the following essay, Cheikin examines Billy Budd from a nineteenth-century perspective, taking into account the literary, cultural, and political circumstances of the time.]
A writer writes and a reader reads at a particular moment in history. With the best intentions to avoid the confines of the calendar, it is difficult to grasp concepts that are alien to our own era, that are dissonant with our own attitudes and ideas. This problem is even more crucial when the work at hand has been written in one century and published in the next. Billy Budd presents such a problem.
Herman Melville's classic tale, left in a “semi-final draft”1 in the year of his death, 1891, was not published until 1924. While the work has stirred much interest and extensive commentary, its admirers have been trapped by history; twentieth-century readers have different interests and different assumptions from those which prevailed in 1891. The unusual time span of about thirty five years from creation to publication may account for the widely divergent interpretations Billy Budd has generated since it took its place in the American literary canon. How are we to interpret Melville's attitude toward Captain Vere? Did Melville mean the reader to...
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SOURCE: “An Allegory of America in Melville's Billy Budd,” in Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 172–81.
[In the following essay, Davis suggests that the character of Billy Budd can be interpreted as a representation of early America.]
Understanding Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor depends, in part, on the recognition of Billy as an image of Adam, of Christ, and of several classical gods and heroes, a recognition urged by more or less explicit references in the text. The narrator also likens Billy to various animals, birds, and flowers, and all of these associations are mutually compatible, if not complementary. A similarly complementary interpretation of Billy as representing early America is not as obvious, but is, nevertheless, indicated by the narrator's portrayal of the young hero. As such, it functions neither as a key to the puzzling novel nor as the foundation for an interpretation, but rather as an indication of the broader significance of the themes developed by the novel. Thus, we are led immediately to those themes and to a comprehensive interpretation of the work, but not, I would argue, to the most frequent critical question of whether Melville believed that Captain Vere's decision was correct.
Billy's most striking qualities are his youth, innocence, and inexperience, all of which serve him well and help to establish...
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SOURCE: “Billy Budd: A Reconsideration,” in Ball State University Forum, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 30–41.
[In the following essay, Garrison debates the reliability of the narrator in Billy Budd, maintaining that the story is about “the art of perception.”]
“Peace, peace, thou ass of a commentator,” Melville wrote (133). His commentators, however, have not been quiet. Billy Budd continues to exert its magnetic power; and criticism, of course, continues to appear. Recently, Professor Robert Merrill has said that new interpretations “must justify themselves by helping to resolve the critical problem which has so divided the critics: how should we interpret the actions of Billy Budd and Captain Vere?” (283). His resolution rejects the question about the reliability of the narrative voice and finds the narrator “clearly sympathetic” with Vere. He concludes that “Vere is to be seen as a noble figure whose decision, however painful, is the unpleasant duty of one who sees into the tragic heart of life” (291). I submit that Professor Merrill has addressed himself to the wrong critical problem and that the problem he rejects is precisely the one upon which we should concentrate our attention: Is the narrator reliable; and, if not, what is the significance of his perception of things? I will argue that Billy Budd is, first and foremost, a story about the...
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SOURCE: “Keeping True: Billy Budd, Sailor,” in Melville's Later Novels, The University of Georgia Press, 1986, pp. 365–99.
[In the following essay, Dillingham analyzes the characters of Billy, Claggart, and Vere as they reflect the novella's emphasis on the need for individual integrity.]
A curious but little-noticed fact from Melville's last years furnishes a valuable clue to the theme of Billy Budd, Sailor. His granddaughter Eleanor remembered that he composed his final work on “an inclined plane that for lack of more accurate designation one must call ‘desk’; for though it had a pebbled green-paper surface, it had no cavity for inkwell, no groove for pen and pencil, no drawer for papers, like the little portable desks that were cherished as heirlooms in the late nineteenth century.” It was “open underneath” and rested upon a “paper-piled table” in Melville's room at Twenty-Sixth Street in New York. On one of the inside walls of the inclined plane, he pasted a maxim: “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.”1 Most biographers and critics overlook or ignore this detail probably because of its seeming triviality. But Melville was not the kind of person given to pasting wise sayings about his house; so the discovery of this piece of paper attached to his writing desk should have stimulated far more discussion than it has.2 The maxim—placed for...
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SOURCE: “The Dynamics of the Canonization of Billy Budd, Foretopman,” in Reading Billy Budd, Northwestern University Press, 1990, pp. 53–71.
[In the following essay, Parker chronicles the commercial and critical popularity of Billy Budd after its publication in the early twentieth century.]
Many academic theorists are now fervently promulgating a relativistic approach in which the canon of American literature is seen as the product of political, racial, and sexual (far more than aesthetic) forces and in which the idea of enduring aesthetic value is seen as an illusion fostered by (old, male, Caucasian) power-holding ideologues. Among the most forceful and plausible of these is Barbara Herrnstein Smith, the author of the provocative lead article, “Contingencies of Value,” in the special issue of Critical Inquiry on canons (September 1983), an essay incorporated into her 1988 book of the same title. Some feminist theorists go so far as to say that for a given period—such as the biblical seven years—no one should teach a work by a man in any American literature course. Such ideologues grant Herman Melville no immunity from decanonization, even though he has already suffered an exclusion that lasted nearly a century. Remembering that white men have been silenced and ignored (as women of any race and as men of non-white races have been), all Melvilleans are keenly aware of...
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SOURCE: “The Protagonists' Rainbow in Billy Budd: Critical Trimming of Truth's Ragged Edges,” in ATQ: American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 2, June, 1993, pp. 97–113.
[In the following essay, Yoder determines the ultimate meaning of Billy Budd by surveying critical studies of the novella.]
In this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of telling the truth—even though it be covertly and by snatches.
(Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses”)
When Captain Vere's decision to execute Billy Budd generates debate among the sailors on board the Bellipotent about their leader's possible loss of his sanity, Melville's narrator cautions readers to resist the impulse to attach clarifying labels—sane or insane—to complex phenomena:
Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other?
Later he contends that simple lines of demarcation are not possible when dealing realistically with human beings:...
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SOURCE: “The Fate of a Story,” in American Scholar, Vol. 62, Autumn, 1993, pp. 591–600.
[In the following essay, Shaw questions recent interpretations of John Claggart in Billy Budd, asserting that these analyses spring from the deletion of the story's preface in the 1962 edition.]
In the 1980s the academic interpretation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, a short novel that had inspired a certain amount of debate over the years, shifted almost entirely to the view that the story actually means the opposite of what it says. No scholarly discovery nor any new critical insight justified this remarkable turnabout. Instead, the dubious side in a debate triumphed by default as defenders of a commonsensical understanding all but disappeared from the scene. The reasons for this outcome had less to do with literary analysis than with culture and politics. For at issue among the critics was not so much Melville's story as its implications about the power of the state.
In Billy Budd, an ingenuous young sailor aboard a British man-of-war must be hanged when he strikes and kills an officer who has brought false witness against him. The contrary-to-commonsense reading holds that Billy Budd did not have to die. He was inadvisedly hurried to his death by the ship's captain, Edward Vere, whose psychological pathology is said to be the real if not ostensible focus of the...
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SOURCE: “Melville's Handsome Sailor: The Anxiety of Innocence,” in American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 1, March, 1994, pp. 83–103.
[In the following essay, Ruttenburg maintains that the character of Billy Budd exemplifies the ideal poet conceived by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.]
“I feel, with dejection and amazement,” Walt Whitman lamented in Democratic Vistas (1872), “that few or none have yet really spoken to [the American] people, created a single, image-making work for them [so that their] central spirit [remains] uncelebrated, unexpress'd.”1 He dismissed contemporary literature as the product of a merely “verbal intellect,” powerless to move those few who had retained an instinctive fidelity to the ideal of genuine American expression and who, in their isolation, remained “obedient, lowly, reverent to the voice, the gesture of the god, or holy ghost, which others see not, hear not” (DV, 395, 391). While the “class of supercilious infidels” refused to be silent, those who might testify to the authentically American remained utterly “voiceless” (DV, 395, 391, 388).
Because it belies his career-long celebration of inarticulateness as both the sign and guarantor of the national poet's purity, Whitman tempers his anxiety regarding the significance of America's continuing silence by praising “the noiseless operation...
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SOURCE: “Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Three Centuries,” in American Literature, Vol. 69, No. 2, June, 1997, pp. 337–59.
[In the following essay, Franklin traces the history of capital punishment and its importance to Melville's Billy Budd.]
Has any work of American literature generated more antithetical and mutually hostile interpretation than Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor? And all the battles about the moral and political vision at the heart of the tale swirl around one question: Are we supposed to admire or condemn Captain Vere for his decision to sentence Billy Budd to death by public hanging?1 Somehow, astonishingly enough, nobody seems to have noticed that central to the story is the subject of capital punishment and its history.
This is true even in the ten essays constituting the first number of Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, which was devoted to Billy Budd because—in the words of law professor Richard H. Weisberg—it is “the text that has come to ‘mean’ Law and Literature.”2 The closest encounter with the issue of capital punishment in these essays or elsewhere comes from Weisberg's antagonist, Judge Richard A. Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (and a self-styled “new critic”), who condemns those who “condemn Vere's conduct” as mere...
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SOURCE: “The Impressments of Billy Budd,” in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 39, No. 3, Autumn, 1998, pp. 361–84.
[In the following essay, Westover delineates the ways in which impressment functions as the governing trope of Billy Budd.]
Voltaire relates a tour of the Thames he made with an Englishman who bragged that “he would rather be a modest boatman on the Thames than an archbishop in France.” On the following day the famous writer was surprised to find the man “in heavy chains, bitterly complaining of the abominable government that took him by force from his wife and children to serve on the King's ship in Norway.” Voltaire records his sympathy for the man, but impishly adds: “A Frenchman, who was with me, admitted to me that he felt a malicious pleasure in seeing that the English, who reproached us so loudly for our servitude, were just as much slaves as we.”1 Instead of denying that the French “were slaves,” the Frenchman's remark asserts an equivalence of servitude in both England and France. According to this arch parable, English political liberty is a sham, for the impressed man is just as much a slave as any individual subjected to the whims of an absolute monarch.
As is well known, postrevolutionary France became the ideological locus of an often radical liberty and equality, while Georgian England reacted with a staunch conservatism....
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Boswell, Jeanetta. Herman Melville and the Critics: A Checklist of Criticism, 1900–1978. The Scarecrow Author Bibliographies, No. 53, Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1981, 247 p.
Offers extensive bibliographic references to critical works on Billy Budd, including essays on film, opera, and dramatic adaptations of the novel.
Higgins, Brian. Herman Melville: A Reference Guide, 1931–1960. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987, 531 p.
Offers numerous bibliographic references to critical works on Billy Budd.
Braswell, William. “Melville's Billy Budd as ‘An Inside Narrative.’” Melville's Billy Budd and the Critics, edited by William T. Stafford, pp. 91–103. Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1961.
Originally published in 1957, views Billy Budd as “an inside narrative about a tragic conflict in Melville's own spiritual life.”
Fisher, Marvin. Going Under: Melville's Short Fiction and the American 1850s. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977, 216 p.
Thematic study of Melville's short stories, viewing them as linked by a common interest in the American experience.
Forster, E. M. “Prophecy.” In Aspects of the Novel, pp. 125–48. New...
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