In Herman Melville's novel Billy Bud, Sailor, how does the following quotation fit into the work and what is the larger significance/relevance to that era of literature: "Then, making a salutation...

In Herman Melville's novel Billy Bud, Sailor, how does the following quotation fit into the work and what is the larger significance/relevance to that era of literature: "Then, making a salutation as to the ship herself, 'And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man'"?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Set among the British navy in the late 18th century, Herman Melville's Billy Budd is very political in nature. During this time period, between 1794 and 1797, the British navy was expanding in size because England and France were at war. More interestingly, the French Revolution was underway. In the passage in question--"Then, making a salutation as to the ship herself, 'And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man'"--even the name of the ship itself is very symbolic of the political climate.

In Chapter 1 of the story, the title character Billy Budd, the handsome sailor, has been forced to leave his merchant ship, the Rights-of-Man, and join the King's Navy on the Indomitable. In the passage in question, Billy's new shipmates are observing Billy wave his hat goodbye at his old shipmates and then salute the ship Rights-of-Man to say goodbye. The name of the ship literally symbolizes mankind's rights, and Billy has just literally left those rights behind by joining His Majesty's Royal Navy.

We see later on exactly what rights Billy and all the others in his majesty's service have given up when Captain Vere makes it clear Billy's execution is both unfortunate and inevitable. Knowing that Billy killed Claggart by accident and that Billy was falsely provoked, Captain Vere is forced to choose between his duty to the king and his moral compass. He knows his duty is to fulfill the king's law that any petty officer who kills a higher officer must be executed. Vere is so driven by duty to the king that he tells the members of the drumhead court to be sure to make their decision based on reason and not based on their hearts, not based on their affection for Billy and an understanding he is not truly guilty. More importantly, he says, "In receiving our commissions we in the most important regards ceased to be natural free-agents" (Ch. 21). Hence, Melville is implying that duty to the king eliminates any rights of man, any rights to be "free-agents" and be guided by moral compasses.

The idea of duty to the king vs. freedom was of course a central theme during the French Revolution. The French peasantry decided that the French monarchy was not protecting peoples' rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so they overthrew the king. In Billy Budd, Melville shows that duty to the king necessitates a denial of freedom.

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