There are various arguments one might make if one were trying to persuade a friend to read Herman Melville’s novel Billy Budd. Among such arguments are the following:
- The novel is Melville’s last major work and thus is the fruit of a lifetime of serious thought about life and whatever meanings life may possess.
- The novel is relatively brief and is thus relatively easy to read quickly.
- The novel is full of intriguing events, characters, and situations. These include a war-time setting, an accidental murder, an evil officer, an innocent victim, and a morally tortured commanding officer.
- The novel raises fascinating and very difficult moral questions. The most important of these is whether Billy should be executed for accidentally and impulsively killing a man who had been dangerously plotting against him.
- The novel raises fascinating interpretive problems, especially the problem of how one should respond to Captain Vere. In many ways, the novel is a complicated work of detective fiction, in which the reader is challenged to determine the truth (if any) of the puzzles presented.
- The novel is widely (and justly) considered one of the classics of American literature. Any intelligent, literate person should want to be familiar with this book.
- The novel has been a major influence on later works, including plays, films, and operas.
- The novel is an excellent “point of entry” for a wider, deeper familiarity with Melville’s other writings, especially Moby-Dick, which many readers consider the Great American Novel.
- The novel deals with important themes, especially the theme of trying to decide what is right and what is wrong when circumstances are especially complicated.
- The novel is full of vivid character portraits, especially when depicting Billy, Claggart, and Vere.
- Finally, but also most importantly, the novel is splendidly written. Practically every paragraph repays close attention. Billy Budd shows Melville as a novelist at the height of his powers – an artist in sure command of his medium. Consider, for example, the memorable description of the moment when Billy is hanged from the mast of a gigantic warship:
The hull deliberately recovering from the periodic roll to leeward was just regaining an even keel, when the last signal, a preconcerted dumb one, was given. At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East, was shot thro' with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.