(Short Story Criticism)

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.”

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Charles Robert Anderson (essay date 1940)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 death.1 Melville was in reminiscent mood.

Several facts in the record of these last years witness this nostalgia for his seafaring days. The first use that Melville made of the leisure afforded by his retirement was to collect some sea pieces he had been writing during the past ten years, add a few new ones, and issue them in 1888 as a slender poetic offering entitled John Marr and Other Sailors, in a privately printed edition of twenty-five copies. The prose introduction, setting forth the career and old age of the fictitious sailor, seems but thinly disguised autobiography. John Marr, says Melville, retired from the sea about the year 1838 and went to live on what was then a “frontier-prairie.” After a while his wife and child died, leaving him a lonely old man and an alien in this landlocked place. No one liked to listen to his garrulous reminiscences of old shipmates: “As the growing sense of his environment threw him more and more upon retrospective musings, these phantoms, next to those of his wife and child, became spiritual companions, … lit by that aureola circling over any object of the affections in the past, for reunion with which an imaginative heart passionately yearns.”2 He then invokes them in the verses that follow.

That “John Marr” was the fictional counterpart of the author is further witnessed by the fact that some of the reminiscences are directly traceable to Melville's experiences on board the frigate United States in 1843–1844. Though most of the shipmates recalled bear obviously fictitious names—“Jewsharp Jim,” “Jack Genteel,” and “Rigadoon Joe”—there is a eulogistic sketch of Thomas ap Catesby Jones, who was the commodore of the Pacific squadron during Melville's cruise,3 and in his description of “Captain Turret”

Kentuckian colossal, who, touching at Madeira,
The huge puncheon shipped o' prime Santa-Clara

there is an unmistakable reference to Captain James Armstrong, the commander of the frigate United States in 1843–1844, who was actually “a stalwart Kentuckian, about six feet tall and large in proportion,” and a heavy drinker, even as he had been pictured previously in White-Jacket under the sobriquet of “Captain Claret.”4 Finally, one of the most detailed of John Marr's reminiscences—the account of the boatswain's mate, a Finn, who got drunk ashore, defied the deck lieutenant on his return to the ship, and though spared corporal punishment was put in the brig—seems to have been drawn directly from an episode of naval discipline that occurred on board the frigate United States the very day of Melville's enlistment; for at Honolulu, August 18, 1843, the logbook records, after floggings of several ordinary seamen for drunkenness: “Suspended Boatswain [William Hoff] from duty for disrespectful conduct to the Officer of the Deck—by replying … that he would receive no more orders in this ship, or words to that effect.”5

Thus there can be no doubt that at the time Melville published John Marr in 1888 he was exercising the privilege of old age, indulging in fond memories of his own seafaring years of nearly half a century before. And before this year was out, on November 16, 1888, he began the composition of Billy Budd, which he dedicated to “Jack Chase / Englishman / wherever that great heart may now be / here on earth or harboured in paradise / captain of the main-top / in the year 1843 / in the U. S. frigate / ‘United States’”—and John J. Chase had actually been his shipmate as well as the hero of White-Jacket.6 Perhaps the memory of Chase prompted Melville to give his story a setting in British naval history.

The scene is laid in the momentous year of 1797, made memorable by the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in April and May, which had come near crippling the British fleet at the very outset of the Napoleonic Wars. Some of the much needed reforms had been accomplished by the Great Mutiny, according to Melville, but among the abuses that remained was the traditionally sanctioned practice of impressment. With discontent still lurking and the officers apprehensive, H. M. S. Indomitable set sail to join the Mediterranean fleet in the summer of 1797. Lacking her full complement of men, she stopped a homeward-bound English merchantman, the Rights-of-Man, and impressed for services as a foretopman Billy Budd, a handsome young sailor of twenty-one. After junction with the fleet had been effected, the Indomitable was dispatched on scouting duty, not only because of her superior sailing qualities but because of the reputation as a prompt disciplinarian of her commander, Edward Fairfax Vere. During one of these expeditions, at her furthest remove from the Mediterranean station, word reached the captain of discontent among the impressed seamen and of an incipient mutiny led by Billy Budd. A drumhead court was called forthwith. The extraordinary character of the accused and of his offense urged delay and even clemency, but the insecurity of discipline since the Great Mutiny demanded the immediate application of the severest punishment. Consequently, the next morning at sunrise Billy Budd was hanged from the yardarm. Returning to join the fleet, the Indomitable fell in with the French line-of-battle ship, l'Athéiste, not very far distant from Gibraltar. After a desperate engagement, in which Captain Vere was killed, the enemy ship was captured.

What can be said of the accuracy of Melville's historical frame? There was no ship in the Royal Navy at this period named the Indomitable.7 But that the novelist was merely casting about for a typical rather than an actual name is indicated by a variant frequently appearing in the manuscript;8 hence, when he finally made his choice, he may have had in mind the Irresistible, the Invincible, or the Indefatigable—all British ships of war in active service in 1797. Two circumstances seem to point to the last named as the original of Melville's Indomitable. For early in 1797, just about the time of Billy Budd's impressment from the Rights-of-Man, the Indefatigable had fallen in with a ship named les Droits de l'Homme (though it was a French rather than an English vessel).9 Again, in October, 1797, a date that coincides with that assigned by Melville to the engagement between Billy Budd's ship and the French ship l'Athéiste, this same Indefatigable fought and captured a French ship (though it was the Ranger and not l'Athéiste) off Tenerife in the Canary Islands—not very far distant, in nautical measure, from Gibraltar.10 Thus accurately was the Indomitable drawn from history.

Likewise, none of the names that Melville gives to his officers appear in the lists of the period, but a model may be suggested for one of them, Captain Edward Fairfax Vere. Since he plays a leading role as Billy Budd's commander and executioner, not only is he fully described but his naval career is detailed. According to Melville, he had seen considerable service, had been in various engagements, and had distinguished himself as a good officer, strict disciplinarian, and intrepid fighter. More specifically: “For his gallantry in the West Indian waters [during the American Revolution] as flag-lieutenant under Rodney in that admiral's crowning victory over De Grasse, he was made a post-captain.”11 The accuracy with which these facts fit the naval career of Sir William George Fairfax seems to be something more than mere coincidence. A contemporary biographical sketch not only assigns the same general traits of character to Fairfax that Melville assigns to Vere, but particularizes a strikingly similar career during the American Revolution. As a lieutenant in command of the cutter Alert, Fairfax captured the French lugger Coureur in 1778, and was promoted to the rank of post captain, frigate Tartar, January 12, 1782, remaining on the West Indian station till the close of the war: “The complete Defeat given to the French Fleet under the Orders of the Count de Grasse by that of Britain commanded by Lord Rodney, an Action that will ever remain classed among the great and memorable Events in the History of the World, having completely paralysed every attempt, and even hope, of successful Enterprise on the part of the Enemy, no opportunity whatever was afforded to Captain Fairfax, while thus employed, of adding more material and substantial honours to those which he had before so honestly and justly acquired.”12 Thus Sir William George Fairfax seems clearly to have been the original of Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, the fictitious surname having probably been added for the sake of the epithet “Starry Vere,” which Melville admits was taken from a poem by Andrew Marvell.13

Even as Billy Budd's frigate and commander were drawn from history, so was the setting for the mutiny itself. It is historically true that even the rigorous manner in which the Great Mutiny had been put down in April and May, 1797, had not entirely cured the disaffection in the Royal Navy, for the evil of impressment, one of the principal complaints, had not been remedied.14 Consequently, several small mutinies did break out in the Mediterranean fleet in the summer of 1797, in July and again in September, which were promptly put down by the officers, who were apprehensive of a repetition of the Nore and Spithead calamities.15 And one of the most serious of these, resulting in the execution of three ringleaders, had occurred in the squadron off Cádiz, the locale of Melville's story.16 Unfortunately, the records of these abortive outbreaks are too meager to afford any check on the details of Billy Budd.

One historical clue remains to be investigated. At the conclusion of his story Melville makes reference to what purports to be a contemporary account of the actual mutiny in which his hero was implicated: “Some few weeks after the execution, among other matters under the head of News from the Mediterranean, there appeared in a naval chronicle of the time, an authorised weekly publication, an account of the affair.”17 A garbled version of Billy Budd's execution follows, solemnly inclosed in quotation marks. An extensive search for the authority here cited has proved unavailing. There was, in fact, an authorized periodical entitled The Naval Chronicle published from 1799 to 1818, though it was a monthly rather than a weekly; but it carried no section headed “News from the Mediterranean,” and its twenty volumes shed no further light on the problem of the reality of the events in Billy Budd.18 That this was merely a literary device used by Melville to give an air of authenticity to his tale is indicated by a note in the manuscript at the bottom of the page: “Here ends a story not unwarranted by what happens in this incongruous world of ours.”19

The modern student should not be surprised at finding Melville's citations of authorities misleading. But, knowing the author's penchant for working from sources, he re-examines the text for less obvious clues. Melville habitually took his setting from one source and the substance of his narrative from another. The framework of Billy Budd has been shown to fit reasonably well into British naval history. But what of the story itself? For Billy Budd is not merely the account of a threatened mutiny; it is a psychological analysis of characters in which outward event serves the simple purpose of machinery. Claggart, the villain of the piece, is depicted at great length as an innately evil man; whereas the hero, Billy Budd, is sketched in diametrically opposite character as the archetype of “innocent.” His very presence on board the ship aroused a spontaneous antipathy in Claggart, so that his sadistic nature could not rest until it played the serpent to this young Adam. As master-at-arms, in charge of the ship's discipline, it was an easy matter for him to lay a trap for the guileless Billy and have him brought up for trial as the leader in a mutinous conspiracy. The final upshot of this villainy was that the Handsome Sailor, though entirely innocent of the mutiny charged against him, suffered an ignominious death by hanging from the yardarm. No materials for such a story can be found in any of the voluminous records of the Great Mutiny of 1797.20 Yet some actual event must have suggested this theme of the tragic clash of inimical characters, for Melville declares solemnly that Billy Budd is “no romance,” that it is “a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact.”21

A casual reference in the text itself points to his possible source of inspiration. In deciding the fate of the young foretopman, the drumhead court was instructed by Captain Vere that the exigencies of naval discipline must take precedence over all humanitarian considerations. Discussing their dilemma under these harrowing circumstances, Melville remarks:

Not unlikely they were brought to something more or less akin to that harassed frame of mind which in the year 1842 actuated the commander of the U. S. brig-of-war Somers to resolve, under the so-called Articles of War, Articles modelled upon the English Mutiny Act, to resolve upon the execution at sea of a midshipman and two petty officers as mutineers designing the seizure of the brig. … History, and here cited without comment. True, the circumstances on board the Somers were different from those on board the Indomitable. But the urgency felt, well warranted or otherwise, was much the same.22

What did Melville know of this “mutiny” on the Somers, and how much akin were the real and the fictitious stories?

News of this sensational affair had reached the Pacific Squadron a few months before Melville's enlistment in the United States Navy. Gunner W. H. Meyers of the Cyane recorded in his journal at Matzatlán, Mexico, March 13, 1843: “Read Bennett's Herald with an account of the ‘murder’ of Midshipman Spence[r] and 2 men belonging to the Brig of War Somers with an account of the insanity of the Captain.”23 This news Melville certainly heard as soon as he stepped on board the frigate United States at Honolulu in August of that year, for such a story would form the staple of ship's gossip for many a month. And from Meyers's words the nature of that gossip can be conjectured: the hanging of Spencer for a mutiny of which he was innocent was equivalent to his “murder,” and the commander who brought it about was “insane”—so preposterous seemed the affair to a gunner in Melville's squadron.

Upon his return to America in the fall of 1844, Melville heard the full details of Spencer's execution, for it had caused a national scandal, and the public prints were full of it. The facts in brief were as follows. The United States brig Somers, Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, was returning from a transatlantic cruise in November, 1842, when Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort approached the commander and informed him that a conspiracy existed on board to capture the ship, murder the officers, and convert her into a pirate, and that Midshipman Philip Spencer, a lad of eighteen, was at the head of it. Spencer and two of his fellow seamen were put in irons, and a drumhead court was summoned. For all their investigations the officers could find nothing but circumstantial...

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Ray B. West, Jr. (essay date 1952)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3930 words.)

Wendell Glick (essay date 1953)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3649 words.)

G. Giovannini (essay date 1955)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2863 words.)

Harry Modean Campbell (essay date 1955)

(Short Story Criticism)

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”...

(The entire section is 1419 words.)

John B. Noone, Jr. (essay date 1957)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 5606 words.)

Milton R. Stern (essay date 1957)

(Short Story Criticism)

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?

—[Melville,] Clarel

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...

(The entire section is 17069 words.)

James E. Miller, Jr. (essay date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3761 words.)

Vern Wagner (essay date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6630 words.)

Phil Withim (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 6580 words.)

William Bysshe Stein (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5885 words.)

Lee T. Lemon (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4890 words.)

Edward H. Rosenberry (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7982 words.)

Jon M. Kinnamon (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2967 words.)

Robert Merrill (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3492 words.)

Christopher W. Sten (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5802 words.)

Nathaniel M. Floyd (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.”


(The entire section is 7609 words.)

Walter L. Reed (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4518 words.)

Peter L. Hays and Richard Dilworth Rust (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 4190 words.)

Tyrus Hillway (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1540 words.)

Terence J. Matheson (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4693 words.)

Christopher S. Durer (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5209 words.)

Lyon Evans, Jr. (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10928 words.)

James Duban (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11881 words.)

Miriam Quen Cheikin (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6576 words.)

R. Evan Davis (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5071 words.)

Joseph M. Garrison, Jr. (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5827 words.)

William B. Dillingham (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 13877 words.)

Hershel Parker (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7188 words.)

Jonathan A. Yoder (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7337 words.)

Peter Shaw (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7307 words.)

Nancy Ruttenburg (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8518 words.)

H. Bruce Franklin (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 8600 words.)

Jeff Westover (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8278 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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....

(The entire section is 640 words.)