Charles Robert Anderson (essay date 1940)

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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 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...

(This entire section contains 7065 words.)

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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 frigateUnited 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 evidence, beyond that reported by the lieutenant. Two of the prisoners protested their innocence; Spencer acknowledged all of the charges immediately, but declared the whole affair was a joke, and so to the impartial observer today it obviously was—an innocent though indiscreet boyish prank. The commander, however, fearful of a general disaffection among the crew, instructed the court to find them guilty. As a result, they were hanged from the yardarm. A naval court of inquiry, ashore, justified the action.

The American public, on the other hand, was divided in opinion, some defending Captain Mackenzie, some attacking him. But one feature is common to all the contemporary accounts of the affair: without exception their discussions turned on the analyses of the characters of the accused and the accuser. The most notable of these, and one that Melville surely saw, was a brochure of a hundred pages by Fenimore Cooper, excoriating the commander for his unmanly conduct and vigorously asserting the innocence of the mid-shipman. Besides his general estimate of the leading characters, there are a number of points in his argument that Melville might have taken note of. Young Spencer, averred Cooper, “all admit was a great favorite of the crew,”24 even as Billy Budd was the idol of his shipmates. Yet the commander's attitude toward him was, without foundation, one of “prejudice which met the young officer, almost as soon as he crossed the gangway of the brig to join her, and which followed him till he crossed it again with the fatal whip around his neck”25—an attitude paralleled by the antipathy conceived against Billy Budd from the outset, not by his commander but by the master-at-arms, Claggart. Finally, even this transfer of the role of villain from the captain to the informer and accuser may have been suggested to Melville by Cooper; for the latter, after examining all the evidence against Spencer, dismisses it as inconclusive since it all came from one man, adding: “upon the head of this officious lieutenant, in common with that of the commander, the blood of the executed rests.”26

Thereby hangs a tale, though its full significance can only be conjectured. For the lieutenant whom Cooper calls “officious” and whose character, merged with that of Commander Mackenzie's, would thus seem to be the original of the villain Claggart, was no less a person than Guert Gansevoort, Herman Melville's first cousin. It has recently been pointed out that this intimate kinsman probably implanted in Melville his first desire to see the watery part of the world.27 Now it would seem that the part he played in a sea-tragedy in 1842 furnished the germ of his author-cousin's last novel. That Melville was thinking of Lieutenant Gansevoort during the year he began writing Billy Budd is evidenced by two references to him in the volume of poems he published in 1888, John Marr and Other Sailors. One is merely a reference to his heroism in the Mexican War.28 The second is much more significant, though here he is disguised under the sobriquet of “Tom Tight”:

Tom was lieutenant in the brig-o'-war famed
When an officer was hung for an arch-mutineer,
But a mystery cleaved, and the captain was blamed,
And a rumpus too raised, though his honour it was clear.
And Tom he would say, when the mousers would try him,
And with cup after cup o' Burgundy ply him:
“Gentlemen, in vain with your wassail you beset,
For the more I tipple, the tighter do I get,”
No blabber, no, not even with the can—
True to himself and loyal to his clan.(29)

Apparently, there was an inside story of the Somers mutiny that explained much, and cousin Guert Gansevoort knew all about it. Though he was tight-lipped toward the inquisitive, he may have told Melville enough about the character of Commander Mackenzie to furnish a living model for the sadistic Claggart. But this, unfortunately, has only the validity of reasonable inference.

With such a good story at his disposal, why did Melville wait nearly half a century before putting it to literary use? Quite naturally, the very connection of his cousin with the affair would have been sufficient to make him forego even such tempting material during his lifetime; and at the time of Gansevoort's death in 1868,30 Melville had given up authorship. When in his old age he returned to the pen, however, there was no such need for reticence. And as he cast about among his naval reminiscences of forty-five years before, there were reasons why Spencer's execution in 1842 came first to his mind. For after long years of decent burial, this old story was revived in June, 1888, by a popular article in the American Magazine entitled “The Mutiny on the Somers.”31 In less than six months—on November 16, 1888—Melville had begun the composition of Billy Budd.32

Certain specific details in this article evidently caught Melville's eye, for they are echoed in his fiction: “Without creating suspicion or in any way changing in his demeanor towards Spencer, the first lieutenant narrowly watched every movement he made”—conduct paralleled by Claggart's snooping on Billy Budd.33 And again:

On Saturday, November 26, Lieutenant Gansevoort, executive officer of the “Somers,” stepped into the cabin and informed Captain Mackenzie that a conspiracy existed on board, … with Midshipman Spencer as chief of the pirate band. Mackenzie was disposed at first to treat the subject lightly. … He tried to impress upon his executive the terrible nature of the alleged crime, which might involve the question of life or death. But Gansevoort replied calmly that he fully realized the importance attached to every word he uttered, and at once laid before his superior some astounding information.34

This scene, especially in the matter of the attitudes of the commander and the informer, is distinctly reminiscent of the interview in which Claggart, the master-at-arms, first approached Captain Vere with his charges against Billy Budd.35 Further, the officers assembled for the trial on board the Somers consisted of the first lieutenant, the surgeon, the sailing master, and the purser; whereas the drumhead court in Billy Budd included exactly the same officers, except that the captain of marines was substituted for the purser.36 Finally, according to the author of this popular article, Spencer at the time of his execution “begged Mackenzie's forgiveness”; similarly, Billy Budd went to his death with a prayer on his lips, “God bless Captain Vere!”37

In general attitude, however, this article was entirely sympathetic with the captain, justifying his conduct and praising him for his prompt discipline: “Commander Mackenzie was not a man to flinch in the hour of danger or emergency. He had carefully studied the situation, and he adopted what appeared to him the best and most politic course, … the safety of the vessel requiring … immediate execution.” The writer was determined to redeem a character blackened half a century before when “Fenimore Cooper, with his fertile brain and biting sarcasm, wrote a scathing article and review of the case, handling Mackenzie in an exasperating manner.”38 And so Melville determined to deal with Billy Budd's commander, whose conduct is pictured as blameless of all the villainy attributed to Mackenzie by Cooper, and possibly whispered in Melville's ear by Gansevoort or picked up from ship's gossip on board the frigate United States in 1843. This villainy he incorporated in another character, Claggart, in the much more complicated form of a sadism amounting almost to insanity.

While Melville was in the very process of creating his characters, another popular article on the Somers mutiny appeared which may have been of considerable help to him. In a fictionalized version entitled “The Murder of Philip Spencer,” running to three installments in the Cosmopolitan Magazine during the summer of 1889, Gail Hamilton entered the controversy with a sensational attack on Commander Mackenzie and a melodramatic announcement of her purpose: “In the name of truth, which is eternal; of justice to the dead, which is the highest duty that can devolve upon the living; the verdict of history should be reversed, and everywhere it should be told and known that Philip Spencer and his two companions were illegally and unjustifiably put to death, absolutely innocent of the crimes wherewith they were charged.”39 Through page after page she re-examined the evidence of guilt and dismissed every bit of it as preposterous, declaring: “All the mutiny that ever was, ever had been, or ever gave sign of being on board the ill-starred ship … was the mutiny that came from the mouth of the purser's steward”—Lieutenant Gansevoort's informant.40 The sentence, she declared, was already decided upon before any trial was held: “The question of guilt was not agitated, but assumed. The doom of the prisoners was made to turn, not upon the issue of investigation by lawful methods, but upon an outside act which lay wholly in the power of the commander. … All their investigations had discovered no mutiny. … They had found exactly what they had at the beginning—a yarn of Spencer's, … fully and promptly acknowledged, but declared to be a joke.”41 Yet Captain Mackenzie was in such feverish haste to carry out the execution that he brought all sorts of pressure on his council “to urge expedition” in making the decision which he had practically dictated to them.

No actual charge is made that the commander was insane, but the author described his trepidation as amounting almost to a mania. And many of the epithets applied to him are worthy of note: he used “false and insulting words to Spencer,” he was “the father of lies,” his character was “brutal” and “sinister,” and he was actuated throughout by an “infernally fertile imagination.”42 Perhaps Melville found here the original suggestion for his much more intricate villain Claggart, who, though he passed for a sane and highly respectable man, was nevertheless one of the most dangerous of madmen. Such “lunacy,” says Melville, “is not continuous, but occasional; evoked by some special object; it is secretive and self-contained, so that when most active it is to the average mind not distinguished from sanity.”43

Again, though Spencer is not held up as an entirely blameless lad, he is not only declared to be innocent of the mutiny charged against him, but his innocence is that of a generous, light-hearted youth. And at the climax of the tragedy, when Commander Mackenzie announced to him that he had been condemned to die, the writer in the Cosmopolitan rose to rhapsody: “All that relieves the terrible shadow cast upon human nature by this sad drama, all it contains of manhood or of humanity, dates from this moment; and every glimmer of firmness, courage, unselfishness, greatness of soul, that in any measure lights up the somber stage, shines out from the face of Philip Spencer … the true Philip Spencer came forth, the heroic soul he was born to be, glorified already by the light shining upon him through the opening gates of death.”44 In this character sketch Melville could have found at least a suggestion for his hero Billy Budd, whose youthful good looks, high health, gay spirits, and free heart make of him the archetype of “innocent”—an unsophisticated child-man with the rectitude of an animal, incapable of willing malice or even, in his simplicity, of conceiving its existence.45

Thus it would seem to be something more than coincidence that an old story dragged from the oblivion of half a century should appear in two popular articles, treating the “mutiny” on the Somers as a drama of inimical characters, in the very years that Melville was composing his farewell story of the sea. It seems more than probable that Melville read these accounts of a sea-tragedy in which his intimate kinsman Guert Gansevoort had played a leading and somewhat ambiguous role, and that he found in them at least the germ of his novelette Billy Budd. Moreover, they would have touched off reminiscences of his own seafaring days, as has been demonstrated, since the news of the Somers affair had reached the Pacific Squadron during the period of Melville's enlistment, and since it is known further from the evidence of John Marr and Other Sailors, the volume of poems published in 1888, that Melville was already in reminiscent mood this year. Consequently, it is not surprising to find that one of his two leading characters, the master-at-arms to whom he transferred the role of villain, certainly owes something to the actual master-at-arms on the frigate United States in 1843–1844.

In White-Jacket, in a chapter entitled “A Knave in Office in a Man-of-War,”46 Melville gave a full-length portrait of this character who, in the language of the seaman, was “the two ends and the middle of the thrice-laid strand of a bloody rascal. … It was also asserted that, had Tophet itself been raked with a fine-tooth comb, such another ineffable villain could not by any possibility have been caught.” Exposed as the ringleader of a vicious system of smuggling liquor on board, selling it to the men, and then as chief police officer having them flogged for drunkenness, he was temporarily cashiered. As a messmate, he then came under Melville's closer scrutiny. He was not only “obsequious” and “deferential” toward the officers, but in his bearing toward the men he was a “persuasive, winning, oily … Mephistopheles”:

Besides, this Bland, the master-at-arms, was no vulgar, dirty knave. In him … vice seemed, but only seemed, to lose half its seeming evil by losing all its apparent grossness. He was a neat and gentlemanly villain, and broke his biscuit with a dainty hand. There was a fine polish about his whole person, and a pliant, insinuating style in his conversation, that was, socially, quite irresistible. … Nothing but his mouth … and his snaky, black eye … betokened the accomplished scoundrel within. But in his conversation there was no trace of evil; nothing equivocal; he studiously shunned an indelicacy, never swore, and chiefly abounded in passing puns and witticisms. … His intrepidity, coolness, and wonderful self-possession … bespoke no ordinary man.47

This model Melville must have had in mind when he drew his later portrait of the gentlemanly villain in Claggart, whose “superior capacity” and “ingratiating deference” to officers had gained him his promotion. Rather handsome on the whole, “his hand was too small and shapely to have been accustomed to hard toil” and his “face was a notable one; the features … cleanly cut as those on a Greek medallion,” all except the chin and the eyes which “could cast a tutoring glance.” “But his general aspect and manner were so suggestive of an education and career incongruous with his naval function, that when not actively engaged in it he looked like a man of high quality, social and moral, who for reasons of his own was keeping incognito.” To a “more than average intellect, … secretive and self-contained,” he added an “even temper and discreet bearing.” His villainy, cloaked in the “mantle of respectability,” was “without vices or small sins,” never “sordid or sensual.”48

More significant than this similarity of outward seeming is the likeness of the two men in their deeper more inward natures. Of his actual shipmate Melville said in White-Jacket:

I, for one, regarded this master-at-arms with mixed feelings of detestation, pity, admiration, and something opposed to enmity. I could not but abominate him when I thought of his conduct; but I pitied the continual gnawing which, under all his deftly donned disguises, I saw lying at the bottom of his soul. …

Besides, a studied observation of Bland convinced me that he was an organic and irreclaimable scoundrel, who did wicked deeds as the cattle browse the herbage, because wicked deeds seemed the legitimate operation of his whole infernal organization. Phrenologically, he was without a soul. … What, then, thought I, who is to blame in this matter?49

This seems, indeed, like the first draft of the more complex villain in Billy Budd, whose deeply melancholy expression made Melville pity him one moment as “the man of sorrows … [who] could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban” and fear him the next as one whose cool sagacious mind was but the “ambidexter implement for … the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of malignity would seem to partake of the insane.” In short, he was the victim of a “natural depravity” (in the Platonic rather than the Calvinistic sense): “the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate.”50 Finally, one is even tempted to surmise that Melville took the name of John Claggart from the actual master-at-arms on board the frigate United States in 1843, who appeared on the muster roll as “John C. Turner.”51

No such original for the hero himself, Billy Budd, can be found among Melville's shipmates as recorded in White-Jacket, unless it be assumed that the Handsome Sailor was a youthful idealization of Melville's friend Jack Chase, to whom he dedicated his last book. Indeed, there are a number of traits in the characters of the two to warrant this assumption: their common possession of high health and fine looks, their frankness and candor, their free and easy but courteous manners, their good hearts which made them loved by the men, and their excellent seamanship which made them admired by the officers. More specifically, in both cases their masculine beauty was marred by a single defect, Chase by the loss of a finger, Budd by a tendency to stammer; and again, though both were of obscure origin, they were obviously gentlemen and, it is hinted, “by-blows” of some nobleman.52 Finally, the setting of the story in British naval history would seem to stem from Melville's recollections of Jack Chase, the “true blue Briton.”

This change of milieu, however, was at least partly for the sake of dramatic effect. For the story of the mutiny on the Somers needed considerable touching up to make it suitable material for the literary artist. It probably furnished nothing more than the germinal idea of Billy Budd, which differs from Spencer's tragedy in as many ways as it agrees. A hasty execution based on equivocal evidence through fear of impending mutiny in 1842, a peaceful era in American naval history, could only be charged to hysteria—at best fit subject matter for melodrama, even as Gail Hamilton treated it. But when placed at the outset of the Napoleonic Wars, in the summer after the Great Mutiny of 1797, the clash of humanitarian impulse with disciplinary necessity raises such apprehensiveness to the level of heroic drama. Again, Melville heightens the tragedy by a slight alteration of the high estate from which the innocent hero fell to ignominious death. The hanging on the Somers created a national scandal because the young midshipman was the son of the Honorable John C. Spencer, Secretary of War under President Tyler.53 For such sensational circumstances Melville substituted a quieter, more Greek theme: Billy Budd, the foundling of obviously noble descent, it is intimated, was the natural son of Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, who was thus faced with the historic dilemma of choosing between patriotic duty and paternal love.54

At this point Melville made his most effective dramatic invention. Dropping altogether the Somers affair, with its purely sentimental story of a naïve youth hanged for mutiny of which he was not guilty, he turned to the more classical device of tragic irony. Convinced of Billy Budd's innocence, Captain Vere ordered the sadistic Claggart to repeat his charges in the presence of the accused, apparently hoping thereby to expose the villainy of the accuser. Dumbfounded by the magnitude of the lie and unable to find words to defend himself, Billy Budd struck the master-at-arms a mortal blow. The case no longer turned on the charge of mutiny, admittedly false. But striking and killing a superior, regardless of how pure the intention or how justified the act, was proscribed in the Articles of War as a capital offense; and with the Nore and Spithead fresh in memory and a French fleet in the offing, discipline could not be relaxed. The execution of the Handsome Sailor transcended anything to be found in the mutiny on the Somers.

Thus out of his reading in 1888 and reminiscences of his personal experiences in 1843–1844, heightened through dramatic invention, Melville compounded his last story according to an old formula that had served him throughout his literary career. But he had gone a long way in his technique of composition from the cruder beginnings in Typee (1846). In Billy Budd, borrowing is reduced to a minimum, and imaginative invention counts for almost everything that makes it, as one critic declares, a masterpiece in miniature.


  1. Melville died on Sept. 28, 1891; the MS is marked, “Finished—April 19, 1891” (Billy Budd and Other Prose Pieces, ed. Raymond Weaver, London: Constable & Co., 1924, p. 1. This was the first printing of Billy Budd.)

  2. John Marr and Other Sailors, with Some Sea Pieces, included in Poems (London: Constable & Co., 1924), p. 202. All references to Melville's works are to the standard edition by Constable.

  3. Ibid., p. 207. See Journal of a Cruise in the Frigate United States, 1842–1844, with Notes on Melville, ed. Charles Anderson (Durham, N. C., 1937), passim.

  4. John Marr, pp. 213, 215; see Anderson, op. cit., pp. 121–122, and Anderson, Melville in the South Seas (New York, 1939), pp. 362–363.

  5. John Marr, pp. 213–216; Log Book, United States (MS in the Naval Records and Library, Navy Department, Washington, D. C.).

  6. Billy Budd, p. 2; Anderson, Melville in the South Seas, p. 366.

  7. William Laird Clowes et al., The Royal Navy: A History (London, 1897), Vol. IV, mentions no such ship, nor do the records in the Admiralty Office, London. There was, however, a French ship named the Indomptable.

  8. Billy Budd, p. 63 n. The variant name was the Bellipotent.

  9. Clowes, op. cit., IV, 303; John Knox Laughton, Sea Fights and Adventures (London, 1901), pp. 166–181.

  10. Clowes, op. cit., IV, 555. I have found no French ship l'Athéiste.

  11. Billy Budd, p. 26.

  12. Anon., “Biographical Memoir of Sir William George Fairfax, Knt.,” Naval Chronicle, V, 477–478 (Jan.-July, 1801). See also, “Biographical Memoir of Adam Duncan, Lord Viscount Duncan,” Naval Chronicle, VI, 97 ff. (July-Dec., 1801), for an account of the part played in the Nore and Spithead mutinies by Captain Fairfax, as commander of the Venerable (Melville's Indomitable?), on board which one of the chief mutinous plots was discovered; and Clowes, op. cit., IV, 461, for an account of the action off Algeciras, Bay of Gibraltar, between the English squadron (including the Venerable, Captain Fairfax) and the French (including the Formidable and the Indomptable) in July, 1801, which though coming four years later may have suggested to Melville the engagement with the French ship l'Athéiste off Gibraltar with which the career of Billy Budd's commander, Captain Vere of the Indomitable, is brought to a close.

  13. Billy Budd, pp. 27–28. See “Upon Appleton House,” The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, ed. H. M. Margoliouth (Oxford, 1927), I, 81, 231.

  14. Anon., “Old Stories Re-Told: Mutinies in the Navy,” All the Year Round, XVIII, 519–523 (Nov. 23, 1867).

  15. Conrad Gill, The Naval Mutinies of 1797 (Manchester, 1913), p. 252.

  16. William James, The Naval History of Great Britain (London, 1847), II, 60–61. According to Clowes, op. cit., IV, 324, the Mediterranean had been abandoned by the British in 1796 and was not again effectually occupied by them during 1797, scarcely a ship venturing east of Gibraltar; hence Melville was accurate in placing his action in the waters to the west of the straits.

  17. Billy Budd, p. 111.

  18. For aid in this search I am indebted to the kind offices of Captain D. W. Knox, Naval Records and Library, Washington, D. C.; V. H. Paltsits, New York Public Library; Martin A. Roberts, Library of Congress; Miss Phina Schrader, British Museum and Admiralty Office, London.

  19. Billy Budd, p. 112.

  20. Besides official records and standard histories, the following more popular contemporary accounts have been searched: Annual Register, XXXIX, 207–222 (London, 1800); Britannic Magazine, V, 95, 123, 158, 192, 223, 245 (London, 1797); and Gentleman's Magazine, LXVII, 605–608, 703–704 (July, Aug., 1797).

  21. Billy Budd, pp. 18, 109.

  22. Ibid., p. 90.

  23. MS in the possession of Nelson B. Gaskill, Washington, D. C.

  24. [James Fenimore Cooper,] The Cruise of the Somers: Illustrative of the Despotism of the Quarter Deck and of the Unmanly Conduct of Commander Mackenzie (New York, 1844), p. 49.

  25. Ibid., p. 11.

  26. Ibid., pp. 24, 25. For full details of the affair see Proceedings of the Naval Court Martial in the Case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, … to which is annexed An Elaborate Review by James Fenimore Cooper (New York, 1844), 344 pp.

  27. Anderson, Melville in the South Seas, pp. 16–17.

  28. John Marr, p. 207.

  29. Ibid., p. 212.

  30. “Genealogical Tree of the Gansevoort Family,” MS in the New York Public Library.

  31. Lieutenant H. D. Smith, “The Mutiny on the Somers,” American Magazine, VIII, 109–114 (June, 1888).

  32. Billy Budd, p. 1.

  33. Smith, op. cit., p. 110; Billy Budd, pp. 36–42, 48–51.

  34. Smith, op. cit., p. 109.

  35. Billy Budd, pp. 63–70.

  36. Smith, op. cit., p. 112; Billy Budd, pp. 76–80.

  37. Smith, op. cit., p. 113; Billy Budd, p. 102.

  38. Smith, op. cit., pp. 112–114. During the preceding year the Magazine of American History, XVII, 128–131 (Feb., 1887), had reprinted Commander Mackenzie's own defense of his conduct, which Melville may also have seen.

  39. Gail Hamilton [pseud. for Abigail R. Dodge], “The Murder of Philip Spencer,” Cosmopolitan Magazine, VII, 134 (June, 1889). There is some question as to the timeliness of this article, for the manuscript of Billy Budd indicates the following data: Begun, Nov. 16, 1888; revision begun, March 2, 1889; finished, April 19, 1891. Thus a first draft had been written before this tirade was launched, but there is no way of knowing just how full it was or how much the story was changed in the revision. All that is known is that the former was dashed off in three and a half months, whereas two years of labor were expended on the latter.

  40. Ibid., p. 136.

  41. Ibid., pp. 253–254, 255 (July, 1889).

  42. Ibid., pp. 346–348 (Aug., 1889).

  43. Billy Budd, pp. 45–47.

  44. Gail Hamilton, op. cit., p. 346 (Aug., 1889).

  45. Billy Budd, pp. 7–14, 17, 48–51. A third article on this affair appeared the following year, but it did not contain likely material for Melville (see R. C. R., “Reminiscences of Philip Spencer and the Brig ‘Somers,’” United Service, IV, 23–36, July, 1890).

  46. White-Jacket, chap. xliv.

  47. Ibid., p. 231–232.

  48. Billy Budd, pp. 31–35, 45–47.

  49. White-Jacket, pp. 233, 234.

  50. Billy Budd, pp. 45–47, 60–62.

  51. MS in the Naval Records and Library, Washington, D. C.

  52. White-Jacket, chap. iv; Billy Budd, chap. ii.

  53. Smith, op. cit., p. 109.

  54. This is the implication I find in the following passages: Billy Budd, pp. 15–16, 91–92, 110.


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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.

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

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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 two points of view. The first is that which sees the work as Melville's “testament of acceptance,” without making it in any way clear what that acceptance represented; the second the view that Billy Budd is a reflection of its author's final confusion and disappointment, an unnecessarily expanded and wasteful work. Both judgments are, in my opinion, wrong, and their error arises from an original error in reading.

Billy Budd has been seen as an attempt at conventional tragedy, with Billy as tragic hero confronted by the fateful choice between two traditional extremes: order at the expense of justice or justice at the expense of order. Had Billy demanded justice, he would not have accepted Captain Vere's judgment. Not to have accepted the judgment would have represented a denial of the law (and order) upon which the judgment was based. Since order represents a means of controlling evil, the choice of anything else would have represented the triumph of evil (Claggart). Melville has set the whole sequence up cleverly to parallel the crucifixion, so that the incident mirrors Christ's agony and depicts Christ's choice of death in the service of the law. The law is God (Vere). It is absolute. Justice is for Man. Christ (and Billy) as God-Man chose the law and suffered death, for it is only in terms of the law that evil can be defeated. The very concept of justice gives reality to evil—a choosing between the ambiguities of right and wrong. Billy's choice is thus read as equivalent to Christ's agony and as an indication of Melville's final acceptance of the doctrine of Christian atonement.

Having taken such a position, however, the critic finds himself in difficulty, for what is he to do with the events of the novel which are not concerned directly with Billy's defection and punishment? Billy's career, while representing the central events of the narrative, makes up approximately one-third of the total story, and it is surrounded by events and references dealing with philosophical, political, and aesthetic matters apparently only distantly related to Billy's personal predicament. The easiest answer to this problem, and the one most frequently given, is merely to suggest that such matters are extraneous: obvious but minor defects in an interesting work, shortcomings which Melville, had he lived, would have corrected. The second, and most obvious answer, is to say that such apparent disorder was simply a mirroring of Melville's own confusion and uncertainty and that the work is a failure in consequence of it.

The fallacy of the first position is obvious since the publication of Mr. Freeman's edition of Billy Budd, for it shows us that Melville had worked out a shorter version of the tale, entitled Baby Budd, in which Billy occupies a dominant position and there is little “digression”; but Mr. Freeman shows also that this version was discarded by its author as unsatisfactory and evidently incomplete. Since Melville worked at the writing of Billy Budd for more than two and one-half years, we can consider the work nothing less than the result of his considered and mature deliberation. The fallacy of the second position can be disclosed only by showing that there is no moral equivocation, as Richard Chase calls it, in Billy Budd and that the apparent digressions are part and parcel of the total unity of the work.

The initial mistake is to persist in thinking of Billy Budd as a tragedy at all. The subject of the novel is adequately suggested in Melville's brief preface, the opening sentence of which reads as follows:

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.

This crisis, of course, represents the events surrounding the revolution in France, and it is significant that Melville apparently saw the events of the mutinies at Spithead and at the Nore as symbolic of the threat to world order posed by the revolution. Any reader of Melville knows that he was greatly concerned with the historic development of mankind and that he saw Christianity as the center of an order which seemed gradually but inevitably to be passing away. It was probably because of this view that he could think of himself only as a nominal, not an orthodox, Christian. Any reader of Clarel understands the approximate terms upon which this state of mind was based during the later years of Melville's life. Both Clarel and Billy Budd might have been titled, less imaginatively, “The Crisis of Christendom,” with Christendom standing not only for the formal aspects of religion, but for all of the philosophical, political, and moral concerns of Man.

In these terms Billy Budd is Man—Christian man as well as historic man. Though he is presented with obvious simplicity, he contains the ambiguities of all of Melville's heroes from Ahab to The Confidence Man. In Christian terms he is Christ, but with typical Christian ambiguity, he is both the Son of Man and the Son of God. Whence came he? In philosophical and political terms, he sailed first as a common sailor on the Rights of Man, but was later impressed aboard his Majesty's warship the Indomitable. It is remarkable how little attention critics have paid to the names of these two vessels, as well as to the ship which appears at the end of the story: the French warship Athéiste, formerly the St. Louis. The contrast between life aboard the Rights of Man and that aboard the indomitable is the contrast between the Lockean and the Hobbesian points of view. The order of the first is that imposed by Billy's primitive innocence: the common-sense example of good backed up by physical force when necessary. The Indomitable is ruled by a concept of absolute order imposed by authority and depending upon fealty to the source of legislated power. Historically, however, it is the distinction between primitive society (which, of course, Melville knew well and at first hand) and the era of what he called “citified man.” Theologically, it is the contrast of pagan and Christian order.

Freeman presents evidence to show that at one point Melville considered naming the Indomitable, the Bellipotente. Such a title must have seemed to him finally too inclusive, too pointedly aimed at the religious level of his tale. Nevertheless, the religious level is primary during the period of Billy's difficulties aboard the second ship, and the parallel of Billy's execution for technical mutiny and the crucifixion have been clearly and commonly seen. Christ's godlike innocence is mirrored in Billy's natural innocence; Christ's humanity in Billy's natural (physical) defect of speech; Christ's agony in submitting to the Will of Heaven in Billy's submission to the authority of Captain Vere. Captain Vere's exclamation following the death of Claggart (the naturally depraved) by the hand of Billy—“Struck dead by an angel of God. Yet the Angel must hang!”—reflects the paradox of atonement by which Christ suffered the agony of death in order to release mankind from the bondage of evil.

It is clear that Melville saw the idea of the Fall and the Atonement as an accurate image of man's predicament (See Clarel, XV, 249, The Works of Herman Melville, 1924); this level of Billy Budd is the one with which critics have primarily concerned themselves. What is important is that Melville held it as image, not as orthodox religion. As such it was nearer an aesthetic than a theological concept. This is important, because it follows that the crucifixion becomes tragedy, mirroring man's incompleteness; the victory over evil is transient and incomplete. Such a view is expressed in the Christ-like aspect of Ahab in Moby Dick. Whereas in Moby Dick, however, we have the tragic view expressed directly, in Billy Budd it is merely reflected as parable. Melville had written in Clarel:

Historic memory goes so far
Backward through the long defiles of doom;
Whoso consults it honestly
That mind grows prescient in degree;
For man, like God, abides the same

(XV, p. 248)

In Billy Budd Melville is merely consulting “historic memory,” and what he discovers is that man and God are always the same. Billy is budding man, yet he is also the budding God. As primitive man Billy lives at comparative ease with his shipmates aboard the Rights of Man—a society similar to that pictured in Typee. Transferred, however, to the Indomitable—emerging into the era of citified man, he has left nature behind him, except as he himself represents it aboard the second vessel. As a representative of nature, he does the natural thing, strikes out at the evil with which he is confronted. It is Claggart's eloquence (the ability to make a fair case for an evil cause) which is the mark of his duplicity. The mark of primitive man is his completeness, his oneness with nature; but he lacks eloquence, he depends upon intuition and action. Citified man faces nature, as John Crowe Ransom has stated handsomely in a recent article, “in guilt and fear toward that Nature who no longer contained him but indifferently confronted him.” Melville has Captain Vere say, after acknowledging that Billy's action was no more than “natural”: “But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King.”

The question I take it Melville is raising here is this: If the King's authority is gone, and Nature's, what then supports us? Billy dies for his impulsive act with a prayer for Captain Vere (vir—man) upon his lips. A little later the Indomitable meets up with the French warship Athéiste (formerly the King's ship, the St. Louis) and engages her. The Indomitable survives the engagement, sinking the Athéiste, but Captain Vere, who is also the old god, perhaps even the father of Billy, dies with Billy's name upon his lips, not, as Melville says, “in accents of remorse,” but as though transferring his authority to his son: Billy the Son of God and the Son of Man; God become Man and Man become God.

It seems clear that this is Melville's view of the crucifixion—the old God superseded by the new; God as myth. The story of Billy Budd then represents the origin of myth, myth which mirrors man's tragic situation; but is not an attempt at tragedy itself. It is set in a period which represents, in Melville's words, “a crisis for Christendom,” a period in which atheism is averted but which has only (possibly) in the story of Billy Budd brought forth a new myth to replace it. Billy Budd is to be seen, then, somewhat as prophecy, or as an expression of faith. Such an idea had been expressed earlier in Clarel:

                                                                                                                        … the gods are gone.
Tully scarce dreamed they could be won
Back into credance; less that earth
Ever could know yet mightier birth
Of Deity. He died. Christ came.
And, in due hour, that impious Rome,
Emerging from vast wreck and shame,
Held the forefront of Christendom.
The inference? The lesson?—come:
Let fools count on faith's closing knell—
Time, God, are inexhaustible.

(XIV, pp. 128–129)

Billy Budd is an example of how the new birth will come, winning for mankind a unity such as they knew under Christianity, under the gods of antiquity, or in their primitive innocence. Is this too optimistic a view? Melville's last years have been seen as full of darkness and despair. He himself said of these years that he was neither optimist nor pessimist, nevertheless he relished the pessimism of Thomson's City of Dreadful Night, “if for nothing else than as a counterpoise to the exorbitant hopefulness, juvenile and shallow, that makes such a bluster in these days—at least in some quarters.” If he was optimistic, then, at least it was not the kind of optimism which he recognized “in some quarters.”

If the subject of Billy Budd is, as we suggest, the renewal of myth, is it Melville's intention to imply that we are simply awaiting the arrival of a new Messiah? In one sense, yes. We must not assume, as did Tully, that since the old gods are gone no new ones will arise to perform the unification performed by the old. On the other hand, Melville is quite specific about a certain danger—the danger of following false gods; and he is equally specific about the method whereby he believes the new will be enabled to arise. It is this which the critics of Billy Budd have heretofore failed to see in those passages which they have labeled extraneous.

Let us begin first with the danger. I have said that the victim of Billy's natural wrath, Claggart, clothed his duplicity by a fairness of appearance which included his ability to speak falsehood under the appearance of truth. Undisguised truth (which is what Billy's innocence represents) is hateful because antipodal to evil. Billy is budding man—primitive man: John Locke's tabula rasa. Claggart is the Hobbesian man in whom cunning and intelligence have been substituted for brute force. Mythical man (or Captain Vere) stands squarely between these two opposing concepts. He is intelligent but dreamy—sometimes known as “Starry” Vere. He wears the authority of his office openly and plainly, as did Lord Nelson, who insisted upon wearing the scarlet and gold-braid even in the midst of battle. The life of Vere (and Nelson) is open to scrutiny, and upon a certain level it is reflected in the beauty of their vessels, the ornaments of their office, the attractions of ceremony, and the eloquence of their commands. Upon another level, however, such ornaments only served to mask the ugly injustices afflicting the common sailors under their command. Here is Melville's dilemma, and the dilemma which supplies the dramatic framework for his tale. If we correct the injustices in the name of humanity, do we not also commit ourselves to the giving up of all of those beauties which the old order had cherished? Yes, Melville finally concedes, we do. We exchange Nelson's ornate dress for drab, because in calling attention to himself, Nelson endangered the lives of those under him. We relinquish the ceremony of authority, because to delay weighing anchor as Nelson did was dangerous and impractical in a world where ceremony is no longer observed. We surrender the grand lines of Nelson's flagship Victory to the more functional and less beautiful design of the Monitor. Yet we do not accede to the demands of revolution—atheism. We have come full circle, but only in the sense that pagan civilization had come full circle at the time of Tully. We are faced with what Melville, in Clarel, had called “civil barbarism”: “Man disennobled—brutalized / By popular science—atheized / Into a smatterer” (XV, p. 250).

We then are faced by the same danger which Captain Vere faced in his engagement with the Athéiste: civil barbarism. The Athéiste is, significantly, not a vessel in its own right, but one merely captured and renamed. The question of identity here is related to Melville's concept of truth and reality. Atheism, which was the product of popular science, was doomed simply because it did not express truth and reality. Captain Vere was doomed, but for an entirely different reason (“The gods are gone”); the Indomitable survived both the St. Louis and the Athéiste, but the implication is clear that the crisis is one merely of discovering a new captain. Melville's attitude toward popular science is further clarified in an ironic passage labeled “A Digression,” which occurs in the narrative just after Billy's death. The Purser and the ship's Surgeon are discussing what everyone had considered the remarkable nature of Billy's dying. The Purser suggested that will-power might have been responsible for the absence of the usual physical manifestations, but the Surgeon ridicules such an idea, saying it is no more attributable to will-power than to horsepower. He admits that the event was phenomenal only “in the sense that it was an appearance the cause of which is not immediately to be assigned.” The Purser then suggests euthanasia. “Euthanasia,” the Surgeon replies, “is something like your will-power; I doubt its authenticity as a scientific term. … It is at once imaginative and metaphysical,—in short, Greek.”

It seems clear that if Melville was optimistic it was not with the arrogant optimism of Nineteenth Century science. This is further indicated in the report of Billy's death supplied by a writer of popular prose, the reporter of News from the Mediterranean; here (as with the Surgeon) the truth is hidden beneath a false appearance of truth. If Claggart represents malicious evil (natural depravity), the Surgeon represents the evil of ignorance, while the popular reporter, pretending to serve constituted authority, tells the grossest falsehood of all. All are forms of dissimulation—the dangers confronting modern man in his search for truth. Where then does truth lie?

The answer, of course, is inherent in the novel itself. As is so often the case, however, Melville had considered the problem explicitly in Clarel:

Suppose an instituted creed
(or truth or fable) should indeed
To ashes fall; the spirit exhales,
But reinfunds in active forms:
Verse, popular verse, it charms or warms—
Bellies philosophy's flattened sails—
Tinctures the very book, perchance,
Which claims arrest of its advance.

(XV, p. 105)

Here is an almost exact duplication of the situation in Billy Budd. Christianity and all it implies has fallen into decay. The spirit exhales, but only momentarily, awaiting the propitious moment again to belly philosophy's sails. Billy's act of innocent heroism supplies the opportunity—creates the situation. Authoritarianism and a changing concept of man's individual worth had conspired to bring about the destruction of the old gods. Billy's act (and by extension, Christ's) is seen more as tragic circumstance than as actual atonement. From Billy's act then springs the new myth, sung to the tune of a simple sailors' ballad. It is “verse, popular verse” which bellies the sails, which supplies the common man with a means of confronting the facts, not only of Billy's death, but of his own. It is not orthodox Christianity. It is not popular science. It is the simple creative act which pierces the mask of falsehood and error, which sees man's existence as an heroic submission to fate, but which is in constant rebellion against those forms which result in man's injustice to man.

If it seems odd that so apparent and so integrated a theme should have been missed by so many readers, the fact of its having been missed is only additional evidence of the difficulty which the modern reader has with the ironic style in which Billy Budd is composed. The difficulty is multiplied in this case, because Melville did not employ (indeed, could not have employed) the lyric-ironic style of Moby Dick, to which we have, after a lapse of many years, become accustomed. Accompanying the positive theme of man's rejuvenation through myth, there is also, as we have indicated, the negative one of modern man's situation in an over-materialistic society: “atheized into a smatterer.” In a satiric-ironic manner, Melville pretends to adopt the very style of the popular-prose writer against whom his book is at least partially directed. Despite the fact that his central theme betrays his principal intention—he had elsewhere written, “It is not the purpose of literature to purvey news,”—he pretended to have written a story which, as he says, “has less to do with fable than with fact.” He speaks of digressions and ragged edges, as though the very essence of truth lay in its absence of form. He pretends, in other words, to have written the very book which claims arrest of the advance of truth, or fable, or of instituted creeds; but the theme itself, the form which he has created in Billy Budd, tinctures the very book which he pretends to have written—the book of factual information concerning a mutiny at sea.

Contrary to current critical opinion, then, Billy Budd as a unified work not only is not marred by digressions and irrelevancies, it is a triumph of architectonic structure. When Melville protests that as a writer of “facts” he is prevented from achieving “an architectural finial,” he is merely calling attention (in a method not uncommon in literature) to his central theme, which is in fact presented as an architectural finial, since it lies imbedded in the popular ballad “Billy in the Darbies,” which ends the book.

But they'll lash me in hammock, drop me deep.
Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I'll dream fast asleep.
I feel it stealing now. Sentry, are you there?
Just ease these darbies at the wrist,
And roll me over fair.
I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.

This is not great poetry, but it was not intended to be. Neither is it, as one critic calls it, doggerel. It is intended merely to represent the primitive, but universal, ability of man to temper the harsh facts of death, to come to terms with nature, through art. It represents Melville's final expression of faith in mankind—faith in the ability of the common man to see beyond the misrepresentations of evil, however disguised; faith that the essential beauty and heroism of man will always be recognized and celebrated in artistic form, however crude.

Billy Budd is not in itself a tragedy, although it is an expression of belief in the tragic predicament of man. If we need distinguish it by supplying a name, I would suggest that it be called satiric-allegory. It does not pretend to the organ voice of Moby Dick. It combines the biting irony of Swiftian satire with the lyric hopefulness of John Bunyan. That it has been so little understood need not finally surprise us when we consider the history of Melville's literary career from Mardi onward. Among other things, Billy Budd suggests the possibility that Melville believed the rich tongue of Shakespeare (the use of which he borrowed in Moby Dick and Pierre) to be as obsolete as the scarlet and gold of Lord Nelson's office. Perhaps this is why he chose to write otherwise in his final work.

Principal Works

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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.

Wendell Glick (essay date 1953)

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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 required padding; surely his inclusion of the highly emotional defense of Nelson is significant for other reasons than that the chapter makes “more understandable Melville's hearty interest in martial exploits, sayings, and songs.”2

At the time Melville was writing and revising Billy Budd he was in no mood to trifle with peccadilloes. “My vigor sensibly declines,” he had written to Archibald MacMechan on 5 December 1889: “What little of it is left I husband for certain matters yet incomplete, and which indeed, may never be completed.”3 He could hardly have been husbanding his strength to communicate his “hearty interest in martial exploits”; his digression away from his narrative in order to praise Nelson must have served in his mind the more serious purpose of clarifying one of the “truths” for which, as he pointed out, Billy Budd was but the vehicle. The purpose of this article is to call attention to an aspect of one of these truths, heretofore unnoticed. Although it is much more, 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.

In writing Billy Budd, Melville made clear at the outset of his novel, he was writing no “romance”; he would not be bound, consequently, in his delineation of the “Handsome Sailor,” by any of the conventions usually followed in depicting a romantic hero. Nor would he be bound to refrain from digressing if digression served his purposes. His interest was less in art than in “Truth uncompromisingly told” (pp. 149 and 274). He was quite willing, he asserted, to sacrifice “the symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction” and to risk “ragged edges” on his final work if by so doing he could tell a story “having less to do with fable than with fact” (p. 274). Thus relieved both from the conventional restrictions usually imposed by art and from the financial exigencies which had dictated the content of some of his early works, he would be free to deal forthrightly and honestly with issues far too serious to be treated cavalierly.

For his raisonneur Melville chose Captain “Starry” Vere, a clear-headed realist possessed of sufficient perspective as a result of broad human experience and extensive reading to enable him to weigh the most difficult alternatives and choose rationally between them. No person with lesser qualifications would serve. For the choice which Captain Vere had to make involved more than a simple distinction between blacks and whites; instead it was a choice between two standards of human behavior, to each of which man owed unquestioning loyalty. The Captain's decision, moreover, was to be Melville's as well; and Melville felt no disposition in the waning years of his life to trifle with reality and call the process truth-seeking.

Melville sympathized with Billy Budd as completely as did Captain Vere. He appreciated with the Captain the stark injustice of a situation which finds the individual condemned for adherence to a standard of behavior most men would consider noble and right. But he agreed with the Captain that justice to the individual is not the ultimate loyalty in a complex culture; the stability of the culture has the higher claim, and when the two conflict, justice to the individual must be abrogated to keep the order of society intact. Turning their backs upon one of the most cherished systems of ideas in the American tradition, a system typified by such individualists as Thoreau and Emerson, Melville and Captain Vere brought in the verdict that the claims of civilized society may upon occasion constitute a higher ethic than the claims of “natural law” and personal justice (p. 245). The ultimate allegiance of the individual, in other words, is not to an absolute moral code, interpreted by his conscience and enlivened by his human sympathies, but to the utilitarian principle of social expediency.

To isolate his problem, to strip it of all irrelevant issues preparatory to making a critical examination of it, Melville chose as his setting a British vessel at sea. The ship-of-the-line Indomitable, a smooth-functioning microcosm of society as a whole, was threatened with mutiny. Though the threat was remote, whatever would contribute to the end of knitting together the diverse individuals who made up the crew into a homogeneous unit which would act efficiently in an emergency was fully justified; conversely, that which jeopardized even slightly the clock-like functioning of the crew it was necessary to stamp out ruthlessly. His highest obligation, as Captain Vere conceived of it, was the preservation of the tight little society into which the crew had been welded, and the prevention of anything resembling anarchy. The transcendent responsibility of the leaders of the English nation, moreover, was the same as his own, writ large. An intensive study of history had confirmed his “settled convictions” against “novel opinion, social, political, and otherwise, which carried away as in a torrent no few minds in those days”; and he was “incensed at the innovators,” not because their theories were inimical to the private interests of the privileged classes of which he was a member, but because such theories “seemed to him incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions,” and “at war with the peace of the world and the good of mankind” (pp. 163–164). The world as he viewed it was ruled by “forms”; “with mankind,” Melville quotes him as saying, “forms, measured forms, are everything”; that was the import which he saw “in the story of Orpheus, with his lyre, spellbinding the wild denizens of the woods” (p. 272). To preserve the ordered functioning of his crew Captain Vere was willing to sacrifice even the ideal of justice when the absolute necessity arose. What he objected to in Claggart was not that Claggart was remiss in his “duty of preserving order” but that the Master at Arms abridged the ideal of justice unnecessarily, even when the autonomy and general good of the crew were not at stake. Still, the maintenance of order came first, and it was rigorously safe-guarded on the Indomitable “almost to a degree inconsistent with entire moral volition” (pp. 172–173).

To the idea that order in society should be maintained at all cost Captain Vere adhered “disinterestedly,” not because he desired such a regimented society, but because he believed it to be a practical necessity of this world. Like Plotinus Plinlimmon of Pierre, he preferred Christian (“Chronometrical”) standards of absolute morality to the more mundane, utilitarian standard of expediency; but like Plinlimmon, he had concluded that Christian ideals were unworkable in everyday situations. He was fully aware that a regimented society abridged many private rights, but he realized also that in the absence of such a society a state of anarchy and chaos inevitably arose in which every human right was sacrificed. An ordered society at least guaranteed the preservation of some rights; and though this fell far short of the ideal of the preservation of all, it was far better than the sort of “society” which, in the idealistic attempt to guarantee all rights, degenerated into chaos and so permitted their complete and total destruction. It was not a question of insuring all individual rights or a part of them; the choice was between insuring a part of them or none. The ideal society which abridged no prerogatives and guaranteed all private liberties was, in the considered opinion of Captain Vere, a figment of the imagination.

Recent events, Melville makes abundantly plain, had been responsible for the Captain's position. The Nore Mutiny, though it had been precipitated by the failure of the authorities to redress the legitimate grievances of the seamen, had threatened the military usefulness of the “indispensable fleet” upon which the stability of the entire English nation depended, and consequently had been ruthlessly suppressed (pp. 150–153). The cataclysmic French Revolution had taught its bitter lesson, both to Captain Vere and to his creator. To the Captain the principle involved in the two events was the same: the English sailors at Nore, in running up “the British colors with the union and cross wiped out,” had transmuted “the flag of founded law and freedom defined” into “the red meteor of unbridled and unbounded revolt” of the French. “Reasonable discontent,” Melville pointed out, “growing out of practical grievances in the fleet had been ignited into irrational combustion as by live cinders blown across the Channel from France in flames” (p. 151). No price was too great to pay to keep such unhinging forces of anarchy in check; in giving his life to destroy the Athéiste, Captain Vere sacrificed himself in defense of the sine qua non of civilized existence and in opposition to the false, unworkable doctrines of the French Revolution. The triumph of the Indomitable over the Athéiste was the triumph of order over chaos.

Yet how staggering was the cost of a stable society! Having decided upon the absolute necessity for maintaining unweakened the strength of the social fabric, Melville shuddered when he contemplated the price exacted in terms of human values; and Billy Budd became the balance-sheet upon which he reckoned the price men have to pay for the ordered society which they have to have. The most obvious price was the destruction of “Nature's Nobleman,” the superlatively innocent person: every Billy Budd impressed by an Indomitable is forced to leave his Rights-of-Man behind. To the destruction of innocent persons, moreover, it was necessary to add the mental suffering of the individual forced to make moral judgments. But the total cost is not met even by the sacrifice of Billy Budds and the suffering of Captain Veres; social stability based upon expediency is paid for also with a general, blighting, human mediocrity. The standards of any civilized society are the standards of the great mass of men who make up its bulk; and when maintenance of the stability of society becomes the supreme obligation of every person, the result is a levelling of the superior persons down to the level of the mass. The chief personal virtue becomes “prudence”; the end most worth seeking for becomes “that manufacturable thing known as respectability,” so often allied with “moral obliquities” (p. 147), and occasionally, as in the case of Claggart, indistinguishable even from “natural depravity.” “Civilization,” Melville remarks categorically, “especially of the austerer sort, is auspicious” to natural depravity because natural depravity “folds itself in the mantle of respectability” by avoiding “vices or small sins” and by refraining from all excesses; in short, by exhibiting the prudence which is the only virtue society demands. The natural depravity of Claggart was so insidious because it lacked the trappings in which society expects to see evil garbed, and instead, prudently enfolded itself in “the mantle of respectability” (pp. 185–186). Prudence, while being the mark of the socially adjusted man who rigidly adheres to the utilitarian principle of expediency, may also be the last refuge of scoundrels.

But even when prudence did not take the extreme form of moral obliquity, even when it was not “habitual with the subtler depravity” (p. 195), as it proved to be in the case of Claggart, it left its mark upon the people in the world of Billy Budd. The most “prudent” characters discharged faithfully their “duty” to their king even when to do so clashed with moral scruple, but they fell far short of the personal heroism which inspires others and vitalizes them into acts. Captain Graveling of the Rights-of-Man was “the sort of person whom everybody agrees in calling ‘a respectable man’”; he was a lover of “peace and quiet” and the possessor of “much prudence” which caused “overmuch disquietude in him,” but he was by and large a pedestrian individual who could hardly be depended upon to make any signal contribution to human progress (p. 137). The old ascetic Dansker had learned from experience a “bitter prudence” which had taught him never to interfere, never to give advice, in other words, to solve the problem of his social responsibility by escaping into a shell of cynicism, and by so doing had disqualified himself for service to society (p. 205). The Indomitable's “prudent surgeon” was singularly unequipped to pass moral judgments and would have “solved” the problem of Billy's murder of Claggart by dropping the whole affair into the lap of the Admiral (pp. 229, 231). Even Captain Vere, who possessed in eminent measure the “two qualities not readily interfusable” demanded of every English sea-commander at the time “prudence and rigor” (p. 234), did not earn Melville's highest accolade as a member of “great Nature's nobler order” until he let himself “melt back into what remains primeval in our formalized humanity”; in short, until he forgot temporarily his “military duty,” his prudence, and acted in a manner difficult to reconcile with strict social expediency (p. 252).4

To what do these examples of prudence, the highest ethic of utilitarian philosophers, add up? Simply this: in making social expediency an ethic superior to absolute morality, Melville found himself pushed perilously close to a Weltanschauung which would admit slight, if any, possibility of personal greatness. Could prudence ever be truly heroic? A society which elevated prudence above all other virtues seemed to be anathema to the sort of moral adventuresomeness which Melville loved, and which for him set the great man off from the mediocre one. Yet such a society seemed to be the only sort which could safeguard men from the perils of “irrational combustion” which followed hard upon an idealism permitted to run its free course unrestrained. Here lay a crucial dilemma: was the race doomed to accept mediocrity as the price of its self-preservation, or was it still possible in a complex society for great private virtues to generate and grow?

Emotionally unequipped to reconcile himself to the bleaker alternative toward which both his experience and his reason had led him, Melville turned to history in the hope of discovering a figure of heroic dimensions whose life would free him from his impasse. Having played the role of champion of man's dignity and greatness for a lifetime, he did not feel that he could relinquish it now; and in the person of Nelson, “the greatest sailor since the world began,” he found his answer.5 Though he recognized that many changes had taken place since Trafalgar, that the “symmetry and grand lines” of Nelson's Victory seemed obsolete in a world of “Monitors and yet mightier hulls of the European ironsides,” he nonetheless insisted that “to anybody who can hold the Present at its worth without being inappreciative of the Past,” the “solitary old hulk at Portsmouth” spoke eloquent truth. If he could no longer embrace the simple faith of his youth when he had believed in a law “coeval with mankind, dictated by God himself, superior in obligation to any other,” when he had advocated the abolition of flogging on the grounds that “it is not a dollar-and-cent question of expediency; it is a matter of right and wrong”;6 if the corrosive years had eaten away for him such immutable standards, he could at least salvage somehow a foundation for personal greatness and heroism. Nelson was the man he needed.

He admitted that strict “martial utilitarians,” believers in the rigorous application of an inexorable social expediency to every particular situation, would be inclined to take issue with his estimate of Nelson's greatness, even perhaps “to the extent of iconoclasm.” For Nelson's exposure of his own person in battle at Trafalgar appeared on the surface to have been militarily inexpedient, even vain and foolhardy; his value to the cause for which he fought was so great that he should have sacrificed his natural desire for personal heroism to the higher principle of preserving a life which was indispensable to the general good. Had his life been preserved and his command of the fleet therefore been retained, the mistakes made by his successor in command might have been avoided; and his sagacity might well have averted the shipwreck with its horrible loss of life which followed the battle. So the “Benthamites of war” argued, and, Melville admitted, with some plausibility; using only the immediate circumstances of the engagement as their criteria they could convict Nelson of behavior out of harmony with the general good, and on these grounds strip him of the glory with which Englishmen had invested him.

But to this sort of iconoclasm Melville would not accede for a moment. “Personal prudence,” he countered, “even when dictated by quite other than selfish considerations, is surely no special virtue in a military man; while an excessive love of glory, exercising to the uttermost heartfelt sense of duty, is the first.” The Benthamites were wrong; in applying their principle of social expediency to Nelson's deed “of foolhardiness and vanity” they failed to calculate the strength of purpose which such a “challenge to death” injects into the arteries of a nation. Nelson's deed was “expedient” to a degree they lacked the vision to perceive; his name had become a “trumpet to the blood” more stimulating even to the hearts of Englishmen than the name of Wellington; the act which on the surface seemed sheer “bravado” still inspired posterity to deeds of greatness.

Unless, Melville argued, Nelson's “challenge to death” could be considered an act of supreme heroism, conformable to the highest ideals governing human behavior, no deed could be truly heroic; and this possibility he refused to entertain. The vitality of Nelson's example was immortal. In 1891, shortly after he had made his own will, Melville composed this enthusiastic tribute to another great man who had also glimpsed a premonition that death was near:

At Trafalgar, Nelson, on the brink of opening the fight, sat down and wrote his last brief will and testament. If under the presentiment of the most magnificent of all victories, to be crowned by his own glorious death, a sort of priestly motive led him to dress his person in the jewelled vouchers of his own shining deeds; if thus to have adorned himself for the altar and the sacrifice were indeed vainglory, then affectation and fustian is each truly heroic line in the great epics and dramas, since in such lines the poet but embodies in verse those exaltations of sentiment that a nature like Nelson, the opportunity being given, vitalizes into acts.

(p. 157)

The question naturally arises whether Melville intended the digression on Nelson to illuminate the final scene of the novel. Might the answer be that the hanging of Billy Budd is Melville's final commentary upon the theme of the impracticability of absolute standards in a world necessarily ruled by expediency? Billy's noble devotion to absolute justice and right throughout the novel made him a sort of personification of the moral law; his death must have meant for Melville, consequently, that the standard of behavior to which Billy gave his allegiance, though a noble one, is simply unworkable when applied to complex social relationships. There was something unearthly about the death of Billy Budd: he was “an angel of God” (p. 229), returning without fear to his Maker; his pinioned figure at the yard-end behaved like that of no mortal man; to the sailors aboard the Indomitable the spar from which Billy's body had hung was thought of for some years as a piece of the Cross. The luminous night of the morning when Billy was to be hanged passed away like the prophet Elijah disappearing into heaven in his chariot and dropping his mantle to Elisha. Billy was too good for this world; he properly belonged to another, not to this; and the moral principles from which he acted were appropriate enough for the world to which he belonged. But in a society composed of men, not angels—in a society in which even Claggarts are to be found—an inferior standard, that of expediency, is the only workable one.7


  1. Herman Melville, Billy Budd, ed. F. Barron Freeman (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), p. 154n. Citations to Billy Budd in the text of this article are to this, the best critical edition so far available.

  2. For this reason, Freeman suggests, the digressions on Nelson are “important” (p. 42).

  3. Leon Howard, Herman Melville (Berkeley, 1951), p. 328.

  4. Melville conjectures that this is what transpired while the Captain spoke with Billy privately in the cabin.

  5. The scattered references to Billy Budd which follow are to Ch. iv, pp. 154–157, passim.

  6. White Jacket (Boston, 1892), pp. 138, 139.

  7. This article is peripheral to a study of the concept of “expediency” in American thought, undertaken with the aid of a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies.

Further Reading

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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 York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1954.

Discusses Billy Budd along with other works by Melville, Dostoevsky, D. H. Lawrence, and Emily Brontë in terms of “prophetic fiction.”

Franklin, H. Bruce. “From Empire to Empire: Billy Budd, Sailor.” In Herman Melville: Reassessments, edited by A. Robert Lee, pp. 199–216. London: Vision Press, 1984.

Criticizes Vere's personal character and actions, and interprets the novella as condemning both British and American political imperialism.

Hurtgen, James R. “Melville: Billy Budd and the Context of Political Rule.” In The Artist and Political Vision, edited by Benjamin R. Barber and Michael J. Gargas McGrath, pp. 245–65. New Brunswick, N. J.: Transaction Books, 1982.

Considers Billy Budd as “Melville's statement on the nature of politics.”

Johnson, Barbara. “Melville's Fist: The Execution of Billy Budd.” In Herman Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Myra Jehlen, pp. 235–48. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1994.

Discusses the novella as “a dramatization of the twisted relations between knowing and doing, speaking and killing, reading and judging, which make political understanding and action so problematic.”

Martin, Robert K. “Saving Captain Vere: Billy Budd from Melville's Novella to Britten's Opera.” Studies in Short Fiction 23, No. 1 (Winter 1986): 49–56.

Contends that Benjamin Britten's opera of Billy Budd is based on the faulty 1948 version of the novella.

Matthiessen, F. O. “Billy Budd, Foretopman.” In Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard Chase, pp. 156–68. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Investigates the biblical imagery in Billy Budd.

Milder, Robert. Critical Essays on Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1989, 241 p.

Compilation of critical essays on Melville's novella.

Parker, Hershel. Reading Billy Budd. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1990, 190 p.

Full-length study of Melville's novella.

Scorza, Thomas J. In the Time Before Steamships: Billy Budd, the Limits of Politics, and Modernity. DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1979, 210 p.

Evaluation of Billy Budd.

Stafford, William T., ed. Melville's Billy Budd and the Critics. 2nd ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1968, 272 p.

Presents selected new and previously published criticism of Billy Budd.

Vincent, Howard P. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Billy Budd: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: 1971, 112 p.

Collection of critical analyses of Melville's novella.

Widmer, Kingsley. The Ways of Nihilism: A Study of Herman Melville's Short Novels. Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press for California State Colleges, 1970, 149 p.

Delineates the oppositional problems surrounding Billy Budd.

Zink, Karl E. “Herman Melville and the Forms—Irony and Social Criticism in Billy Budd.Accent XII, No. 3 (Summer 1952): 131–39.

Views Billy Budd as a social allegory.

Additional coverage of Melville's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 25; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1640–1865; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 74; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied, Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Novels for Students, Vol. 9; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 3; Something About the Author, Vol. 59; and World Literature Criticism.

G. Giovannini (essay date 1955)

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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 conclusion. But Campbell overlooks those asides, in Melville's own voice in Chapters 11 and 12,2 on the Biblical element in the novel which permit retaining the conventional symbolic meaning as part of the total effect of the hanging scene. Here as elsewhere in his works Melville's symbolism is double-edged; for while the religious symbolism sharply outlines the brutal injustice of the hanging of Christ-like innocence and on this level should be taken as an echo of the earlier Melville bitterly reflecting on a universe out-of-joint, at the same time it should be seen as confirming Vere's judgment that at the last Assizes Billy will be saved. That Billy is saved is clear from the religious symbolism when seen in conjunction with a puzzling and phenomenal detail in the manner of Billy's death at the end of Chapter 26—a frequently neglected detail, although Melville devotes the whole of the following chapter to it. A lifeless body, a “prodigy of repose,” ascends to the yard-end. Symbolically, this detail strongly suggests a providential death which ironically cheats the gallows.

On one side of its thematic structure the novel, which reads almost like an argument parabolically projected, mercilessly drives to the painful conclusion that the sense of simple truth and justice, “what remains primeval in our formalized humanity” (Ch. 23, p. 720), is inhibited by expediency and legalism in a world awry.3 Captain Vere, a stickler for usage, is so inhibited; he knew the “essential right and wrong” in the case before him, but “he was not authorized to determine the matter on that primitive basis.”4 Even the common sailors are “of all men the greatest sticklers for usage” (Ch. 24, p. 722); and though at the time of the execution they instinctively felt the injustice, in the end they too believed that “the penalty was somehow unavoidably inflicted from the naval point of view” (Ch. 31, p. 738). On this side of its thematic structure the novel everywhere painfully underscores the brutality of innocence victimized by usage and legalism. Captain Vere, the instrument of legalism, is as much a victim of it as the hero. The formal Vere obeying a code acts like an automaton. And so does the crew: in three scenes (Chs. 24, 28) they are about to protest the injustice, only to end by docilely yielding to “the mechanism of discipline” at the sound of the Boatswain's whistle and the drumbeat to quarters.

But this painful picture does not imply a nihilistic view of man's destiny; nor is the pain unmitigated. For the counter-theme of Divine justice is announced before and during the trial (Chs. 20, 22), and worked out in the hanging scene. To Captain Vere, Claggart's sudden death (it is unusually sudden, immediately after Billy's blow the body lying flexible and inert like a dead snake) is full of supernatural signification. His “excited manner … never before observed in the Indomitable's Captain,” and his “passionate interjections,” suggest a witness to a revelation: “It is the divine judgment on Ananias! … Struck dead by an angel of God” (p. 703).5 During the trial Vere, by the heavy compulsion of “military necessity,” sets aside the plea of the heart for justice; but at the same time he emphatically affirms it and sanctions it in a Biblical reference: “At the last Assizes it shall acquit” (p. 716).

A token of Divine acquittal and salvation occurs in the hanging scene where Melville resorts to his familiar technique of so manipulating appearances as to suggest a reality transcending or negating them. The law's demand of the ignominy of death by the rope appears to be effected: Billy is hanging from the yard-end. But the execution is described as marvelous, with the powerful ironic implication that it is an execution in name only—the empty gesture of suspending a body already dead and in fact so lifeless that the inevitable spasmodic movement is phenomenally absent: “In the pinioned figure, arrived at the yard-end, to the wonder of all no motion was apparent save that created by the ship's motion, in moderate weather so majestic in a great ship ponderously cannoned” (Ch. 26, p. 730). This “prodigy of repose in the form suspended in air” (Ch. 28, p. 733) becomes the subject of conversation between the Surgeon and the Purser in Chapter 27 which, in Melville's characteristically whimsical and digressive manner, offers the direction for an explanation of the prodigy in the Surgeon's determined effort to keep the discussion from venturing outside “the lexicon of science” into the “imaginative and metaphysical.” Such speculation is “in short, Greek,” to him, as he puts it in his punning dismissal of the Purser's conjecture that Billy died by “a species of euthanasia.” He dismisses another conjecture, his own: “Even should one assume the hypothesis that at the first touch of the halyards the action of Budd's heart, intensified by extraordinary emotion at its climax, abruptly stopped … even under that hypothesis how account for the phenomenon [absence of spasmodic movement] that followed?” (p. 731). The Surgeon professes to be unperplexed. But it is clear that he is perplexed and irritated by a fact he cannot explain on scientific grounds, and hides behind the discreetly conventional and defensive definition of the phenomenal as merely “an appearance the cause of which is not immediately to be assigned.” The scientific expert is subtly ridiculed:6 he boasts that under his supervision the hanging had been “scientifically conducted,” and yet even on his own terms he is an absurd reader of appearances; for his hypothesis that Billy died of emotional shock stands ridiculously in contrast to the fact that at the moment of execution Billy was unusually calm and spoke “words wholly unobstructed” by a speech defect which everywhere in the novel is the sign of emotional tension.

The fanciful speculation of the man of science, his ill-disguised irritation, and his determined evasion of the issue on grounds other than scientific, draw into relief the mystery of a detail in Billy's death and suggest as valid the very possibilities he dismisses—a painless and providential death at the moment before the suspension. The reality the law intends, and presumably exacts, is the pain and ignominy of death by the rope. But from an inside point of view (Melville subtitled the novel “An inside narrative”) this reality is reversed: death is beforehand, and the law is ironically allowed the hanging of a body beyond pain and ignominy.

The revelatory detail of a lifeless body ascending would by itself subtly suggest the sense of the gallows cheated, as if nature were intervening and protesting the injustice.7 The suggestion is supported by a religious context of Divine manifestation (“glory”), deliverance (“Lamb of God”), and rebirth (“dawn”). The ascension of Billy into “the full rose of the dawn,” and the backdrop of “vapory fleece … shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision,” transform the hanging scene into a symbolic and Divine tableau (Ch. 26, pp. 729–30). In Biblical usage “glory” is the equivalent of “Shekinah” in its primary sense of a visible manifestation of Divinity;8 and this sense is unmistakable in the unrevised version of the novel which reads, “the full shekinah of that grand dawn.”9 The Lamb of God is not only a symbol of the sacrificial victim, the only symbol commentators see in the hanging as analogous to Christ's Sacrifice; it is also a symbol of deliverance from pain and death. It is so understood in Clarel in a passage based on Revelations VII, 13–17:

A fleece—the Fleece upon a throne!
And a great voice he hears which saith,
Pain is no more, no more is death;
I wipe away all tears: Come, ye,
Enter, it is eternity.(10)

This symbolism has a dual meaning: a stricture on brutal injustice in a man-of-war world, and a severe one since contextually it has a Divine sanction; and an act of salvation and a hope beyond death. In resolving the theme and counter-theme the symbolic ending runs the risk of committing the fault of the deus ex machina. It somewhat melodramatically offers a marvelous death, something of a conventional rescue, and a bright spot in an otherwise bleak and frightening picture of the necessity of evil. This melodramatic effect is perhaps poorly handled. But at least it is structurally prepared for. And construing the symbolism in the ending as ironic device argues an effect that contextually does not fit. Elsewhere in the novel the narrator treats Biblical references and parallels (e.g., Adam-Billy and Satan-Claggart; Abraham-Vere and Isaac-Billy) without equivocation and from a point of view no different from Melville's, who has learned that “Coke and Blackstone hardly shed so much light into obscure spiritual places as the Hebrew prophets” (Ch. 11, p. 674). In Chapters 11 and 12 Melville pushes the impersonal narrator aside, and speaking in his own voice uncovers a markedly deferential attitude toward the Bible and complains that it has ceased being authoritative: “if that lexicon which is based on Holy Writ were any longer popular, one might with less difficulty define and denominate certain phenomenal men [like Claggart]. As it is, one must turn to some authority not liable to the charge of being tinctured with Biblical element” (p. 674). The complaint is relevant to Melville's problem of handling materials which “savor of Holy Writ in its phrase ‘mysteries of iniquity’” in a skeptical age represented by men of science like the Surgeon. The complaint is caustically worded: “such savor was far enough from being intended, for little will it commend these pages to many a reader of today” (p. 676). These obiter dicta do not warrant construing the Biblical element as ironic device. At the very beginning the narrative is described unequivocally as a modern reënactment of a Biblical episode—a modern instance of the conflict between innocence and depravity “apparently going to corroborate the doctrine of man's fall, a doctrine now popularly ignored” (Ch. 3, p. 649).

Schiffman extends the irony to Billy, whose benediction of Vere in the hanging scene is expected to make the reader gag. But in the places where the benediction is anticipated (the trial scene and at the end of Ch. 23), there is no indication of ironic intention. Billy is incapable of the “sinister dexterity” of satiric insinuation (Ch. 1). The relation between Vere and Billy is of a sacramental sort (in Ch. 23 the narrator parallels it to Abraham and Isaac) which does not square with an ironic reading of Billy's benediction. Nor is such a reading convincing from the point of view of the narrator who, it may be argued, uses Billy as an innocent mouthpiece for irony. To the narrator, Vere is also a victim of legalism operating in the worst possible combination of circumstances: war and widespread mutiny. And by way of warning against adverse judgment of Vere, the narrator ends the trial scene with a quotation:

Forty years after a battle it is easy for a noncombatant to reason about how it ought to have been fought. It is another thing personally and under fire to direct the fighting while involved in the obscuring smoke of it. Much so with respect to other emergencies involving considerations both practical and moral, and when it is imperative promptly to act

(p. 718).

Construing the benediction and the symbolism in the hanging scene as irony may seem to enrich the meaning. Actually, it oversimplifies the meaning by obscuring a basic dualism—repeated from earlier fiction where it suggests Manicheanism—which runs through the novel: in the theme and counter-theme; in the twinned Vere, the legalistic Captain and the kindly father; in Billy Budd whose perfection is blemished by a stutter, a reminder that “the envious marplot of Eden” is still at work (Ch. 2, p. 650); and even in Claggart himself who feels, like Milton's Satan, an incipient love for his victim (Ch. 18, p. 689).11 In Melville's earlier fiction this dualism is the source of profound cosmic gloom and absolute defeat: Ahab does not kill the Whale, and Pierre suffers one hell and dies with a vision of another before him. Both heroes die in an agony of defiance and hate. But Billy Budd ends on a note of love in the sailors' apotheosis of their hero, which complements on the natural level the providential love of the religious symbolism in the hanging scene. Perhaps this note does not exactly argue a simple shift to orthodox belief and optimism. But it does indicate that nihilistic pessimism is at best an oversimplified reading of the meaning. Pessimism of some other kind prevails, but when the novel is taken in the round pessimism is seen complicated by the heavy weight of conventional religious symbolism and colored by a glimpse of an optimistic and transcendental reality in the hanging scene. The issue 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 eye.”12


  1. Joseph Schiffman, “Melville's Final Stage, Irony: a Re-examination of Billy Budd Criticism,” AL, xxii (1950), 128–136; H. M. Campbell, “The Hanging Scene in Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman,MLN, lxvi (1951), 378–381. See also similar scholarship cited by Schiffman, and Lawrance Thompson's Melville's Quarrel with God (Princeton Univ. Press, 1952), pp. 400–414.

  2. I quote from Jay Leyda's edition of the novel in The Portable Melville (New York, 1952), which in one important place (see n. 5 below) appears more accurate than F. Barron Freeman's edition (Harvard Univ. Press, 1948). Leyda's edition does not number chapters, and for the reader's convenience I follow the chapter numbering in Freeman's ed.

  3. Karl E. Zink (“Herman Melville and the Forms,” Accent, xii [1952], 131–139) convincingly analyzes the novel as an ironic commentary on social forms.

  4. P. 706. The MS in an earlier version continues (Freeman's ed., p. 235, n. 23) “not seldom an impracticable abstraction even in civil life and under the most liberal form of it.”

  5. All other editions including Freeman's read “judgment of Ananias,” which is misleading; for the reference is obviously to Acts V, 1 ff.

  6. Cf. Ch. 12 on physicians.

  7. From the description of Billy in Ch. 2 as an “upright barbarian” like Adam “ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company” to the hanging scene, the novel develops a Romantic contrast between nature and the conventions of “Cain's city and citified man” (p. 649). The contrast involves a sharp dichotomy; Billy's speech defect, for example, is attributed not to nature but to “the arch interferer, the envious marplot of Eden” (p. 650). The contrast with its implied moral strictures culminates in the hanging scene, which is etched against a panoramic backdrop of sky, clouds, and sun.

  8. See, e.g., Luke II, 9; John I, 14; Hebrews II, 3; II Peter 17–18.

  9. Freeman's ed., p. 266, n. 38. Campbell sees the revision to “the full rose of the dawn” as evidence of Melville's intention of toning down the religious symbolism. If this was his intention he failed to carry it out in many other places, and in the place cited the revision does not materially affect the religious meaning. The reason for revision may be stylistic: “full rose” accords better with the context of “soft glory” than the foreign and somewhat technical “Shekinah.”

  10. Works (Standard ed.), i, 325–326; cf. i, 141–142, and Nathalia Wright's Melville's Use of the Bible (Duke Univ. Press, 1949), pp. 31, 44–45.

  11. Cf. Paradise Lost, IV, 373–374; IX, 459–462; and H. F. Pommer's Milton and Melville (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1949), pp. 88–89.

  12. Similarly, a few years before beginning Billy Budd Melville, in a letter referring to The City of Dreadful Night, refused to see himself as pessimist or optimist: “As to pessimism, altho' neither pessimist nor optimist myself, nevertheless I relish it in the verse if for nothing else than as a counterpoise to the exorbitant hopefulness, juvenile and shallow, that makes such a bluster in these days—at least in some quarters” (Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle [Harvard Univ. Press, 1953], p. 268).

Harry Modean Campbell (essay date 1955)

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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 injustice of the hanging of Christ-like innocence and on this level should be taken as an echo of the earlier Melville bitterly reflecting on a universe out-of-joint, at the same time it should be seen as confirming Vere's judgment that at the last Assizes Billy will be saved.

This statement about Billy's salvation is certainly not any “complex at a point beyond pessimism and optimism, unbelief and orthodox belief”; it is simply cosmic optimism and orthodox belief. There is no balance between believer and infidel when one asserts that there is injustice on this earth but all will be made right in the next. In other words, if Melville implied that Billy Budd was in heaven, or was going to heaven, his position would be that of a believer and nothing more complex can be made of it.

Now let us look at Mr. Giovannini's argument for Billy's being in heaven. He says first that I overlook Melville's clearly non-ironic references to the Bible in Chapters 11 and 12 “which permit retaining the conventional symbolic meaning as part of the total effect of the hanging scene.” In other words, conventional earlier in the book; therefore conventional at the end. But the earlier references, though not ironical, are far from being conventional in the sense of indicating any triumph over the effects of evil. In fact, like Schopenhauer, his favorite philosopher in his last years, Melville seemed to consider the pessimistic truth of original sin as the only valid aspect of religion;1 like Schopenhauer, Melville had almost always used only those parts of the Bible which seemed to reinforce his pessimistic philosophy. Even Mr. Giovannini admits that in Melville's “earlier fiction this dualism is the source of profound cosmic gloom and absolute defeat.” And certainly the references to the Bible in Chapters 11 and 12,2 all of which are used to help explain the depths of evil in Claggart, are not different in tone from those in the earlier fiction. How, then, even in Billy Budd, can Mr. Giovannini argue that a pattern has been established in Chapters 11 and 12 which would “permit retaining the conventional symbolic meaning as part of the total effect of the hanging scene”?

The type of pattern which is really established before the hanging scene is even clearer in other aspects of the story and other comments by Melville that seem to have escaped the notice of Mr. Giovannini. In the first place, Billy was not religious and did not turn to religion even in the dark hours before his execution. For example, on the night before Billy was hanged, “the good Chaplain sought in vain to impress the young barbarian with ideas of death akin to those conveyed in the skull, dial and cross-bones on old tombstones; equally futile to all appearances were his efforts to bring home to him the thought of salvation and a Savior.”3 And, still more important, if the religious symbolism in the hanging scene is not to be interpreted as ironical but as really indicating that Billy is “saved” and his soul is in heaven, then it is indeed hard to account for the following emphatic statement by Melville about the “incongruity” of the position of a chaplain on a man-of-war:

Bluntly put, a chaplain is the minister of the Prince of Peace serving in the host of the God of War—Mars. As such, he is as incongruous as that musket of Blucher, etc. at Christmas. Why then is he there? Because he indirectly subserves the purpose attested by the cannon; because too he lends the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which practically is the abrogation of everything but brute force.4

If this brute force could be counteracted by the ascension to heaven of souls victimized as was Billy on earth, would the chaplain's presence here he called “incongruous”? On the contrary, he could not be in a more appropriate place.

Mr. Giovannini argues that Billy's death before he was hanged “strongly suggests a providential death which ironically cheats the gallows.” That it ironically cheats the gallows is clear, but that it is “providential” is not at all clear. Mr. Giovannini says that the “scientific expert is subtly ridiculed.” Perhaps so, but this does not prove anything, for the Purser, who is supposed to reinforce Mr. Giovannini's argument that this death was “providential,” is also ridiculed as “a rather ruddy rotund person more accurate as an accountant than profound as a philosopher.”5 The Purser first attributes this strange death to “will power”6 and then, on being refuted by the Surgeon, merely asks the Surgeon's opinion as to whether it might have been “a species of euthanasia.”7

Mr. Giovannini really considers only one of the several significant changes from the short story to the novel version which I noted8 as indicating that Melville was toning down the religious symbolism so that he would have just enough to point up the irony but not so much that it would be obscured. The one change which he does consider Mr. Giovannini tosses off by saying that the revision from “full shekinah of that grand dawn” to “full rose of the dawn”9 “… does not materially affect the religious meaning.” Nevertheless, “rose” is not a religious term and “shekinah” is, and the change would certainly tone down the religious symbolism. If toning down, says Mr. Giovannini, “was his intention he failed to carry it out in many other places.” To be sure, because there are not many other places in which this kind of religious symbolism is used. Mr. Giovannini completely ignores the other changes (from the short story to the novel version) which I noted, especially the addition in the novel version of the “ballad” supposedly written by one of Billy's shipmates, concerning which addition in the final version I had this to say:

In the last chapter the superstitious and ignorant sailors preserve for many years the spar from which Billy was suspended, and “To them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross.” [Melville's Billy Budd, ed. F. Barron Freeman, p. 278.] These, if anybody, might be expected to maintain that Billy was safe in heaven, but the epilogue, containing the “ballad” [Ibid., p. 279] supposedly written by one of Billy's shipmates, is a completely realistic version of the tragedy. In the words of the poem, Billy, commenting on his own fate, uses no religious language except to say that it was good of the chaplain to pray for him. There is the simple reference to “the running of me up,” [Ibid., p. 280] after which there will be a long descent, “Fathoms down, fathoms down,” [Ibid., p. 281] and a final sleep where “the oozy weeds about me twist.” [Idem]. Since this is the epilogue to the final version of the story, it would seem that Melville wished to end on a realistic note to correct any possible misinterpretation of his irony in the hanging scene.10


  1. See “Introduction,” Melville's Billy Budd, ed. F. Barron Freeman (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), p. 121 for Schopenhauer's position.

  2. See Melville's Billy Budd. ed. Freeman, Chapters 11 and 12, pp. 182–189.

  3. Ibid., p. 261.

  4. Ibid., p. 262.

  5. Ibid., p. 267.

  6. Idem.

  7. Ibid., p. 268.

  8. Campbell, “The Hanging Scene in Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman,MLN, lxvi (1951), 378–381.

  9. Melville's Billy Budd, ed. Freeman, p. 266.

  10. Campbell, op. cit., p. 381.

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

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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 intellectual history. Thus Billy may be interpreted as embodying the main outlines of the popular conception of Rousseau's “noble savage.” With Rousseau man is naturally good. He is originally supplied by a beneficent Nature with a set of responses which are sufficient for harmonious adjustment to all concrete situations that might arise in a state of nature.1 Peace and happiness are secured to the degree that Nature lives through man, and expresses itself in the unimpeded flow of his instinctual life. The natural response to an individual event is a kind of blind commitment justified by a strong faith in the Providence of a Nature whose infallible oracle is the urgings of man's instincts. Where Nature is thus ordered to the happiness of man the instinctual is an absolute good, and the intellectual, the principal of static formalizations, is a relative evil.

Further characteristics of this primitive man are supplied by the late Professor Thilly:

Man is by nature innocent and good; he possesses an impulse to preserve himself …, but he is also prompted by sympathy for others and inspired by religious feeling, gratitude and reverence. Morality and religion are not matters of reasoned thinking, but of natural feeling. Man's worth depends not on his intelligence but on his moral nature, which consists essentially of feeling: the good will alone has absolute value. Rousseau … denies that the development of reason brings with it the perfection of man.2

Duplicating this picture the innocence of Billy is the innocence of a “Baby” who has not tasted of the knowledge of good and evil. After he has witnessed a flogging his “impulse to preserve himself” is evidenced in his resolve scrupulously to obey every last directive of his superiors. It is his “sympathy for others” which prevents his reporting what ostensibly is the beginnings of a mutiny. The Chaplain, in his visit to Billy on the night preceding the execution, is struck by the religious calm enveloping Billy, though it is a religion which knows nothing of the reasoned discourse of traditional Christianity. Billy's adieu to the Rights of Man and his departing “God bless Captain Vere,!” far from ironical, are spontaneous expressions respectively of a gratitude for a happy home, and a reverence for one cast in the role of a father. Finally, the moral attractiveness of Billy consists not in any intellectual attainments, of which he has none, but in that pervasive simplicity which is a product of an unqualified good will.

For all these objectively good qualities, this Rousseauan primitive is not, from the theological point of view, a moral entity. His innocence is not that which ensues upon a conscious choice of good over evil; it is the innocence of the unknowing child. The perception of this non-meritorious innocence in part explains Claggart's disdain. “And the insight but intensified his passion, which … at times assumed that [the form] of cynic disdain—disdain of innocence—to be nothing more than innocent!”3 This sort of innocence, if credible at all, is so only in a special environment. A Rousseauan primitive can flourish only in a Rousseauan state of nature, and such, relative to the highly formalized Indomitable, is the Rights of Man, the discipline-free merchantman. Here the innocence of Billy flourishes to the peace and contentment of the ship as a whole. The antagonism of Red Whiskers is as direct as Billy's eventual resolution of the conflict. Unjustly provoked, Billy, spontaneously impelled by the instincts of the primitive, strikes his antagonist. Without benefit of bureaucratic contrivances, justice is secured and “it's the happy family here.”4 This conflict with its happy ending parallels and contrasts with the conflict aboard the Indomitable where Claggart's antagonism is masked and where Billy's primitive response leads to the death of both parties.

If Billy is primitive man, Claggart apparently is the apotheosis of Rousseau's conception of “civilized” man. Thilly describes this conception as follows: “Civilization … has corrupted our natural inclinations, producing the slavish and the lordly vices—servility, envy, hatred, on the one hand, contempt, arrogance, and cruelty on the other. …”5 Claggart embodies all these vices. He is servile to Captain Vere, envious and hate-ridden in his relations with Billy, arrogant to the crew, and cruel to those who incite his displeasure. Not content with these he must add contempt. “Even so was it that into the gall of Claggart's envy he infused the vitriol of his contempt.”6

From a different point of view, Claggart may be viewed as a restrained version of Hobbes's primitive man.7 For Hobbes the natural state of man is the “war of all against all.” Nature has, indeed, endowed man with instincts, but the free exercise of these results in a life which is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” If man is to attain any happiness at all it is essential that the state of nature be abrogated and replaced by a system of behavior uniformly patterned after a system of abstract rules. Reason as system-builder is the instrument of man's salvation, for it constructs an artificial society, which, when regularly adhered to, is proof against the bestial excesses to which natural man is prone. In Hobbes's state of nature there is no natural moral law in reference to which an individual's action may be judged good or evil, just or unjust. Accordingly, it is meaningless to judge the forms of an artificial society in traditional moral terms; the only relevant criterion is whether or not the forms guarantee the peace. The state of nature, being equivalent to a state of war, is the worst of all evils. A state of peace is the minimum condition of whatever good man may be capable of. On these premises absolutism is justified as the type of government best suited to maintain internal peace. Absolutism, however, need not be wholly arbitrary. An absolutist might rule according to laws, obedience to which provides a greater measure of happiness than would be secured under a different set of laws. But there is no absolutism so arbitrary that reversion to a state of nature would be preferable. In this philosophy the instinctual is an evil that must, for the sake of peace, be subordinate to a reason which is an unqualified good in relation to the state of nature as an unqualified evil.

Claggart's vices are those which, if unchecked, result in the “war of all against all.” As against the Rousseauan who traces all evil to the tyranny of a manufactured environment, Melville, siding with the Hobbesian, sees evil as an immanent concomitant of life itself. Discoursing on natural depravity he states, “Now something such was Claggart, in whom was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate. …”8 That natural depravity is no deus ex machina limited to the case of Claggart is revealed in the episode on “Lawyers, Experts, Clergy.” Here Melville is sympathetic with the contention that certain manifestations of evil are theological in nature and forever defy rational reduction. Even Billy is not exempt. While not morally blemished, the “marplot of Eden” has inflicted him with a stutter. “In every case, one way or another he [the Devil] is sure to slip in his little card, as much as to remind us—I too have a hand here.”9

Just as the Rights of Man is an environment appropriate to a Rousseauan, the Indomitable is Hobbesian in character. The 74-gun ship-of-the-line is a nearly perfect symbolic embodiment of Hobbes's Leviathan. It is the eighteenth century's monster of the deep; the triumph of human technology over Nature's most elemental force, the sea. Dedicated to peace through war, its mere 200 feet housed 700 men under such adverse physical conditions that battle casualties constituted an insignificant percentage of a high mortality rate. The function and character of Claggart are a true index of the nature of the crew. As master-at-arms he is the ever-busy policeman charged with suppressing the internecine war which in his absence would be inevitable. Given a crew drawn from the lower strata of society, overpopulation, a foul diet, long months at sea, all the other rigors of a seaman's life, and you have a situation potentially as explosive as the state of nature depicted by Hobbes. Only an absolutist code of discipline ruthlessly enforced stands between the ship as a functioning society and chaos. The duty of the master-at-arms is to insure the peace of the ship without which its operation as a combat vessel is impossible. If the master-at-arms is second to the Captain in functional importance, he is by the nature of his duties invariably the most hated man on the ship. Any man experienced in the ways of the navies of the world will recognize in Claggart an ideal master-at-arms. Judged by criteria appropriate to a less artificial society, he is far from an ideal moral type. But what are vices to the landsman are on the whole virtues when concreted in a ship's Chief of Police. To reinforce this point one need only imagine the fate of the Indomitable's discipline had Claggart been Billy. What infractions did obtrude themselves upon Billy's blind innocence would have gone unreported through the ignorance of a kind heart. It was just this sort of “kindness” that prevented Billy from reporting overtures of mutiny, the most serious of all naval crimes. Paralleling Billy's role of peacemaker aboard the Rights of Man, Claggart is the peacemaker of the Indomitable, but, being concerned with different natures, different environments, and different types of peace, their roles are by no means interchangeable.

Faced with the societies represented by the Rights of Man and the Indomitable, it might abstractly be asked which of the two Melville prefers. As in the case of a choice between Rousseauan and Hobbesian man, the question may seem to be irrelevant. The issue is not one of preference but of necessity. With the French Army everywhere triumphant on the Continent, only the British Navy stood between England and national oblivion. The mighty 74 was the first and last line of defense. No matter how distasteful to liberal sensibilities, in large measure ships had to be manned through impressment. The irony, so often noted, of Billy's impressment is not exhausted in the fact that he is taken from the Rights of Man. On a deeper level lurks the paradox that the Rights as a merchant ship is free to sail the seas only on condition that the sea-lanes are kept open by such a vessel as the Indomitable. And the Indomitable can protect the Rights only insofar as it is manned by men impressed from such as the Rights. The unhappy fact, given the times, is that if the Hobbesian Indomitable stands in conflict with the symbolic idealism of the Rights of Man, it nonetheless is the ultimate condition of the existence of the Rights of Man. By a curious reversal that is easily overlooked, the “artificial” is the basic support and condition of the “natural.” Western man, for good or bad, has as a matter of fact committed himself to a one-way historical path leading away from the primitive. Thus, for all his attractiveness, Billy is an anachronism. His death is not a redemptive act but the symbolic certification of an historical fact. The Rousseauan ideal is not merely incapable of realization; far more significantly, it is incapable of being existentially pursued.


The prospect for man would indeed be dim if by default Claggart constituted our sole ideal. But Claggart need not be considered an ideal. Rather he is the fact of original sin and as such gives the lie to the ideal that is Billy. There may be a place for Claggart in the world in which we live, and under certain conditions he may even unconsciously contribute to the peace and stability of society. However, just as Billy's innocence would have destroyed the office of master-at-arms, Claggart's particularized depravity, had it worn the emblems of the captaincy, would have destroyed the ship. His willingness to persecute a man who has provoked his enmity is clear evidence of a lack of that personal transcendence so necessary to the captain of a ship. While man may be Hobbesian in his natural tendencies and may require a Hobbesian ruler, there is nothing to prevent us from imagining an ideal absolutism wherein necessary laws are rationally conceived and rationally enforced. It is in this respect that Claggart definitely fails as an ideal and that Vere can be interpreted as a possible ideal.

A part of Vere is the embodiment of one eighteenth-century interpretation of that “good” word, reason. He embodies that type of reason which is popularly entitled Newtonian. It is a reason which has as its object universal and necessary laws, and which, abstracting from the concretely singular, rests content only in generalizations that admit of no exceptions. Impressed with the successes of Newton in the physical realm, many an eighteenth-century thinker was fired by the hope of extending scientific method to the social life of man. All reality is one, and if Nature finds its order and stability in universal laws, we must similarly look to universal laws to ensure man's ordered peace and harmony. This type of reason is for all symbolic purposes indifferently spoken of as “abstract,” “mechanical,” “formal,” or “isolated.” The literary equivalent of these terms is “detachment,” Vere's outstanding characteristic.10 Though gained in a different context, the epithet “starry” is apt. His intellectualism sets him apart from his fellow captains and officers. Ashore the practical seaman, unmarked in the slightest by his profession, passes as the normal civilian. Afloat he creates an aura of such reserve that he is even more isolated from his subordinates than is the usual lot of captains. Though commanding a ship-of-the-line, he is frequently detached and sent on missions more appropriately assigned to frigates. In opposition to these symbolic detachments from the various realities of his life-situation, Vere's literary tastes are depicted as non-formalistic and non-abstract:

With nothing of that literary taste which less heeds the thing conveyed than the vehicle, his bias was towards those books to which every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world, naturally inclines; books treating of actual men and events no matter of what era—history, biography and unconventional writers, who, free from cant and convention, like Montaigne, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities.11

An appreciation of the irony of this preoccupation with the concrete depends upon an appreciation of the role of Vere throughout the trial proceedings.

From the moment Billy strikes Claggart, Billy's fate is sealed. The confrontation had been arranged by Vere to prove Billy's innocence of any complicity in a mutiny plot. In an unforeseen way his innocence is indeed proved. But it is the Rousseauan innocence which, unable to intellectualize itself, instinctively and physically strikes out at an intuited injustice. Such innocence, being a threat to the ordered stability of a necessary society, stands condemned. What follows, accordingly, is not the determination of Billy's fate but rather the manner in which an already established fate is to be consummated. Since the manner is in the hands of Vere, the proceedings are more fruitfully judged in relation to him than in relation to Billy.

Superficially, the issue throughout the trial appears to be a conflict between “natural justice” and the exigencies of the military code, between a law that is cognizant of intentions and one that is limited to consequences. A simple distinction renders this view questionable. Granting the absolute character of the proscriptions contained in the military code, this absolutism in no way guarantees relevant application. In a word, we ordinarily distinguish between the absolutism of the content of a law and the variability of its relevance. Though Vere is depicted as on the whole a prudent man, without a moment's deliberation he convenes a drumhead court. The Surgeon, the Captain of Marines, and the First Lieutenant are unanimous in questioning the advisability of such an act. A drumhead court, invested as it is with the powers of summary execution and not subject to judicial review, is recognizably unqualified absolutism. Military codes, though noted for their rigor, provide for such a court reluctantly and only in response to circumstances that immediately and seriously threaten the fighting efficiency of a ship. Traditionally these circumstances have been limited to dereliction of duty in actual physical combat and to mutiny. Inasmuch as the former circumstance obviously does not apply, the issue of advisability reduces to the latter.

There can be no doubt that Vere believes Billy innocent of mutiny. His suspicion of Claggart motivates the confrontation, and in the trial proper he forcefully seconds Billy's disclaimer of the charge of mutiny. With ironic subtlety Melville supplies us with his attitude on the imminence of mutiny, and, hence, on the wisdom of convening the court. The apparently superfluous chapter presenting the report of the affair in the “News from the Mediterranean” becomes an integral part of the story when it is realized that this obviously lying account is the one and only account which would justify by military standards Vere's decision to convene the court.

Once it is granted that Vere has blundered in bringing Billy to trial rather than imprisoning him and awaiting the higher authority of the admiral, the trial proper takes on new meaning. It is no longer the trial of Billy Budd, who on any account is already doomed. Nor is the military code on trial; it is a necessity which in the hands of different human authorities is sometimes, but by no means inevitably, tyrannically and oppressively imposed. In any case, the severity of the code is justified by those fundamental characteristics of man which have called it into being. What is on trial is the competence of an exclusively mechanical reason to govern the affairs of man. That it is Melville's intention to try reason as embodied in Vere and to convict it as a redemptive ideal is inferred from an analysis of two scarcely detectable sophistries in Vere's argumentation, and is reinforced by a consideration of two “digressions.”

Vere, posing as the martyr of circumstances, avowedly champions the cause of the practical, but his cognitive processes are in fact triumphs of a theoretical reason divorced from the realities of the situation they are called upon to comprehend. Giving direction to the course of the trial, Vere holds that the central issue lies in the moral dilemma which arises from a conflict between military and “natural justice.” He worries lest the thoroughly professional members of the court, failing to appreciate this issue, decide on a basis other than military expediency. But this issue is not germane, and the worry is groundless. All Vere's arguments advocating the supremacy of the military code are in fact arguments against a straw man. The real issue is not the relative status of military law but its application in this particular case. As to Vere's worries, consider the composition of the court. By the very fact that they are professionals, and by the fact that their profession has its raison d'être rooted in the military code, they need no instruction in the supremacy of the military code. The First Lieutenant faced with the military necessity of impressing Billy is significantly impervious to the pleas of the merchant captain and to primitive instincts of “natural justice.” The uncustomary inclusion of the Captain of Marines in the court is equally significant. As commander of a detachment separated from the rest of the crew, he is Vere's strongest bulwark against mutiny. Thanks primarily to Marine detachments, the mutinies of the Nore were controlled and finally subdued. In matters of mutiny, the Captain of Marines is the schooled champion of martial law, for it is upon his shoulders that practical responsibility primarily falls. The novice after-guardsman who suffered the painful flogging came within the immediate jurisdiction of the third member of the court, the Sailing-Master. Such are the men Vere purports to instruct in the ascendancy of the military code.

The second and more practical argument advanced by Vere in support of executing Billy is that failure to do so would be interpreted by the crew as pusillanimity and an invitation to a rash of disciplinary breaches. This argument, unlike the other, at least has the merit of being relevant; its truth, however, is based on conditions that as a matter of fact did not obtain in the historic British Navy. For the professional seaman the contrary argument is the more probable. To hang the acknowledged “Baby” of the crew after secret deliberations—a circumstance later criticized in wardrooms throughout the fleet—may well have the effect of spontaneously congealing the otherwise fluid discontent of the crew. It will be noted that specifically in response to this possibility Vere took the precaution of strategically stationing armed Marines on either side of the quarterdeck before he announced to the crew the fate of Billy. That no organized discontent arose and that the ship was loyally fought against the Athéiste is conclusive testimony to the remoteness of mutiny.

That the members of the court accede to Vere does not witness to the soundness of his arguments but to the trap that reason sets for the intellectually innocent. Being Billy Budds in their inability to verbalize a counter-argument, the officers subdue their professional instincts by a Billy-like act of faith in the wisdom and goodness of Vere: “though at bottom they dissented from some points Captain Vere had put to them, they were without the faculty, hardly had the inclination to gainsay one whom they felt to be an earnest man, one too not less their superior in mind than in naval rank.”12

The limitations of formal reason—its partial competence is not in question—is evidenced by the digression following Billy's execution. Melville satirizes the Surgeon, symbol of scientific reason, for dismissing the singularity of Billy's death as being an instance outside any known general law. Like Vere, he has refused to recognize the existential significance of anything that does not fit nicely into an already established abstract pattern. An earlier digression on the possible competence of theologians as against lawyers and doctors, respective symbols of artificial and natural abstractions, testifies to Melville's belief in a world whose fullness is more than its rational reductions.

The irony which marks Melville's treatment of Vere should now be evident. Vere, the student of the concrete and critic of revolutionary reason—the theories of the French innovators “seemed to him incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions”13—is the incarnation of that reason.14 To the Hobbesian Vere, the laws of an isolated reason must transcend and dominate the instinctual life of man. Radically divorcing the instinctual and the rational, he can pontificate: “‘With mankind … forms, measured forms are everything; and that is the import couched in the story of Orpheus with his lyre spell-binding the wild denizens of the wood.’”15 Since man is by nature the beast of the Hobbesian tradition, society is possible only on condition that a superior and detached reason can succeed in bending the instincts—all of which without exception are evil—to its will. And, indeed, Vere has played Orpheus both to the court and to Billy: instinctual suspicion has been charmed to trust, and the killing fury of a primitive has been soothed to active resignation. Fully recognizing the excessive exclusiveness of this sort of rationalism, Melville, with apparent ingenuousness, leaves to the reader the task of evaluating the surgeon's suspicion that Vere is insane.16 There is not sufficient evidence to render a decision if insanity is taken in a medical sense. But if it is generalized to signify cognitive processes which, constructing an ordered world, mistakes it for the world of living men, then surely Vere is insane. On the same basis, Billy, too, is insane, for his cognitive processes are attuned to a world that simply does not exist. This unity of otherwise different characters is certified by Melville, for they are characters, “each radically sharing in the rarer qualities of one nature—so rare indeed as to be all but incredible to average minds however much cultivated. …”17 Primitive innocence unrelieved by intellectualism and an abstract intellectualism which heeds not the empirically oriented instincts—both are beyond the pale of experience. Good in themselves, neither one in isolation represents the truth of man's condition or the effective means for the attainment of whatever ideal he is capable of. Because of the goodness that Billy and Vere each in his own way embody, sorrow is experienced at their death. But because they were limited goods the Indomitable is able, without their services, not only to survive but to triumph over the very enemy which had called it into being.


What then? If Rousseauan instinctualism, with its vision of primitive innocence, and Hobbesian rationalism, with its vision of a statically ordered society, are incapable of supplying man with a meaning that can withstand the realities of life as he lives it, is there any substitute vision to guide man? If a vision must of necessity be utopian in content, then in the mature thought of Melville as illustrated in this work, the answer is, no; Billy Budd can hardly be accounted grist for the social utopian's mill. On the other hand there is evidence to support the view that Melville is no intransigent pessimist. Granting that the Hobbesian is right, that man is not the naturally good creature in whose hands instinct is the infallible instrument of peace and happiness, it does not follow that universal and abstract laws are the necessary conditions of whatever happiness man is capable of. These are exclusive positions which cry out for synthesis. Had innocence been a little more intellectual, or had intellectualism been a little more innocent, Billy Budd would never have been written. At the moment of death innocence blessed reason, and when its turn came, reason yearningly invoked innocence.

But does Melville believe that some such synthesis is possible? Can a necessarily formalized society survive if it is not wholly faithful to those forms which, though oppressive, give it existence? To those acquainted with the stirring career of Lord Nelson, Melville's lengthy digression on “The greatest sailor since the world began” is highly instructive. If a Navy is justified by its victories, then Nelson is the incarnation of successful leadership. But whereas Vere equates successful leadership with complete submission to form, Nelson is noted for his daring departures from forms which for a century had limited the initiative of battle commanders. Just one month before the mutinies of Spithead and the Nore, at the battle of Cape Saint Vincent, Nelson flagrantly violated the prevailing “Fighting Instructions.” The courage required for such a violation—it insured a British success—can be estimated by recalling the long list of officers who had been court-martialed for lesser departures. But Nelson, far from suffering disgrace, was acclaimed a hero, and the stranglehold of formalism on his generation was loosened. His ensuing successes can in large measure be attributed to his ability to adjust basic principles of naval tactics to the concrete situations confronting him. Parallel to philosophy, the formalism of tactical doctrine, though essential, is by itself insufficient to the reality it is called upon to direct.

As against Vere's belief in force as the best preventive of mutiny, Melville tells of the admiral who reassigned Nelson for the reason

that the latter ship having newly arrived in the station from home where it had taken part in the Great Mutiny, danger was apprehended from the temper of the men; and it was thought that an officer like Nelson was the one, not indeed to terrorize the crew into base subjection, but to win them, by force of his mere presence back to an allegiance if not as enthusiastic as his own, yet as true.18

This “force of his mere presence” was that feeling for primitive instincts which, contrary to the counsels of reason, led him, dressed in the uniform of his office, to expose himself in battle. As with Billy, this “prerationalism” killed him, but it also inaugurated a tradition which on more than one occasion has served Britain. If we take Nelson as an ideal in an artificial society, then an ideal synthesis of instinct and reason is attainable. That qualities which, in isolation, lead to destruction are capable of successful embodiment in a single individual is recognized by Melville in his summation of Nelson's character: “And certainly in foresight as to the larger issue of an encounter, and anxious preparation for it—buoying the deadly way and mapping it out, as at Copenhagen—few commanders have been so painstakingly circumspect as this same reckless declarer of his person in fight.”19

There is a final way in which a qualified optimism is suggested. The Victory, Nelson's flagship, and like the Indomitable a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, has been superseded in naval warfare by ironclads like the Monitor. While the ugly “cheesebox on a raft” is poetically inferior to the beauties of the old sailing ships, and while its increased destructiveness hardly bespeaks a progress toward peace, there is some measure of consolation. The advanced technology—a product of reason—which has produced the Monitor has removed those subhuman conditions which prevailed on the Indomitable and which called forth the more repressive forms of the military code. Most of the evils which incited the Great Mutiny were connected with the overcrowding occasioned by the need to man 74 guns and with an inevitable deterioration of diet occasioned by the long stints at sea a sailing ship was capable of. The Monitor, accomplishing the same purpose as the Indomitable, had but two rifles, and her dependence on fuel radically limited her ability to maintain herself at sea beyond a week. Compared with life aboard the Indomitable, a sailor of the Monitor enjoyed a free, healthy, and happy existence. And these gains were made without compromising military exigencies.20

Quickly summarizing the “moral” of this book, it appears that, even though man as heir to evil must have his being within the limits of the repressive forms supplied by reason, still, a judicious combination of instinct and reason can meliorate the crueler aspects of formalism, eventually producing a new set of objective conditions which require less repressive forms for man's governance. If this is not utopian optimism, neither is it unrelieved despair.


  1. This is the theoretical condition of man prior to determination by some set of formal laws. Thus, on the political level, the state of nature would connote the condition of man antedating the existence of government. It is to be noted that the state of nature is a relative concept implying the existence of the artificial.

  2. Frank Thilly, A History of Philosophy (New York, 1953), p. 407.

  3. Melville's Billy Budd, ed. F. Barron Freeman (Cambridge, 1948), p. 192. This peculiar innocence of Billy is, apparently, sufficient to rule out any interpretation that would view his fate as a tragedy. Billy is simply not a distinctively human being.

  4. Ibid., p. 139.

  5. Op. cit., p. 407.

  6. Billy Budd, p. 193.

  7. Neither Rousseau nor Hobbes would dispute the fact of Claggart's evil; the issue here concerns disparate theories as to the origin of that evil. From what follows I think it is clear that Melville, unable to accept a Rousseauan universalization of “natural goodness,” reluctantly and with qualifications accepts the Hobbesian version, drawing Claggart accordingly.

  8. Billy Budd, p. 187. Italics added.

  9. Ibid., p. 149. Italics added.

  10. Limitations of space prevent an adequate analysis of those characteristics of Newtonian reason which make of “detachment” a perfect symbol.

  11. Billy Budd, pp. 163–164. Italics added.

  12. Ibid., pp. 248–249.

  13. Ibid., p. 164.

  14. Overemphasis of political differences in Hobbes and Locke is apt to obscure their fundamentally similar conceptions of reason and of the forms of those laws which are its object.

  15. Billy Budd, p. 272.

  16. A similar suspicion was raised against the captain of the Sommers.

  17. Billy Budd, p. 251.

  18. Ibid., p. 159. Italics added.

  19. Ibid., p. 156.

  20. From this point of view the same historical process which renders the Indomitable obsolete undermines the grounds that hitherto “legitimated” a Claggart-type master-at-arms. Thus, something of Claggart's evil is as much an anachronism as the innocence of Billy and the detached reason of Vere. It is, perhaps, for this reason that all three share the same symbolic fate, viz., death.

Milton R. Stern (essay date 1957)

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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?

—[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 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, and the importance of man's morality grows on the social and historical scale. That they all perpetuate a crazy history of crime and error. Sacrifice of self to ideal is not self-sacrifice at all, Melville has suggested, but rather it is that indulgence of self which is the ultimate romantic selfishness. What is needed is a tactically wise, if often distasteful and unspectacular, sacrifice of self to the historical moment. Except for King Media, Melville so far has given us no one willing or able to practice this particularly contemporary, larger-and-smaller-than-traditional sacrifice. In Billy Budd he does.

The nature of the governor and the nature of the sacrifice demand an emphasis not on individualism, certainly, or self-expression per se, but on control—which is at the center of Melville's political classicism.

Melville introduces the need for planning by slyly setting the reader at ease with a promise of “that pleasure which is wickedly said to be in [literary] sinning.” With such a sin Melville announces that he is “going to err into … a bypath” which turns out, after all, to be the direct road into the center of this “inside narrative.” Enticed into the bypath, “anybody who can hold the Present at its worth without being inappreciative of the Past,” finds in “the solitary old hulk at Portsmouth, Nelson's Victory” a symbol of the conditions of victory, of good government, and of the ruler who recognizes the need for altruistic yet impersonal self-sacrifice to the realities of history.

There are some, perhaps, who while not altogether inaccessible [to the beauty of the past] … may yet on behalf of the new order, be disposed to parry it; and this to the extent of iconoclasm, if need be. For example, prompted by the sight of the star inserted into the Victory's quarter-deck designating the spot where the Great Sailor fell, these martial utilitarians may suggest considerations implying that Nelson's ornate publication of his person in battle was not only unnecessary, but not military, nay, savored of foolhardiness and vanity. They may add, too, that at Trafalgar it was in effect nothing less than a challenge to death; and death came; and that but for his bravado the victorious admiral might possibly have survived the battle, and so, instead of having his sagacious dying injunction overruled by his immediate successor in command he himself when the contest was decided might have brought his shattered fleet to anchor, a proceeding which might have averted the deplorable loss of life by shipwreck in the elemental tempest that followed the martial one.

Well, should we set aside the more disputable point whether for various reasons it was possible to anchor the fleet, then plausibly enough the Benthamites of war may urge the above.

But the might have been is but boggy ground to build on. And certainly in foresight as to the larger issue of an encounter, and anxious preparation for it—buoying the deadly way and mapping it out, as at Copenhagen—few commanders have been so painstakingly circumspect as this same reckless declarer of his person in fight.

Personal prudence even when dictated by quite other than selfish considerations is surely no special virtue in a military man; while an excessive love of glory, impassioning a less burning impulse the honest sense of duty, is the first. If the name Wellington is not so much a trumpet to the blood as the simpler name Nelson, the reason for this may perhaps be inferred from the above. Alfred in his funeral ode on the victor of Waterloo ventures not to call him the greatest soldier of all time, though in the same ode he invokes Nelson as “the greatest sailor since the world began.”

At Trafalgar Nelson on the brink of opening the fight sat down and wrote his last brief will and testament. If under the presentiment of the most magnificent of all victories to be crowned by his own glorious death, a sort of priestly motive led him to dress his person in the jewelled vouchers of his own shining deeds; if thus to have adorned himself for the altar and the sacrifice were indeed vainglory, then affectation and fustian is each more heroic line in the great epics and dramas, since in such lines the poet but embodies in verse those exaltations of sentiment that a nature like Nelson, the opportunity being given, vitalizes into acts

[pp. 822–24].

The goal at the end of this bypath is a statement of the kind of heroism that, unlike the quester's courage, may lead to salvation, and that the reader is led to expect to find in the other Great Sailor, Captain Vere. Practical recognition of actualities is not attacked in this brief excursion—“the might have been is but boggy ground to build on.” Both cheap hindsight and absolutist evaluations are tossed aside with the rejection of any should-have-been or might-be or must-be that does not grow out of the conditioning historical facts which inevitably become a particular historical result. Hand in hand with this rejection is the attack on “martial utilitarians,” who, in this context, are the dry tactitians who can see tactics only. Strategy, empiricism, tactics, Melville says here, while of prime importance, cannot be divorced from the greatest communal aspirations—“the larger issue.” The fact of the existence of aspiration, and recognition of larger issues, makes it necessary to reckon with human nobility and heroism as factors in tactical action. The nonrational gloriousness of which man is capable cannot be denied—indeed must be depended upon—in strategy which is to win the greatest human victories. In attacking the might-have-been and the Benthamites of war, Melville attacks the function of head minus heart, the power politics minus the informing vision. And because the informing vision is a social, historical vision, and because man is at once unbelievably heroic and unbelievably blind and base, the leader must combine Machiavellian circumspect foresight with the glorious and heartful act. The Machiavellian prudence channels and controls blind, base man, and the glorious act vitalizes the controlled and channeled man into the proper acts in which his inspired heroism can victoriously operate. The hero thus is a political and moral administrator. The standing in one's fullest magnificence upon the beleaguered quarter-deck of the state stems not from the personal and pathetically heroic idealism of the quester, but from the social and tactical vision of the leader who recognizes that the historical moment demands the sacrifice of self to the possible victory that the combined head and heart may achieve. Thus the shrewdly heroic Nelson, who deliberately and purposefully went out, in the shining medals of his honor, to tempt death.

Thus too, this modern Nelson-hero-Administrator is, like the quester, self-consuming. But unlike the quester, he consumes himself as an inspiration which will result in victory concerning the larger, social issue. He places himself on the altar of “the honest sense of duty,” making his very using up of one-self a man-self triumph which saves rather than destroys the ship. And the difference between the Nelson-Vere-captain and the Ahab-captain exists most centrally in this matter of the empirically, communally, historically centered rather than the idealistically, self-centered predisposition. Indeed, “few commanders have been so painstakingly circumspect as this same reckless declarer of his person in fight,” and “while an excessive love of glory … is the first … special virtue in a military man,” Nelson's love of glory was no more motivated by Ahabian glory, or vainglory, than his painstaking circumspection was motivated by “personal prudence.” The implication is that the gloriousness itself, which was always there, would never have been displayed had it not been the tactical move which resulted in the preservation and triumph of the human community, had it not been the socially conscious, altruistic “exaltations of sentiment … vitalized into acts.” So too, Vere's captaincy is not the glory that leads the Ahab-led Ishmael to utter the Solomonic “All is vanity. ALL.” Not at all vain, when Vere is ashore

in the garb of a civilian scarce any one would have taken him for a sailor, more especially that he never garnished unprofessional talk with nautical terms, and grave in his bearing, evinced little appreciation of mere humor. It was not out of keeping with those traits that on a passage when nothing demanded his paramount action, he was the most undemonstrative of men. Any landsman observing this gentleman not conspicuous by his stature and wearing no pronounced insignia, emerging from his cabin retreat to the open deck and noting the silent deference of the officers retiring to leeward, might have taken him for the King's guest, a civilian aboard the King's ship, some highly honorable discreet envoy on his way to an important post. But in fact this unobtrusiveness of demeanor may have proceeded from a certain unaffected modesty of manhood sometimes accompanying a resolute nature, a modesty evinced at all times not calling for pronounced action, and which shown in any rank of life suggests a virtue aristocratic in kind

[p. 826].

The preparation for Vere made by the Nelson “divergence” exists in more than the nature of self-sacrifice. Not only must Nelson sacrifice the most gloriously beautiful self in order to insure the historically possible larger issue, but so also must Vere, in the rejection of the might-have-been, do the same. But in addition, just as there is no one left to whom Nelson can delegate the proper conduct of the ship of state (“his sagacious dying injunction overruled by his immediate successor”) so there is no one left to whom Vere can delegate the proper power and insight. In the perfectly complete parallel between Nelson and Vere, Melville says that if human society can win a victory over itself, no one man can insure the perpetuity of the outcome. Perhaps the governor must be a community of rule. Perhaps, indeed, lasting victory cannot be achieved from the top down at all. Not only is there the implicit rejection of the great-man theory along with the recognition of the identity of the truly great man, but there is the frustrating irony which places destiny in the hands of the general, common man. Because of his blindness, general, common man cannot be led by his nobility (the administrator's self-sacrifice provides the leadership) and there is no avenue left open to the gregarious advancement, which is the only lasting one. Because in Billy Budd Melville comes most closely to grips with the problem of rule, the political alternative to his metaphysical rejections, and because the facts of his experience showed him no solution to the problem, Billy Budd has the angry, bitter, frustrated tone which too few readers have noticed in their agreement to call the story a testament of acceptance.

Melville orients the elements of Vere's sacrifice as historically as he does Nelson's. He sets up the conditions of Vere's choice in a specific moment which extends to the general history of order and community versus anarchic atheism, in Melville's sense, and atomistic individualism.

Billy himself, as the lure, is a familiar figure. He is the element to which Vere reacts, and it is important that Billy is dragged out of The Rights of Man onto The Indomitable “in the year of the Great Mutiny.” He enters actual rather than theoretical human history at a moment when order is threatened and when the felicities of the rights of man are absent because the whole world is in another Mar-di. In the total historical picture, the man-of-war world, wrong as it is, is all that exists. Man can either, like the quester, renounce it, or can try to preserve order so that the social instruments which are the actuality may be used to attain felicity. Like tactics, order per se is not the point. Melville's political classicism cannot possibly be construed as totalitarianism. Vere, it is stated, does not maintain order for its own sake. Vere sees order as necessary for a reconciliation of opposites and a suppression of chaos-bringing disruption. The paradox is that in the predatory world, in which the gun robs man of his felicities, the wrong instrument is that very felicity itself, which in the character of Billy Budd is characterized as the nonpredatory Typee-child savage “—a Tahitian say of Captain Cook's time. … Out of natural courtesy he received but did not appropriate … like a gift placed on the palm of an outstretched hand upon which the fingers do not close.”

Billy is presented in a world where the Articles of War and the Sermon on the Mount are the two opposites which compose the choice open to man in the universal history of the war. The preface to the novelette brings the choice into immediate focus. “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.” It is curious that Melville sums up the universal history in the term “Christendom” (wherein one of the main actors is a pagan “Tahitian,” as it were), for within this “inside narrative” one need go no further than the chaplain's interview with Billy to find Melville's Solomonic, unchristian, cultural relativism, or his view of Christendom (the official term) as a false appearance. The Tahitian is closer to the Sermon on the Mount than to “Christendom's” Articles of War. The clue to Melville's preparation for Billy lies in the assertion that it is Christendom's most momentous time. There are a few alternatives for this assertion, other than the year 1797, but they all add up to the same thing. Immediately suggested are the birth and adoration of the Christ Baby, the Passion, or the Fall. And just as Melville uses Typee or Saddle Meadows or Serenia to demonstrate universal points of development, so in Billy Budd Melville tells his history of humanity in a reworking of the Adam-Christ story, placing prelapsarian Adam and the Christ on a man-of-war, and demonstrating the inevitability of the Fall and the necessity of the Crucifixion.

The Preface is complete in itself as the setting in which that beautiful self, Christ, is introduced. In this setting, the Sermon is as distinct from the Articles as the French Revolution is distinct from Vere's England. The problems of rule are introduced in the implicit question, in the actuality of a world torn by chaos and rules by the gun, what are the proper means and ends?

“Now, as elsewhere hinted, it was something caught from the Revolutionary Spirit that at Spithead emboldened the man-of-war's men to rise against real abuses, long-standing ones, and afterwards at the Nore to make inordinate and aggressive demands, successful resistance to which was confirmed only when the ringleaders were hung for an admonitory spectacle to the anchored fleet. Yet in a way analogous to the operation of the Revolution at large the Great Mutiny, though by Englishmen naturally deemed monstrous at the time, doubtless gave the first latent prompting to most important reforms in the British Navy

[p. 805].

Throughout the story, the quester-like, ideal-seeking destructiveness of the Spirit of the Age broods in the background against which the major action takes place. Despite its good intentions and real justifications, the gun wielded by the spirit championing the rights of man is an emblem of the perpetuation of all the sins of history by the good-badness of tactically misdirected human aspiration. Melville insists so strongly upon the background of the narrative, that, extended as it is by its connection with a retelling of the Christ story, it becomes the actuality of all history. Simply, there is no escaping the conditions in which Vere must act:

[The Nore] was indeed a demonstration more menacing to England than the contemporary manifestoes and conquering and proselyting armies of the French Directory.

To the British Empire the Nore Mutiny was what a strike in the fire-brigade would be to London threatened by general arson. In a crisis when the Kingdom might well have anticipated the famous signal that some years later published along the naval line of battle what it was that upon occasion England expected of Englishmen; that was the time when at the mast-heads of the three-deckers and seventy-fours moored in her own roadstead—a fleet, the right arm of a Power then all but the sole free conservative one of the Old World, the blue-jackets, to be numbered by thousands, ran up with hurras the British colors with the union and cross wiped out; by that cancellation transmuting the flag of founded law and freedom defined, into the enemy's red meteor of unbridled and unbounded revolt. Reasonable discontent growing out of practical grievances in the fleet had been ignited into irrational combustion as by live cinders blown across the Channel from France in flames

[pp. 819–20].

Again, in Chapter V, after the conditions of rule have been explored in the Nelson episode, Melville once more warns that “Discontent foreran the Two Mutinies, and more or less it lurkingly survived them. Hence it was not unreasonable to apprehend some return of trouble sporadic or general.”

Into this history Christ is born. If the fall of man, for Melville, is neither a mythical nor chronological actuality, but is merely a symbol of the beginningless and symbolic facts of all human history, then again, as Typee suggested, Eden never was, fallen man is actual man trapped in his own history, and the prelapsarian and pure must be out of history, indeed out of time. Thus, when Melville introduces Billy as

a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.

And here be it submitted that apparently going to corroborate the doctrine of man's fall, a doctrine now popularly ignored, it is observable that where certain virtues pristine and unadulterate peculiarly characterize anybody in the external uniform of civilization, they will upon scrutiny seem not to be derived from custom or convention but rather to be out of keeping with these, as if indeed exceptionally transmitted from a period prior to Cain's city and citified man …

[pp. 817–18].

he is implicitly advocating neither the nineteenth-century primitivism that derives from a quester-like insistence upon self, nor the eighteenth-century primitivism that derives from the sensationalism and institutionalism whose political corrolaries were based upon the social compact and the natural rights of man. Especially within the context of Billy Budd's actions it becomes evident that Melville is continuing and summing up what he had said in his other books: given the only actuality of earth and time, then the transcendent purity, the Edenic, absolute morality, is something before history and which therefore comes from nowhere—is something that is literally as impossible as Yillah or Isabel or Billy himself, as impossible as the right-wrongness of the anarchic, individualistic, rebellious insistence upon the eighteenth-century idealism which Vere must oppose. Again, recalling citified man, Melville recalls the fact that like all the other lures, Billy, despite his existence, is devoid of experience, which though it is the hideous experience of “fallen” man, is the only history there is.

The conditions of Vere's choice must be further defined within the opposition of history and ideal. Whereas anarchical revolution is the bête noire of the piece, neither social revolution, nor imposition of order, nor any socio-political instrument per se is defined absolutely. Both Vere and the French seek the rights of man, the lasting peace and welfare of mankind. But in the search for human felicities, uncontrolled and disorderly action ironically has and will result in the denial of those very rights. The Vere will have to suspend the rights in order to institute the communal order which makes those rights attainable. The idealist will ironically defeat those rights just as the quester defeats his own purpose. So Vere recognizes that to speak of the rights of man as an abstract ideal is meaningless. The historical duties and responsibilities of man must be recognized and practiced before the rights of man become significant or can even exist in the actuality of man's “fallen” state. Thus it is not the fact but the tactics of the French Revolution with which Vere has his quarrel, for the Revolution as a justified fact has itself, like Spithead and the Nore, in unanticipated ways, brought about a step toward betterment and the lasting peace and welfare of mankind which Vere champions. “The opening proposition made by the Spirt of the Age involved the rectification of the Old World's hereditary wrongs. In France to some extent this was bloodily effected. But what then? Straightway the Revolution itself became a wrongdoer, one more oppressive than the kings. Under Napoleon it enthroned upstart kings, and initiated that prolonged agony of continual war whose final throe was Waterloo. During those years not the wisest could have foreseen that the outcome of all would be what to some thinkers apparently it has since turned out to be, a political advance along nearly the whole line for Europeans.” In short, the mutinies, the Revolution, the Rights of Man, and ideal aspirations all become merged (like the Sermon on the Mount, in opposition to the Articles of War) in the historical cycles of rightly motivated, morally justified action which is tactically mismanaged and wrongly directed against an order which, nonetheless, had to be challenged in the first place. Ordinary men, Jarl, Starbuck, Charlie Millthorpe, the majority of the ships' “people” in the French and English fleets, want what is good. But absolutely defined good, such as Billy implies, is inoperative in the actualities of history. The good can only be defined by—indeed becomes one with—the proper tactics within the historical moment. Melville is no more absolutist in his political classicism than he is in his cultural relativism; the problem becomes not one of order versus rebellion as such, or of suppression versus mass aspiration, but a problem of the proper tactics versus the improper tactics. As Vere insists in the court-martial scene, it is not the intention, but the consequences of the act that must be weighed. The problem is that of “atheism” (the well-intended but ultimately man-denying idealism) versus true “Godliness” (the communally disciplined use of the gun according to the historical view which uses the gun to destroy the gun). It is not so important that Melville may not have agreed with those thinkers who saw a political advance along the whole line for Europeans, or that he said that 1797 was or was not a year for revolution, or that he agreed or disagreed with the French Directory: the important point is the statement he reached for in using those events as symbols. That is, the moral intention, the absolute goodness by itself, is inapplicable to history and therefore a chaos bringer. The gun itself is sterile rule and power and prerogative for its own sake. Neither quester nor Machiavel, Vere is both. He recognizes that only by wedding the correct, disciplined, forced, social manipulation to a moral goal of social altruism can man achieve his Nelson-Victory over the chaos and atheism of history. Always the implication is that history is not a result of dependence upon or lack of dependence upon an absolute morality; but rather that since no absolute morality governs the cosmos, that the definition and even existence of morality arise from the historical situation which shapes its being.

Having set up the “fallen” state of man as the only context for reality, Melville now has to dramatize the impossible unrealities of man's supranatural, suprahistorical idealism. Billy Budd is first introduced in a view of the Handsome Sailor. The Handsome Sailor is not necessarily white like Billy, but, universalized by the Negro Handsome Sailor, he is the leader of apostles, the informing center whose physical and moral being sets the tone and direction of his universal followers' activity. He is

“a symmetric figure much above the average height. …

“It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humor. In jovial sallies right and left his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the center of a company of his shipmates. These were made up of such an assortment of tribes and complexions as would well have fitted them to be marched up by Anacharsis Cloots before the bar of the first French Assembly as Representatives of the Human Race. At each spontaneous tribute rendered by the wayfarers to this black pagod of a fellow—the tribute of a pause and a stare, and less frequent an exclamation,—the motley retinue showed that they took that sort of pride in the evoker of it which the Assyrian priests doubtless showed for their grand sculptored Bull when the faithful prostrated themselves.

“Invariably a proficient in his perilous calling, he was also more or less of a mighty boxer or wrestler. It was strength and beauty. …

“The moral nature was seldom out of keeping with the physical make. Indeed, except as toned by the former, the comeliness and power, always attractive in masculine conjunction could hardly have drawn the sort of honest homage the Handsome Sailor in some examples received from his less gifted associates”

[pp. 807–9].

When Billy himself is presented, he too is the Handsome Sailor characterized by barbaric good humor, by a tall, athletic, symmetric figure, by the ability to box well, by proficiency in his calling, by a highly moral nature. The Handsome Sailor becomes the kind of innocent that the most attractive Typee savage is, and the repeated mention of Billy's barbarian innocence and his magnificent physical appearance predetermines the genre's essential mindlessness. Once more, the prehistoric and griefless Typee mindlessness is associated with the Edenic purity of Christian innocence. Billy is constantly presented as the prelapsarian Adam, indeed, one who “in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the fall.” Melville repeatedly suggests that innocence, in the need for a knowledge of the history of the only world there is, is not a saving virtue, but a fatal flaw. The very goodness of Billy's ignorance of the world, while in accord with Christian teaching, becomes the sin of nonunderstanding, noncommunicating mindlessness marked by the stutter. Melville writes:

In certain matters, some sailors even in mature life remain unsophisticated enough. But a young seafarer of the disposition of our athletic foretopman is much of a child-man. And yet a child's utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and the innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes. But in Billy Budd, intelligence such as it was, had advanced, while yet his simple-mindedness remained for the most part unaffected. Experience is a teacher indeed; yet did Billy's years make his experience small. Besides he had none of that intuitive knowledge of the bad which in natures not good or incompletely so foreruns experience, and therefore may pertain, as in some instances it too clearly does pertain, even to youth

[p. 854].

The problem of Billy's mindlessness is not merely one of the Christ-like purity which is an absolute and predetermining absence of evil. The problem of Billy's mindlessness arises from his typically lure-like inexperience and inability to evaluate the experience he does have. Leaving no doubt at all about the nature of his rejection of ideal, Christly behavior, Melville sums up his statement about Billy by saying, “As it was, innocence was his blinder.”

Billy, then, is particularized as the Adam-Christ within the general type of the Handsome Sailor: “Such a cynosure [the Handsome Sailor], at least in aspect, and something such too in nature, though with important variations made apparent as the story proceeds, was welkin-eyed Billy Budd or Baby Budd …” [italics mine]. Billy immediately is the beauty and childlike purity of the ideal. He is called both Beauty and Baby by his shipmates, and the detail of his “heaven-eyed” face occurs again and again. Even in the ever illuminating matter of origins (on the literal level, Billy's origins will turn out to be something quite different), Melville hints that Billy's unknown mother was one “eminently favored by Love and the Graces,” and—who is his father? Well, “God knows, Sir.” The Baby is not allowed to continue his straight and narrow path within the chronometrical and ideal sermon of the rights of man, but is born into the actualities of the Articles of War. “It was not very long prior to the time of the narration that follows that he had entered the King's service, having been impressed on the Narrow Seas from a homeward bound English merchantman [the Rights of Man] into a seventy-four outward-bound, H.M.S. Indomitable.” In White-Jacket Melville used the ship image precisely in the way it was to be used repeatedly in other books: the homeward bound ship is the ship bound to heaven, to something final and absolute. The outward bound ship, whether wrongly or rightly directed, is the actual state of the world, ever seeking, ever subject to the dark waters of new and unknown experiences, ever plowing new paths in the boundless waters of infinite relativity. In the actual world, Billy continues his behavior of ideal Christliness. Chronometrically and mindlessly he turns the other cheek to all new experiences, accepting everything with animal insightlessness and the childlike faith of innocence. “As to his enforced enlistment, that he seemed to take pretty much as he was wont to take any vicissitude of weather. Like the animals, though no philosopher, he was, without knowing it, practically a fatalist.” The ordinary, hard-working, Jarl-world of common grave-lings depends upon Budd morality for the peaceful pursuits of an unarmed and productive world. When his merchant ship, the Rights of Man, is robbed of “man's earthly household peace” and “domestic felicity” by the arch-thief, the gun, Captain Graveling pleads with Lieutenant Ratcliffe lest the man-of-war remove the very possibility of a peaceful and moral world. “Ay, Lieutenant, you are going to take away the jewel of 'em; you are going to take away my peacemaker!” Immediately the Prince of Peace must be defined within the context of either the ideal, the Sermon and the Rights of Man, or hideous history, the Articles and the Indomitable. Immediately, first things come first, and the needs of the man-of-war world take precedence over the needs of the Ship of Peace. The bitterness of this story's irony and anger first becomes noticeable in the impressment scene. For Ratcliffe, who understands none of the things that Vere understands, and who can use the gun only in order to use the gun, makes the only possible, correct answer for all the wrong reasons. “Well,” says he, “blessed are the peacemakers, especially the fighting peacemakers!” And pointing through the cabin window to the Indomitable, Ratcliffe adds, “And such are the seventy-four beauties some of which you see poking their noses out of the port-holes of yonder warship lying-to for me.” For they, not the meek, inherit the earth.

Characteristically, Billy's transfer of worlds is accompanied by the predatory act of spoilation. Not only is the very act of impressment symbol enough, but the lieutenant bursts unbidden into Graveling's cabin, unbidden takes his ease and pleasure with Graveling's liquor, as though the act of taking were his military, world-wide right. To him Billy's impressment has only the meaning of his own selfish amusement gained by obtaining a prize at the expense of the Rights of Man. “Why, I pledge you in advance the royal approbation,” he says sarcastically to Graveling. Ratcliffe will not allow Billy to transfer his possessions from one ship to the other. The characteristics of the ideal cannot be applied to the characteristics of the real. What Billy can take with him is what Billy—“Apollo with his portmanteau”—can carry in a man-of-war's sea-bag in order to live a man-of-war life. But as for the rest of Billy's possessions, why, “you can't take that big box aboard a warship. The boxes there are mostly shot-boxes.”

And what the thief, Ratcliffe, says about his brother-slave-master thief, the gun, is history's hideous but inescapable truth. In a bit of preparation for Billy's felling Claggart, Melville indicates that when the Christ is a peacemaker, he must be a fighting peacemaker, and must suspend innocent peacefulness for the actuality of the moment. In a mindless parallel to Vere's position, Billy uses his fists as the only means for removing the necessity for using his fists. Talking about the chaotic living conditions aboard ship, Graveling says,

But Billy came; and it was like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy. Not that he preached to them or said or did anything in particular; but a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones. They took to him like hornets to treacle; all but the bluffer of the gang, the big shaggy chap with the fire-red whiskers. He indeed out of envy, perhaps, of the newcomer, and thinking such a “sweet and pleasant fellow,” as he mockingly designated him to the others, could hardly have the spirit of a game-cock, must needs bestir himself in trying to get up an ugly row with him. Billy forebore with him and reasoned with him in a pleasant way … but nothing served. So, in the second dog-watch one day the Red Whiskers in presence of the others, under pretense of showing Billy just whence a sirloin steak was cut—for the fellow had once been a butcher—insultingly gave him a dig under the ribs. Quick as lightning Billy let fly his arm. I dare say he never meant to do quite as much as he did, but anyhow he gave the burly fool a terrible drubbing. It took about half a minute, I should think. And, Lord bless you, the lubber was astonished at the celerity. And will you believe it, Lieutenant, the Red Whiskers now really loves Billy—loves him, or is the biggest hypocrite that ever I heard of

[pp. 811–12].

There is therefore, before the story opens, a history of experience to which Billy has been exposed. But his actions, even though dictated by the unchristly actualities of experience, were unplanned, unintended, mindless, and spontaneous as lightning. For Billy, precisely as for Isabel and Yillah, experience might just as well never have been. Billy is incapable of subtleties, “for Billy, though happily endowed with the gaiety of high health, youth and a free heart, was yet by no means of a satirical turn. The will to it and the sinister dexterity were alike wanting. To deal in double meaning and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to his nature.” Like Isabel, Yillah, and the white whale, Billy is alone in the world, and without connections in his human family. Beneath the exposure to experience—the orange-tawny dye of the tar-bucket and the glow of the seaman's tan—there is the lily and the rose. He is Lily-Yillah's rose-flower in the bud. He is “all but feminine in purity [and] in natural complexion … where, thanks to his seagoing, the lily was quite suppressed and the rose had some ado visibly to flush through the tan.” And despite the life of experience (the seagoing), like the young Pierre, Billy has not had a view of woe.

No merrier man in his mess: in marked contrast to certain other individuals included like himself among the impressed portions of the ship's company; for these when not actively employed were sometimes, and more particularly in the last dog-watch when the drawing near of twilight induced revery, apt to fall into a saddish mood which in some partook of sullenness. But they were not so young as our foretopman, and no few of them must have known a hearth of some sort, others may have had wives and children left, too probably, in uncertain circumstances, and hardly any but must have acknowledged kith and kin, while for Billy, as will shortly be seen, his entire family was practically invested in himself

[p. 814].

Not until it is too late does he recognize the inescapable trap laid for innocence, which initiates him into the wisdom and woe that brings “to [his] face an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold.” Not until touched by the hatred reminiscent of the sons of Aleema does the innocence fade and does “the rose-tan of [Billy's] cheek look struck as by white leprosy.” And it is the innocence which attracts the Satanism of the Ahabian man whose experience has demonized his heart in the fires of the madness that comes from woe. The imagery completes the picture of Billy as the tempted Adam-Christ pursued by the Spoiler, Claggart, for Billy is “as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.”

Billy's famous stutter introduces the idea that the inevitable relationship with evil, or history, is precisely what makes the Baby Buddlike Beauty a murderous and murdered thing. For as a man, Billy too is subject to external history, and must learn to evaluate experience. When Melville says that innocence was Billy's blinder, he says that as a behavior pattern for man to “square his life by,” Billy can only offer what is really the original sin of unknowledge. Again Melville uses the Christian mythos and symbology in order to make the empirical reversion of what to the unchristian Solomonic wisdom had been the inversion to begin with. The irony which makes the innocence-stutter a sin is enriched by its inevitable relationship, as a sin, to Satan, suggesting that because of his mindless purity, heartful Billy had always been subject to and would inevitably attract the attention of Claggart. Billy had no

visible blemish … but an occasional liability to a vocal defect. Though in the hour of elemental uproar or peril, he was everything that a sailor should be, yet under sudden provocation of strong heart-feeling his voice otherwise singularly musical, as if expressive of the harmony within, was apt to develop an organic hesitancy, in fact more or less of a stutter or even worse. In this particular Billy was a striking instance that the arch interferer, the envious marplot of Eden still has more or less to do with every human consignment to this planet of earth. In every case, one way or another he is sure to slip in his little card as much as to remind us—I too have a hand here

[pp. 818–19].

And Satan sent his subtlest card when he signed his name with innocence.

The man of experience can not believe the reality of the appearance that Billy makes. The Dansker, for instance, at first is merely amused by the incongruity of a being, like Billy, aboard the Indomitable. At first it is merely the amusement of wondering how, when, and where the pretense will be destroyed by the inevitable initiation. But as the Dansker becomes aware that Billy is what he seems to be, the Dansker's amusement disappears in thoughtful consideration of the symbolic situation which innocence and the inevitable initiation imply.

Now the first time that [the Dansker's] small weazel-eyes happened to light on Billy Budd, a certain grim internal merriment set all his ancient wrinkles into antic play. Was it that his eccentric unsentimental old sapience primitive in its kind saw or thought it saw something which in contrast with the warship's environment looked oddly incongruous in the handsome sailor? But after slyly studying him at intervals, the old Merlin's equivocal merriment was modified; for now when the twain would meet, it would start in his face a quizzing sort of look, but it would be momentary and sometimes replaced by an expression of speculative query as to what might eventually befall a nature like that, dropped into a world not without some man-traps and against whose subtleties simple courage lacking experience and address and without any touch of defensive ugliness, is of little avail; and where such innocence as man is capable of does yet in a moral emergency not always sharpen the faculties or enlighten the will

[p. 836].

Thus irony compounds irony; the irony of the man-trap, Claggart's, accusation of Budd, is given the further twist of a truth uttered by the liar, of the sin of innocence attacked by the evil and experienced man: “You have but noted [Budd's] fair cheek,” says Claggart to Vere, “A man-trap may be under his ruddy-tipped daisies.” The Dansker's elemental sapience makes him the man who can see what is going on in the swirling fogs that surround the necessities of action. (Later in the story Melville images the actual, historical present as “obscuring smoke.”) The Dansker is called old Board-her-in-the-smoke because he was wounded in a boarding action upon an enemy vessel. When the Dansker enlightens Billy about Claggart's enmity, Melville directs attention to the old sailor's scar, the emblem of the insights gained through the experience which has earned him his nickname: “The old man, shoving up the front of his tarpaulin and deliberately rubbing the long slant scar at the point where it entered the thin hair, laconically said, ‘Baby Budd, Jemmy Legs’ (meaning the master-at-arms) ‘is down on you.’”

However, the Dansker has not learned the one thing that Nelson and Vere know: sapient empiricism is not enough. Once in a lifetime a man impractically may have to expose himself to the dangers which he had always guarded against with practical strategy. Sometimes a man must chance his own destruction and play the hero. What for the quester is characteristic behavior must sometimes be performed by the true administrator, not as the self-indulgence it may so insidiously appear to be, but as a calculated risk. The Dansker cannot do this. For him the true behavior is the direction of wisdom toward that personal prudence which both Vere and Nelson reject. He is the typical G.I. who knows “the score”: “Years, and those experiences which befall certain shrewder men subordinated life-long to the will of superiors, all this had developed in the Dansker the pithy guarded cynicism that was his leading characteristic.” So he can see the truth, but his resigned and misdirected action is a development of noncommunicative cynicism by means of which he protects himself. “‘Jemmy Legs!’ ejaculated Billy, his welkin eyes expanding; ‘what for?’ …

“Something less unpleasingly oracular [Billy] tried to extract; but the old Chiron thinking perhaps that for the nonce he had sufficiently instructed his young Achilles, pursed his lips, gathered his wrinkles together and would commit himself to nothing further.” He can only hint at murder, but must, in the last analysis, allow the murder to take place nonetheless. Thus he cannot prevent the rising of the issue which may threaten social solidarity and communal order. Because he cannot make the kind of self-sacrifice of which Vere is capable, he can reform nothing.

But Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere is a man whose experience had not been lost in innocence nor yet sterilized in that cynicism which makes the inactive and practical and circumspect Dansker only a more humane and understandable Plinlimmon. Vere is totally active. He will not delay in making decisions, even when the decision is totally painful and when just a three-day wait would allow him to dump the entire problem in the lap of a superior officer. Yet, like Nelson, he is not the enthusiast or the gloryhog. Totally aware of the fact of consequences, he does not subordinate reflection to physical courage, which, Melville said, is the one characteristic that man shares with the beasts of the field. Vere's is the communal prudence; he is “thoroughly versed in the science of his profession, and intrepid to the verge of temerity, though never injudiciously so.”

As clear as Vere's position may seem to be, however, he, like Claggart, provides a problem. Vere's social philosophy is apparent within the story. His cosmic philosophy is not. Because the reader must supply Vere's and Claggart's cosmic motivations, Billy Budd is incomplete. Yet, although Melville could not justifiably devote space to either Vere's or Claggart's education (Billy Budd is the most impossible thing Melville attempted), Vere's cosmic view can be extrapolated from his social view and from the other books. In brief, the man's moral pragmatism and empiricism and emphasis on social order make it apparent that he has learned from the blank sea, at which he always stares, the same lesson that Pip learned from the blank sea in which he almost drowned. Presumably he has learned history's lesson of a naturalistic universe. In any case, unspecified as it is, his experience has resulted in the wisdom that is woe, and that demands of man a closer scrutiny and control of his own morality and actions than ever before. Vere is neither innocently mirthful like Billy, nor cynical like the Dansker. He is prominently and predominantly serious. His seriousness comes from history, and not from idealism. Hardheadedly realistic, Vere rejects the pretentious Titanism of the quester. Whether he realizes that there is nothing in the blankness to strike, like whether he realizes the fact of a naturalistic universe, is not anchored in direct evidence within the story. One can assume the affirmative in both cases, for in his nonidealistic actions, Vere subordinates self to community and desire to history; thus his wisdom that is woe does not slip over into the woe that is madness. He becomes the one man who sees and who is not the confidence man or the zero or the quester. Unlike Ahab, who is the one man to drive and run the ship, even to the point, Melville realizes, where it can be he alone who first spies the whale, Vere is the administrator who can allow subordinates to help direct affairs no matter how poignant any particular case may be for him. For Ahab the ship and the whale are self. For Vere the ship and naval order are society. Ahab replaces the world with his self and can only disregard the forms and needs and uses of society. Vere also captains society, but he does not misuse it. Ahab would dictatorially sentence or reprieve. Vere, however, feels that he must not only preserve social form by making the proper judgments seen to issue from the social machinery set up to decide upon tactics, but that he must also educate that machinery in the process. The one time Vere is permitted quester-like secrecy is in the closet scene with Billy, where he discloses personal feelings. Because he can force his decisions to surmount personal feelings, and because the consequences of personal and heedless reactions have been demonstrated in Billy's career, the specifics of Vere's personal reactions are not needed in the story. Painfully, Vere the man cannot exist in this story. Vere the administrator is the need. In drawing the curtain of secrecy, Melville evidenced thematic as well as aesthetic taste. Vere and Billy could not have spoken or acted in any way but that which Melville supposes, and the actualization of those actions and words would have broken the story's fine, constant edge of anger with a serrated space of lugubriousness. It would be lugubriousness because one's emotional associations with Vere arise from seeing that Vere does not weep. The entire motifs of appearances and self-consumption demand that Vere not be either in view or in life when he does give in to the heart beneath the tunic of the King's service, for then he would be one of us, not the ruler; his tears would make him but one more of the “people,” who are controlled by, but who do not control, the moment. It is of fundamental importance to know that Vere can weep and wants to weep. It should be (as Melville makes it) impossible to see him weeping. Melville must show only that Vere has earned a right to the ownership of his personal feelings, that he is aware of the demands of the heart and that the relationship those feelings allow Vere to have with the external world is “noble” rather than mad. For “there is no telling the sacrament, seldom if in any case revealed to the gadding world wherever under circumstances at all akin to those here attempted to be set forth, two of great Nature's nobler order embrace. There is privacy at the time, inviolable to the survivor, and holy oblivion the sequel to each diviner magnanimity, providentially covers all at last.”

Indeed the depth and sincerity of Vere's feelings make him the man of necessary heart as well as mind and power. “The first to encounter Captain Vere in act of leaving the compartment was the senior Lieutenant. The face he beheld, for the moment expressive of the agony of the strong, was to that officer, though a man of fifty, a startling revelation. That the condemned one suffered less than he who had mainly effected the condemnation was apparently indicated. …”

Because then, he is not the heartless Machiavel merely, Vere is the man who can understand the beauty of absolute morality, who can stare out at the amoral message of the blank sea, and who can, therefore, weep over Billy. For, as “with some others engaged in various departments of the world's more heroic activities, Captain Vere, though practical enough upon occasion would at times betray a certain dreaminess of mood. Standing alone on the weather-side of the quarter-deck, one hand holding by the rigging he would absently gaze off at the blank sea. At the presentation to him then of some minor matter interrupting the current of his thoughts he would show more or less irascibility; but instantly he would control it.” Personal, nostalgic, romantic, as well as philosophical thought may occupy Vere, but this man is not the Taji or Ahab or Pierre. This man sees himself as the captain of the small bit of man-of-war mortality, the only life there is, caught in the blank, eternal immensity of time. He does not go insane as does poor, weak Pip. He rechannels his thoughts, making earth's needs paramount, and returns to even the minor matter which pertains to the conduct of society. Unlike the quester, Vere does not indulge himself. Only in personal matters, when he is the father rather than the administrator, does he reveal his agony. The quester can never control himself as, Vere knows, the leader must. When faced with an opposition between his personal desires and the demands of his position, he too is dreamily tormented by private yearning, “but instantly he would control it.” As he asks the members of the court-martial, “But something in your aspect seems to urge that it is not solely that heart that moves in you, but also the conscience, the private conscience. But tell me whether or not, occupying the position we do, private conscience should not yield to that imperial one formulated in the code under which alone we officially proceed?” Thus the public man's conscious consuming of his private self. Thus the individualism, the ideal morality, and the primitive heartfulness—the Sermon on the Mount—placed squarely in opposition to public order—the Articles of War. And in one of Vere's speeches, Melville combines privatism, intention, individualistic and personal response (heartful as they may be), with the mindless chaos over which the “forms, measured forms” must triumph by giving effective shape to the idealism and absolute morality which the private self craves:

“Ay, Sir,” emotionally broke in the officer of marines, “in one sense [Billy's blow] was [a capital crime]. But surely Budd purposed neither mutiny nor homicide.”

“Surely not, my good man. And before a court less arbitrary and more merciful than a martial one that plea would largely extenuate. At the last Assizes it shall acquit. But how here? We proceed under the law of the Mutiny Act. In feature no child can resemble his father more than that Act resembles in spirit the thing from which it derives—War. In His Majesty's service—in this ship indeed—there are Englishmen forced to fight for the King against their will. Against their conscience for aught we know. Though as their fellow-creatures some of us may appreciate their position, yet as Navy Officers, what reck we of it? Still less recks the enemy. Our impressed men he would fain cut down in the same swath with our volunteers. As regards the enemy's naval conscripts, some of whom may even share our own abhorrence of the regicidal French Directory, it is the same on our side. War looks but to the frontage, the appearance. And the Mutiny Act, War's child, takes after the father. Budd's intent or non intent is nothing to the purpose”

[p. 881].

In Vere, Melville has the unopportunistic character through whom he can morally pronounce the necessity for pragmatic judgment. Moreover, unlike the bureaucrats who wrote the official version of Budd's deed, Vere sees through official, conventional appearances and does not save the officer caste for its own sake at all—indeed he condemns that caste to the necessities and responsibilities for the public judgments which slay the private judge. He realizes that one must defend the forms and appearances in order to use them in the struggle to reform the actualities which makes the “frontage” necessary. For Vere the historical must always take precedence over the ideal: first things first. “Speculatively regarded,” Vere says, “[Billy's case] might be referred to a jury of casuists. But for us here acting not as casuists or moralists, it is a case practical and under martial law practically to be dealt with. …”

“But … while thus strangely we prolong proceedings that should be summary—the enemy may be sighted and an engagement result. We must do; and one of two things must we do—condemn or let go.”

Placed in the necessity for action, man cannot appeal to anything beyond the wooden walls of his world. He must take his moral basis for acts that would otherwise be meaninglessly cruel from a recognition of the fact that his morality is dictated by history, as well as vice versa, and that he must be obedient—in order to attain anything other than a mere repetition of immorality—to his own relative and immediate actualities in time. “But in natural justice,” asks Vere, “is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow-creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?—Does that state it aright? You sign sad assent. Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval, though this be the element where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King's officers lies our duty in a sphere correspondingly natural? So little is that true, that in receiving our commissions we in the most important regards ceased to be natural free agents.” One cannot emulate the universe. First of all, nature in man may not be nature in the universe. Secondly, though nature in man may be the spontaneous heartfulness of primitive, childlike, barbaric Typee, two-thirds of nature is dark and Typee cannot cope with it. Time has brought man beyond the point where the simplicities of Typee-relationships are effective any longer. The leader's self-sacrificing allegiance is to a recognition of the historical reality (the King) with which the out-of-time primeval-beneath-the-brass-buttons cannot cope. Thus Vere brings the reader full circle back to the historical reality set up in the Preface, and reveals the lonely, self-denying, self-sterilizing role that must be played by the man that the Good Officer, the Good Administrator, should be.

“Lieutenant,” [Vere replies to that officer's request that Billy's penalty be mitigated] “were that clearly lawful for us under the circumstances consider the consequences of such clemency. The people” (meaning the ship's company) “have native sense; most of them are familiar with our naval usage and tradition; and how would they take it? Even could you explain to them—which our official position forbids—they, long moulded by arbitrary discipline have not that kind of intelligent responsiveness that might qualify them to comprehend and discriminate. No, to the people the foretopman's deed, however it be worded in the announcement will be plain homicide committed in a flagrant act of mutiny. What penalty for that should follow, they know. But it does not follow. Why? They will ruminate. You know what sailors are. Will they not revert to the recent outbreak at the Nore? Ay, they know the well-founded alarm—the panic it struck throughout England. Your clement sentence they would find pusillanimous. They would think that we flinch, that we are afraid of them—afraid of practicing a lawful rigor singularly demanded at this juncture lest it should provoke new troubles. What shame to us such a conjecture on their part, and how deadly to discipline. You see then, whither prompted by duty and the law I steadfastly drive. But I beseech you, my friends, do not take me amiss. I feel as you do for this unfortunate boy. But did he know our hearts, I take him to be of that generous nature that he would feel even for us on whom in this military necessity so heavy a compulsion is laid”

[p. 882].

Just as true individual identity paradoxically results from subordination of one-self to man-self, so Vere's kind of self-sterilizing, unlike the quester's, leads to potent effectiveness.

Vere is Melville's complete man of action, mind, and heart. His experience demands that his acts proceed from an understanding of history, and, empirically, “his bias was toward those books to which every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world, naturally inclines; books treating of actual men and events no matter of what era—history, biography and unconventional writers, who, free from cant and convention, like Montaigne, honestly, and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities” [italics mine]. And coupled with heartful and mindful empiricism is an eclectic time sense which sees all history as the unfolding of a pattern, all aspects of man's life equatable in different eras in the blank and inevitable passage of time. “In illustrating of any point touching the stirring personages and events of the time he would be as apt to cite some historic character or incident of antiquity as that he would cite from the moderns.” Thus, though set off from the rest of mankind as a man of superior insight and power, Vere never passes from the way of understanding. He can effect the kind of border-crossing eclecticism which the quester, who tried to cross borders, needed so desperately. Nonidealistic eclecticism gives men like Vere direct insight into the heart of the matter, and their “honesty prescribes to them directness, sometimes far-reaching like that of a migratory fowl that in its flight never heeds when it crosses a frontier.” His entire rationale for being is based upon the final characteristic necessary for the complete man: his goal is the betterment of the race and the communal attainment of the earthly felicities. Of course, almost every Melvillean character desires this goal, but it is not until Vere that goal and tactics are merged at last. Indeed, others may be political classicists simply because they are conservative or reactionary; but as for Vere, “while other members of that aristocracy to which by birth he belonged were incensed at the innovators mainly because their theories were inimical to the privileged classes, not alone Captain Vere disinterestedly opposed them because they seemed to him incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.” Vere's own political classicism is based upon a knowledge of tactics which can attain the revolutionary goals of the revolutionaries he opposes.

Because Vere is not primarily concerned with self, he knows when and how to delegate authority. Because he knows that few men can read the sea and human history, he knows the limitations of delegation. He must bear within himself all the tortures of choice and yet present to the ship's people a demeanor of calm decision. His focal realization is that as he goes, so goes the world—always, though, within the moment of history which shapes him.1 The cost, to the leader, of proper leadership is a frightful one, for the administrator must be all work and no play. It is germane to this consideration of sterility that Vere is a bachelor. With one exception, he leaves behind no lasting seed, and cannot delegate self in time. He must feed upon himself. He cannot regenerate; he can only reinform. History makes the man; the man can only choose the size of his own identity in history. Unmarried except to his “honest sense of duty,” Vere can only lead to the statement that Robert Penn Warren concluded from a study of Melville's poetry: Nature is time and cycle. All continues again, and history, as time, is redemption as well as fate. The lessons are lost and only dim myths of the physical struggle remain. In short, meliorism is trapped in determinism just as determinism is trapped in meliorism.2

As the major figure in such a thematic statement, Vere, in the closet interview with the Handsome Sailor, emerges as the story's real central character. Because he understands the beauty of the primitive simplicity and heartful innocence that he must deny, Vere has Billy Budd within his own inner being—there is the primeval beneath the brass buttons just as there is the altruistic motivation beneath the rigorous tactics. There is more to be said of Budd's origins and his relationship to Vere in any consideration of Vere as the central figure, but John Claggart must be scrutinized before that centrality is seen in its clearest light.

The satanic imagery that incessantly characterizes Claggart identifies him as the demonized man, who has always appeared as the quester. Claggart is not engaged in active search, yet, but for his Plinlimmonism, he is the quester reincarnate. His dark pallor, his isolation and “seclusion from the sunlight,” the lurid light that comes to his eyes, the fact that he is an alien about whose origins no truth is known, all indicate the man who has been removed from humanity by a stone heart which has been hardened in the man's own internal hell-fires. The pale, high, forehead to which attention is called as one of Claggart's identifying features, indicates mind and will as leading characteristics. Here is a man whose misty history hints at the quester-like experience which drives one to the woe that is madness. Indeed, if Billy is associated with the pre Cain-city of innocence, Claggart is associated with all the experience of citified man. “Civilization, especially if of the austerer sort, is auspicious” to Claggart's depravity. “It folds itself in the mantle of respectability.” Chapter XI is devoted to the removal of any doubt about the double fact of Claggart's experience and insanity. And this man of woeful experience is driven to longing and to fury by the implications of the looks of Baby Beauty Budd.

Claggart's was no vulgar form of [envy]. Nor, as directed toward Billy Budd did it partake of that streak of apprehensive jealousy which marred Saul's visage perturbedly brooding on the comely young David. Claggart's envy struck deeper. If askance he eyed the good looks, cherry health and frank enjoyment of young life in Billy Budd, it was because these went along with a nature that as Claggart magnetically felt, had in its simplicity never willed malice or experienced the reactionary bite of that serpent. To him, the spirit lodged within Billy, and looking out from his welkin eyes as from windows, that ineffability it was which made the dimple in his dyed cheek, suppled his joints, and dancing in his yellow curls made him preeminently the Handsome Sailor. One person excepted [Vere], the master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd. And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that of cynic disdain—disdain of innocence—to be nothing more than innocent! Yet in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it

[p. 845].

Again, like the problem of Vere's experience and motivations, the same problem applied to Claggart indicates the incompleteness of this “inside narrative.” The story is the capstone of Melville's thematic structure, and the meaning of the story can only exist “inside” the totality of Melville's works. Taji, Ahab, and Pierre leave no more that need be said to explain Claggart, but in Billy Budd Melville does not and cannot incorporate those characters, which it had taken three novels to develop, into a novelette which does not place Claggart as the central character. Perhaps unconsciously Melville depended upon what he took for granted, by this time, about the demonized man—perhaps consciously. At any rate, he depended—he did not create. Thus in Billy Budd, Claggart can only be another inexplicable heartless creature of the deep, one of the surprises that the universe always sends out from her frozen, teeming north to add to the store of external realities potential in man's experience. Consequently Melville does the only thing he can do. He evades the problem of Claggart by assigning—rightly, but incompletely—to that man a “mystery of iniquity,” a “Natural Depravity.” It is significant, however, that limited as he is by the focus of his story, Melville yet takes time to make it clear that the mystery of Claggart's hatred lies in, and is projected from, the realm of human nature, human experience, human perception, and human idealization. The mystery lies not in the absolute or the supernatural; it lies in the various perceptions of external reality.

Long ago an honest scholar my senior, said to me in reference to one who like himself is now no more, a man so unimpeachably respectable that against him nothing was ever openly said though among the few something was whispered, “Yes, X—is a nut not to be cracked by the tap of a lady's fan. You are aware that I am the adherent of no organized religion much less any philosophy built into a system. Well, for all that, I think that to try and get into X—, enter his labyrinth and get out again, without a clue derived from some source other than what is known as knowledge of the world—that were hardly possible, at least for me.”

“Why,” said I, “X—however singular a study to some, is yet human, and knowledge of the world assuredly implies the knowledge of human nature, and in most of its varieties.”

“Yes, but a superficial knowledge of it, serving ordinary purposes. But for anything deeper, I am not certain whether to know the world and to know human nature may not be two distinct branches of knowledge, which while they may coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist with little or nothing of the other”

[pp. 840–41].

In the chapter (“Lawyers, Experts, Clergy”) immediately following the discussion of X—, Melville makes it clear that neither assumed absolutes, legalities, nor theological idealizations will explain the mystery. Claggart's nature does not depend from any God that Religion assumes; nor does it depend upon the sociologist's “environment.” The demonism of Claggart depends upon the Ahabian perception of what experience teaches about man's cosmic status. This perception is not the sophistication of a Worldly Wise-Man, who would not be able to explain Claggart. It is a philosophical reading of history, not a legalistic recognition of history. The worldly wisdom which knows the artificialities of codes without reading the underlying meanings of human experience, such is not the woeful wisdom of the philosophizing Solomon. “Coke and Blackstone hardly shed so much light into obscure spiritual places as the Hebrew prophets. And who were they? Mostly recluses.”3 Since Melville cannot create Ahab in Billy Budd, he combines the incomplete presentation of the wisdom that is woe (Vere, truth) and the woe that is madness (Claggart) by evaluating Claggart in contrast to Vere. The contrast is an over-all thing, but perhaps is most noticeable in the matter of appearances, whose necessity both Vere and Claggart recognize. Unlike the kind of and use of appearance attributed to Nelson and Vere, Claggart's appearance and his use of appearances suggest anything but the hero. His “chin, beardless as Tecumseh's, had something of the strange protuberant heaviness in its make that recalled the prints of the Rev. Dr. Titus Oates, the historic deponent with the clerical drawl in the times of Charles II and the fraud of the alleged Popish Plot.” The man's studied obsequiousness constantly suggests that he is a prince of lies. He is “Ananias.” Handling his corpse is like handling a dead snake. He is a subtle serpent. “The superior capacity he immediately evinced, his constitutional sobriety, ingratiating deference to superiors, together with a peculiar ferreting genius manifested on a singular occasion, all this capped by a certain austere patriotism abruptly advanced him to the position of master-at-arms.” His iniquity and depravity have “no vulgar alloy of the brute … but invariably are dominated by intellectuality. … There is a phenomenal pride in [them].” Claggart's motivations are set off from Vere's with this: “toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of malignity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgment sagacious and sound.” And even the tactics are contrasted, for concerning Claggart, an “uncommon prudence is habitual with the subtler depravity.” The personal circumspection and the monomania mark Claggart as a creature of self. Like the Dansker, he knows the ways of the world, for the mythlike rumors about his past are filled with hints of an experienced, unsavory, woeful murderousness. Urbane, totally disguised, false and unctuous, he uses his knowledge of the world to satisfy his monomania. Vere, however, will not settle for dissemblance in others, for his own dissembling position demands a constant, never relenting, wearing hold of realities. When Claggart tries to play to appearances, softening, he thinks, Vere's disposition by refusing to refer directly to the practice of the pressgangs, then “at this point Captain Vere with some impatience interrupted him:

“‘Be direct, man; say impressed men.’”

In sum, the contrast offers the central reason that neither the existentialist nor the transcendentalist may enlist Melville's aid. Both Vere and Claggart have had and comprehended full experience. But Claggart has made self the instrument of reality, and his woe is madness. Vere has made society the instrument of reality, and his woe is wisdom. For Vere externalities may have a more fundamental reality than the realities of self. Not so for Claggart. Claggart rules his world for his own aims, and Vere rules his world for selfless aims. Claggart feeds himself to his own monomania, and uses appearances to further the reachings of his demonized hatred. Vere feeds himself to an altruistic sense of duty and uses appearances in the staggering attempt to control externalities for the lasting peace and welfare of mankind.

The Claggart-Prince of Liars lies about the appearances of experience—which he knows are lies. Everyone accepts those lies as truths, and Claggart lies when patriotically he seems to accord with what everyone accepts. His relationship to appearances and his relationship to Billy Budd are the same. Budd becomes the surface of an existence whose true facts are anything but handsome, and Claggart would avenge himself upon what drove him to demonism by exposing the lie of the handsome appearances. His feeling for Baby is Ahab's feeling for the whale, with the fury compounded of the added hatred Ahab would have felt had the whale further mocked him by being a smiling mirage of beauty, promising goodness and purity, so that not even other sailors would recognize it for the dangerous thing it was. It would be inexpressibly wonderful to believe in absolute goodness, to know that such chronometrical appearances but mirrored horological facts. But, in “view of the marked contrast between the persons of the twain, it is more than probable that when the master-at-arms … applied to the sailor the proverb Handsome is as handsome does; he there let escape an ironic inkling, not caught by the young sailors who heard it, as to what it was that had first moved him against Billy, namely, his significant personal beauty.” And if Claggart hates the comely visage of the Handsome Sailor, still does he envy the lie which is accepted by all because of its beauty, so that the woeful man's hatred is strengthened. It is all much like the hating, despairing, wistful reaction of the “old” Pierre looking back at the younger Pierre in Saddle Meadows. Thus Claggart looks at Billy Budd yearningly as well as hatefully, wistfully as well as scornfully, lovingly as well as balefully. Claggart knows the mess occasioned by acceptance of an apparently benevolent chronometrical thing. For the apparently inviolable being is himself but a product of mortal origins, (He is not better than I!: the hatred and envy), and he misdirects men's sight of reality (Don't believe him!: the hatred and despair). This is the ironic significance Claggart finds in the scene wherein Billy messes the “mess” by spilling his greasy soup, and which prompts Claggart to say, “Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!” For all men are subject to the same actualities, and no man's appearances make him invulnerable to the pitching and rolling of the ship of life. Had another sailor spilled the soup, Claggart would have proceeded “on his way without comment, since the matter was nothing to take notice of under the circumstances.” He cannot tolerate the sight of the man whose appearances seem to associate him, in men's eyes, with an indulgent reprieve from consequences, an immunity to what experience has proved to be the actuality of existence. Claggart has been driven to madness by whatever his experience has embraced of the two-thirds of the world that is dark. The woe which is his constant bitterness resulting from his own vulnerability to, and consequent insight into, existence, cannot tolerate the Beautybudd appearance which would seem to indicate that three-thirds of the world is light, and to promise an eternally beautiful flower.

The actualities of experience are the inescapable circumstances symbolized in the preface's treatment of the mutiny and the French Revolution. Because Billy's appearance denies the facts of life, Claggart would destroy the appearance by visiting those facts upon the Budd's experience. Precisely like the quester, Claggart, although initially he is right, thus becomes the champion and advocate of the horrors that murder the community. The very circumstances of mutiny and the French Revolution, for instance, are allied to Claggart in the rumors about his foreign birth and in the reintroduction of those circumstances in Chapter VIII, which is devoted to an introduction of Claggart. Thus subtly Claggart, like the Directory, is associated with “an aspect like that of Camoens' Spirit of the Cape, an eclipsing menace mysterious and prodigious …” and with “this French portentous upstart from the revolutionary chaos who seemed in act of fulfilling judgment prefigured in the Apocalypse.” Always the mysteries of iniquity are returned to the human sphere, for like Ahab, Claggart himself becomes agent and principle of the very horrors which drove him to woeful madness in the first place. So every sight of Billy re-intensifies Claggart's envious hatred, and “there can exist no irritating juxtaposition of dissimilar personalities comparable to that which is possible aboard a great warship fully manned and at sea. There, every day among all ranks almost every man comes into more or less of contact with every other man. Wholly there to avoid even the sight of an aggravating object one must needs give it Jonah's toss or jump overboard himself. Imagine how all this might eventually operate on some peculiar human creature the direct reverse of a saint?” Claggart can neither jump nor give the Jonah's toss. Yet he must destroy Billy's innocent appearance and immunity, for they are the lie his madness cannot tolerate. This is the motivation for his actions. And to all the “Pale ire, envy, and despair,” Billy must be blind because he is innocent.

The madness of Claggart is evident in his confusion of what Billy is with what Billy represents to him. Billy is but a husky, primitive child, after all. He is subject to consequences: he fears the whipping he witnesses at a disciplinary exhibition. He is not immune: the Armorer and the Captain of the Hold do distrust him because of Claggart's machinations. The “thews of Billy were hardly compatible with that sort of sensitive spiritual organization which in some cases instinctively conveys to ignorant innocence an admonition of the proximity of the malign.” In short, Claggart commits the same unforgivable sin that the quester does. He identifies the lure only by means of a projection of his own insanity, and would pursue this self-vision to the detriment of all the world. In striking at an idea, Claggart throws open the door to historical chaos by pursuing the idea at the risk of unsettling the necessary order of the ship. And once more the murderous confusion of tactics arises from idealism even if the idealist is not hotly crazy like Ahab, but is capable of a “cool judgment sagacious and sound.” He can not see man-self because one-self is always in the way. He can no longer see history because the ideal—ironically, born of historical man—entirely fills his eye.

Vere, like Claggart, must confront Baby Budd with an ultimate rejection. With pained love rather than with envious hatred Vere must reject what Budd represents to him. As administrator of the society whose order Claggart's machinations have threatened, Vere must condemn the actual as well as the representative Budd. To Claggart, Billy represents the false appearances of the world and is a hateful idea. To the Dansker, Billy represents an anomaly and is a curiosity. To Vere, Billy represents the human heart, and is a beautiful but inoperative idea. Like all Melvillean lures and doubloons, Billy, to the reader, is the totality of all the perceptions of the individual characters. Pragmatically, because he too rejects (albeit reluctantly) the idea and condemns the man, Vere is Claggart. But this is only a surface similarity. The sorrowful man whose wisdom was tutored by experience is also within Vere, so that Claggart, in his initial being, is Vere. It is history that has formed Vere's being. It is Claggart who represents the history which Vere recognizes in order to destroy it. Claggart is the reason just as Billy is the reason, that the brass buttons must take precedence over the primal heart. Claggart is the reason presented by the evils of history which he finally comes to represent, the gun which Vere uses because he hates the gun; Billy is the reason presented by the very definition of the primal heart, the innocence which must always be at the mercy of the gun and is unable to recognize the evils of history in order to use the evils of history in order to destroy the evils of history. Thus Budd and Claggart are at once the idealistic side of the polarities presented in the “Preface.” They are externalizations of Vere, and it is this that makes him the central character. Billy is associated with Vere's beautifully motivated self; Claggart is associated with Vere's harshly necessary tactical self. The difference between Claggart as a being and Claggart as part of Vere is the difference between self-absorption on the one hand and self-dissection, self-control, self-subordination on the other. That is, Vere controls and uses—unlike Claggart he does not become—the hideous truth that both he and Claggart see. Vere controls and uses—unlike Billy he does not become—the ideal love and innocence and goodness that both he and Billy know. The war between Claggart and Billy is the internal war between heart and mind which constantly tears Vere apart in his merger of the two. He needs both; he loves one and hates the activities of the other. He takes his identity from the recognition of what he and Claggart share in common; yet the motivation for his identity is but the desire for the goodness that is the Billy Budd within him. That is, if there is a continuum, a common denominator in humanity, it is the human heart, which desires goodness. But the goodness is redefined by different conditions, so that understanding of conditions, or tactics, is the only method man has with which to identify himself with his underlying self, his heart. Tactics, historical lessons, identity, must all be relearned in each historical moment by each generation. That is the historical identity that dies, like the individual being. But each generation gives birth to new generations, passing on the mystery of the heart-yearning, the aspiration (which is the idealism that makes Melville partly Ahab), along with the historical conditions which the dead identities have created and from which the new men must gain their identities by learning to cope with them (which is the empiricism and materialism that makes Melville Vere). His heart, along with the consequences of history, Vere inevitably leaves as his human heritage to the future. The human heart and the future are heirs of the history he leaves. His own historical identity he cannot leave: the others are inescapable heirlooms, but this must be earned. And the heart of Vere, the inevitable child that each generation leaves to each next generation as part of being human, the heart is the area of Billy's relationship to Vere.

Vere, “the austere devotee of military duty letting himself melt back into what remains primeval in our formalized humanity may in the end have caught Billy to his heart even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest.” Biblical reference of course reemphasizes the fact and nature of Vere's sacrifice. But it also suggests the nature of Billy's relationship to Vere. And Billy, as part of Vere, is suggested in more than the Abraham-Isaac analogy. “Billy Budd was a foundling, a presumable bye-blow, and, evidently, no ignoble one. Noble descent was as evident in him as in a blood horse.” And without really introducing anyone else but Claggart, the Dansker, and Vere, Melville hints, “for Billy, as will shortly be seen, his entire family was practically invested in himself” [italics mine]. The Dansker is old enough to be Billy's father, but he is not noble. Claggart has a certain nobility, but not the right kind, certainly, and he is only “five-and-thirty” besides. But Vere is truly noble, Melville points out more than once, and as for age, “he was old enough to have been Billy's father.” The possibility that Baby is Vere's own natural offspring, the goodness of Vere's own heart, not only sharpens the significance of Vere's sacrifice, but strengthens the thematic consideration of the administrator as the hero, or the only interested God available to man. And even in the extremity of the only choice open to him, when he is robbed of all that his son symbolizes by all that the Satan-gun-thief symbolizes, Vere forces himself to behave according to the need for preservation of the humanity he commands and for which he alone is responsible. For as Father of the Adam who falls and the Christ who is sacrificed, Vere is the only anthropocentric God. He knows that he must control destinies and decide fates in order to gain the goal of the indestructible human heart, and immediately he reverts to the only means for gaining the proper destiny, and he becomes the tactician. He exercises the proper prudence. He forearms against the possible mutinous effect of the court-martial decision. Realizing that intentions make no difference, Vere succeeds in preventing an undesirable consequence of his act. Claggart met the unanticipated consequence of Billy's fist, for all his misdirected personal prudence. His monomania prevented his seeing the wider symbolism, the social vision, that characterizes Vere's every act, and while Claggart's prudence can only result in chaos, Vere's might result in reformation. In this is the note of affirmation that Melville strikes, finally, in his last book: though intentions make no difference in the consequences of an act, the direction of thought which forms the intentions create a different kind of act which, in its administration, brings different consequences.

Vere necessarily kills the chronometrical Christ for man's own good, so that the death of the false Messiah may bring a redemptive horological paradise on earth. For if Billy, in the chronometrical act of killing Claggart, were allowed to set the example for the world, the effect would be tacit permission for the mutiny and the spontaneous, individualistic, idealistic, atheistic anarchy which brings chaos again. Baby Christ learned the lesson Father Vere had to teach him. As Billy's beautifully good and heartbreakingly innocent relationship with that paradox, a man-of-war's chaplain, makes clear, he is too much the primitive child to comprehend anything intellectually. His “sailor way of taking clerical discourse is not wholly unlike the way in which the pioneer of Christianity full of transcendent miracles was received long ago on tropic isles by any superior savage so called.” Robbed of complete innocence by evil, by the fact of the gun (when he lies in the darbies, his glimmering whiteness is now “more or less soiled”), he can only understand what is good and right with the goodness and rightness of his helpless heart. And his “God bless Captain Vere!” is the “I forgive you Father, for you know what you must do,” which not only emphasizes Budd's goodness but which also emphasizes Vere's stature. Billy does not stutter now, but makes the one clear and final statement of the chronometrical innocence by which he lived. He is the Christ who still turns the other cheek to the man-of-war world, and, except for his new knowledge, takes his crucifixion as he took his impressment. And Vere, while recognizing that Billy leads to hopelessly inoperative behavior, also recognizes in Billy the heartful goodness of the primal human heritage. And when Billy blesses Vere, at “the pronounced words and the spontaneous echo that voluminously rebounded them, Captain Vere, either through stoic self-control or a sort of momentary paralysis induced by emotional shock, stood rigidly erect as a musket in the ship-armorer's rack.” Even the simile works. At the moment that he kills the elemental goodness in man, Vere's reaction is both emotional shock and self-control. On the one hand he has his clearest perception of just what it is he kills, and at the same time realizes that if he had to, he would do it all over again. Necessarily he becomes the appearance not of the primal thing inside him, which he sacrifices, but of the gun, the thief-emblem of the world he must preserve, use, and change in order to preclude the conditions of sacrifice. Indeed, when Billy lies in the chains, he lies on the gun deck, which is given the religious imagery of a cathedral—with the gun-bays as the confessionals. Lest the ironic bitterness be lost even here, Melville hints that it is even as Christ hanging between the two thieves that the Baby is “now lying between the two guns, as nipped in the vice of fate.”

When Vere dies, he calls his primal identity, his son-self of the indestructible human heart. Removed finally from the rigors of the gun-bearing world and from the pressures of control and from the self-devouring and self-killing sterility of command, he would relax into the something primeval within him and rejoin the perfection of man's heartfelt aspirations. His historical identity cannot continue. But the human heart does. So Vere goes home. He calls “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.” And his call is an exhortation and a welcome. “That these were not the accents of remorse, would seem clear from what the attendant said to the Indomitable's senior officer of marines who as the most reluctant to condemn of the members of the drumhead court, too well knew though here he kept the knowledge to himself, who Billy Budd was.” Yet, this quotation reintroduces the bitterness which is the closing note of Billy Budd's irony. On the one hand the officer of marines is a good and heartful man, but a man without Vere's historical identity. There is the possibility that this officer does not know Billy's identity any more than Millthorpe knew Plinlimmon or Pierre. Or there is the possibility that in his very heartfulness, the officer of marines, like some of the other crew members, idolized Billy. In this case too, the cycle would be repeated if the man Vere leaves behind him is an embryonic quester. In any case, probably both ironies are intended, for the net result is the final irony that it is the military officer who bears the memory of the chaos-bringing yet primally good Christ. Thus Melville reintroduces the motif of delegated authority. Man, like the Polynesian, is primarily good and primarily blind. The obscuring smoke of the chaos in which man has seasoned himself and his history must be pierced. But even the true hero, who correctly boards in the smoke, cannot as one man redeem the world, for his own historical identity, with all that is involved within it, is the one thing that can not be delegated in time. And, Melville adds, the effective identity must be ready in advance, for “Forty years after a battle it is easy for a non-combatant to reason about how it ought to have been fought. It is another thing personally under fire to direct the fighting while involved in the obscuring smoke of it. Much so with respect to other emergencies involving considerations both practical and moral, and when it is imperative promptly to act. … Little ween the snug card-players in the cabin of the responsibilities of the sleepless man on the bridge.”

That the lessons are lost and that the cycle continues all over again is evident in three “digressions” tacked on to the end of the “inside” narrative.4 The first is the section wherein Vere is killed by the ship named—the Atheiste. The Atheiste continues the wrongs of history, for it takes over from a name which is reminiscent of Isabel's mother and her other-worldly associations: this French ship had formerly been the St. Louis. The wrongs of the prerevolutionary nation are translated into the wrongs of the postrevolutionary nation—one kind of atheist becomes another kind of atheist under new name and management. And those who deny the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind are those who kill Vere. The paradox is that the seamen of France kill the man whose goals are identical with those for which the tactically misdirected French Revolution had been fought. Vere had always known that men on both sides, wanting but the same goodness for which the human heart hungers, after all, cut each other down in the actualities of all the warfare attendant upon the wrong directions to the common peace and welfare. No final resolution has been effected, for Vere can re-inform so that reformation may be possible; but he himself, limited by time, cannot regenerate.

The second “digression” is the News from the Mediterranean which appears in an authorized “naval chronicle of the time.” The account reports the official version, wherein Claggart is the good but wronged man, and wherein Billy is the villain. Thus appearances for their own sake are preserved. There is even an inversion of origins in the account. Claggart, the alien, is pictured as the true patriot, and Billy, the trueborn Englishman, is made suspect of association with all the dimly French origins that actually characterized Claggart. The very basis of proper behavior is inverted. The official account could never admit that the strong arm of order enforcement itself could allow the officer to be the villain and the impressed man the saint. This is order for its own sake, command for the sake of prerogative, appearances for the protection of privilege. This kind of preservation of official appearances is a mindless thing. It is cast and bureaucracy, but it is not the good administration that carries with it the true motives for Vere's siding with official law. The administrator is no God merely by virtue of his position. If he is heartless or mindless, he can offer only official preference, not truth, and he becomes as much a perpetuator of the wrongs of history as was the dictatorial Mrs. Glendinning or the early king Media.

The third “digression” is most basic to the story, and it comprises the conversation of the Purser and the Surgeon together with the ballad of “Billy in the Darbies.”

Neither the Purser nor the Surgeon are the men to explain what happened at Billy's execution. The Purser is a ruddy and rotund little accountant of a man who in a few words is presented as a man of no mind, insight, or imagination. The Surgeon is the worst kind of pontificator upon dry facts, being able to cope with experience only in the measurable quantities of what is already known, and avoiding all the very real problems which he cannot explain. Neither of these men are capable of aspiration or of evaluating new experience or of re-evaluating the old. Theirs is the meaningless empiricism of the circumscribed prudential. These two men tell the reader that Billy did not die as hanged men always die. There was no spasmodic movement of the corpse. For neither of these men can Billy be a symbol, be anything but a corpse. It is in the irony of presenting the picture of Billy's death through the eyes of men who cannot evaluate what they see that the suggestion is established that Billy is not a corpse. The meaning of this suggestion is intensified in the Ballad. Members of the Indomitable's crew revere Billy's memory and follow the progress of the yard on which Billy was hung, for “to them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross.” Billy's memory is perpetuated in a kind of Passion-hymn which is narrated in the first person, as if from Billy's point of view. The narrative action of the Ballad seems to be taking place in Billy's mind while he lies in the darbies, just before the execution. But the last two sentences bring the shock of recognition of a type, the realization that this is the voice of the “dead” man in the deep … dormant … waiting.

… Sentry, are you there?
Just ease these darbies at the wrist,
and roll me over fair.
I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.

Billy never died. The aspiring yearning and goodness of man's heart is indestructible. So too, as Vere's defeat indicates, is history. Either heartfulness will continue in a new history made by men like Vere, or history will remain unchanged and heartfulness will continue as the chaos of the French Revolution or as the predisposition which will prompt another quester. The furious hopefulness of the work is in the indestructibility of human aspiration. The furious hopelessness of the work is that nothing but the wrong channels for that aspiration remain. So the human heart will continue to be the trap of the lure, the primitive perfection, the chronometrical Adam-Christ, who still exists in the deeps of human history and experience, mired by the oozy weeds and events of the man-of-war world. As lure, it can do nothing to pave the mire and raze the weeds, can be nothing but that which the quester will follow, at which the Satan will spring, by which the ship-world's common “people” will be deceived, and the cycle will continue … and continue … and continue.

This last book is not an “acceptance” either of God or of expediency for its own sake. Billy Budd accepts only what all the books before it accepted: that if history is the determinant of society, so too society is the determinant of history; that if man is not the cosmic creator and killer, he is at least his own social and individual creator and killer. Billy Budd accepts not an absolute fate to which man must bow, but rather it offers the bitterness of the proposition that man may never create the kind of fate that he can place at his own disposal. But for the method for attaining the yearnings of the heart, even in defeat, Melville could easily be entirely characterized by the bitter fatalism which characterized his civil war poem, “The Conflict of Convictions,” in which he wrote,

                    Power unanointed may come—
Dominion (unsought by the free)
                    And the Iron Dome,
Stronger for stress and strain,
Fling her huge shadow athwart the main;
But the Founder's dream shall flee.
Age after age shall be
As age after age has been,
(From man's changeless heart their way they win);
And death be busy with all who strive—
Death with silent negative.
                    Yea And Nay—
                    Each Hath His Say;
                    But God He Keeps The Middle Way.
                    None Was By
                    When He Spread The Sky:
                    Wisdom Is Vain, And Prophesy.

Melville was not able to deduce a changed history from the facts of his times, and therefore could not create a Captain Vere who was in charge of not one ship but all of society—for having then created the proper leader, he would have had to create the picture of the Utopian good society, a task for which in his history and his realism Melville could find no justification. It is the mass of men, the society, that holds the choice of fates; so Vere, as hero, could not be allowed to triumph, and he had to die. As an artist Melville was too honest a symbolist—too honest a liar—too realistically immersed in the destructive element of reflection upon truth to create a shallow happy ending of the universally reformed society, which would be a deception to the facts of his world and time. Like Joyce, Melville was trying to create the uncreated conscience of his human race. And he could find that conscience properly directed only in a man like Vere, for the conscience, the morality, and the act could not be divorced one from the other. It is only the Vere who can lead the Jarl and Samoa and Lucy and Starbuck and Bulkington through the correct courses of conscious and heartfelt action, no matter how official and heart-denying those actions might appear to be. It is this implicit prescription for behavior, together with the God-time-zero which facelessly puts forth the face of all the infinite possibilities of phenomena, that accounts for the dualities and “ambiguities,” in all their modifications, in the enormous world of Herman Melville.


  1. Wendell Glick notes the problem of prudence. See “Expediency and Absolute Morality in Billy Budd,PMLA, LXVII (1953), 103–10. The article offers a suggestive presentation of the choices open to Vere.

  2. “Melville the Poet,” KR, VIII (1946), 208–23.

  3. Here, because the context of the quester's story is missing, the reintroduction of the isolated Solomonic insight is a jarring error. In the other novels there was needed the honest, nonconformist perception that could stand apart from the banded world and see nature and experience truly. But the story of the false Prometheus, who has the nobility of an honest, if erroneous, perception, as well as the story of the true education (Ishmael, Media) have long since been finished. Melville has already taken these stories for granted in Billy Budd. He had to, for now that the past lessons had been reached and passed, he was writing the corollary of application of that knowledge. Thus, all his “correct” people must now be involved in society, like Vere. Though the Hebrew prophet saw truth, that recluse is an echo from Melville's literary past, whose motivation, but not whose isolation, belongs no longer in the exploration of the political administration of the truths the recluse saw. There is nothing within Billy Budd to provide the proper context for the Hebrew recluse, for the only recluse Billy Budd provides, properly, is the bad man, Claggart.

  4. My “digressions” are not arranged as Melville lists his. After the “digressions” of the conversation between the Purser and the Surgeon, and the sea burial of Billy, the narrator goes on to say that the further “digressions” of the sequel to the story can be told in three additional short chapters.

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

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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 the character of Pierre himself, the idea is given explicit statement in the Plinlimmon pamphlet, in the distinctions drawn between heavenly (or chronometrical) and earthly (or horological) time. Plinlimmon, reiterating Melville's view expressed in White Jacket, asserts that heavenly wisdom and earthly wisdom differ, and since men are creatures not of heaven but of earth, it is no discredit to heavenly wisdom for men to forego it in favor of earthly. Plinlimmon goes on further to assert that “almost invariably, with inferior beings, the absolute effort to live in this world according to the strict letter of the chronometricals is, somehow, apt to involve those inferior beings eventually in strange unique follies and sins, unimagined before.”3 Such was the fate of Pierre, and such, precisely, is the fate of Billy Budd.

At first glance it might seem that Billy has much in common with Melville's “ideal” maskless men, the Jack Chases and Rolfes (the story opens with a generous dedication to Chase). And indeed he does, for his virtues of friendliness and frankness are theirs. But there is a practical or earthly wisdom in such individuals as Jack Chase and Rolfe, White Jacket and Ishmael, which is missing in Budd, and this vital deficiency makes him more akin to Taji, Ahab, Pierre, Mortmain—the Titanic Innocents who war with the world's evil and lose. It is this deficiency which renders Billy Budd incapable of comprehending, much less coping with, evil. Taji is obsessed, in his search for Yillah, with possessing the Ideal; Ahab is obsessed, in pursuing Moby Dick, with destroying the world's evil; Pierre is obsessed, in his flight with Isabel, with assuming the burden of his father's guilt; Mortmain is obsessed, in his restless wandering of the earth, and in his search through the Holy Land, with exposing man's evil nature; Billy Budd is obsessed, in his relations with the other sailors and the officers, with maintaining his popularity (and innocence) unblemished. Taji ends up with a hardened heart continuing an endless and futile search; Ahab, finally committed to the devilish Fedallah, destroys himself and others in his evil doom; Pierre ultimately commits, as he fleetingly realizes, far greater sins than the ones he so consciously avoided; Mortmain dies apart and isolated, absorbed in dwelling fiendishly on the evil in men's hearts; Billy Budd is fated, in his uncontrollable outrage in the face of evil, to kill a man and to hang for his act. Indeed all of these men succeed, in their “absolute effort” to live according to “heavenly” wisdom, only in involving themselves in “unique follies and sins.”


Almost invariably Melville has described his Titanic heroes as stricken Christs, but with none has the analogy been so complete as with Billy Budd. From beginning to end, Christ is the dominant metaphor of the story. When Billy is brought aboard the H. M. S. Indomitable in 1797, shortly after the Great Mutiny which had rocked the British fleet, he is the epitome of innocence. Asked the routine questions—where was he born, who was his father—he replies, significantly, “God knows, Sir.” (146)4 His reputation, borne out by his behaviour aboard ship, is that of a peacemaker, one who can miraculously transfigure hate and hostility into admiration and love. When Billy stands falsely accused before his Captain and cannot speak, his expression is “a crucifixion to behold.” (226) And when he kills his accuser with one blow, his Captain mutters, “Struck dead by an angel of God.” (229) Billy's last words before he hangs are—“God bless Captain Vere.” (264) And even after his death (or ascension), his “legend” lives on, and the spar from which he was hanged becomes sacred: “to [sailors] a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross.” (278)

But Billy is much more complex than simply a duplicate of Christ. Christlike, yes, but also like Adam—Adam before the Fall: “Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.” (147) Captain Vere congratulates his officers on gaining in Billy “such a fine specimen of the genus homo who, in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the fall.” (219) In his character and his appearance, Billy is an Adam as well as a Christ. The main import of this figure is that it emphasizes Billy's ignorance of evil: unlike Christ's, Billy's innocence is compounded of his lack of knowledge of good and evil, like Adam's before he ate the fruit, and not of a profound insight into the nature of the world and man.

In fact, throughout the tale Billy's ignorance and naïveté are so emphasized as the main components of his innocence that he seems, like an animal, deprived, almost entirely, of a moral faculty. Melville uses a number of metaphors to suggest the nature of Billy's innocence and the quality of his intelligence. Billy is a “sort of upright barbarian.” (147) His attitude toward death, containing no trace of the irrational fears of the “civilized,” is like that of the “barbarous” tribes: “a barbarian Billy radically was.” (260) And Billy is child-like: “… yet a child's utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and the innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes. But in Billy Budd intelligence such as it was, had advanced, while yet his simple-mindedness remained for the most part unaffected.” (205) Without knowledge of evil gained through experience, Billy is also deprived of any “intuitive knowledge of the bad.” Not without reason Billy goes on board by the name of Baby Budd. Billy has little or no self-consciousness—“or about as much as we may reasonably impute to a dog of St. Bernard's breed.” (147) Melville returns to this startling figure in describing Billy's reaction to Captain Vere's intricate remarks to the drum-head court trying Billy: the reasoning caused Billy “to turn a wistful interrogative look towards the speaker, a look in its dumb expressiveness not unlike that which a dog of generous breed might turn upon his master seeking in his face some elucidation of a previous gesture ambiguous to the canine intelligence.” (241)

Barbarian, child, dog—Christ and Adam—Billy Budd is indeed a strange mixture of many ingredients, perhaps a “simple-minded” but certainly a complex character. And increasing the complexity is Billy's “flaw,” his “occasional liability to a vocal defect.” Both as emblem and as fact, this “flaw” assumes a leading role in Billy's tragedy: ‘In this particular Billy was a striking instance that the arch interferer, the envious marplot of Eden still has more or less to do with every human consignment to this planet of earth. In every case, one way or another he is sure to slip in his little card, as much as to remind us—I too have a hand here.” (149) Billy's stammer is emblematic of his human imperfection, a symbol of the necessity for his adhering to the human condition because of his inborn incapacity to attain the divine.

Billy's stutter is not so much the cause of his catastrophe as its trigger. Billy by his very nature is hopelessly unfitted for existence in the world of men. He is naïve in his dedication to becoming so shipshape that he will never earn verbal reproof; he is immature in his fretting about his failure; and he is gullible in his persistence in believing, even when disabused by the cynical Dansker, in the kind disposition of the master-at-arms, John Claggart. Through his incapacity to understand the significance or consequences of evil, he fails to report to his officers the vaguely mutinous plan broached to him in secret. And when he stands falsely accused of inciting mutiny by the “friendly” John Claggart, Billy Budd can still neither comprehend nor cope with evil. He is struck dumb and cannot speak. And since he cannot speak he acts, and the only act he knows—barbarian-, child-, animal-like—is a blow. The Christ-like Billy, incapable of angelically turning the other cheek, answers with a solidly human—even Satanic—fist.

Billy's blow on Claggart symbolizes man's—perhaps America's—naïve attempt to obliterate natural depravity by a simple act of violence. And ironically, the act arises out of that depravity (Billy's stutter, remember, is the “little card” of Satan) which it would destroy. The smallest denial from Billy's lips would have been enough for the already convinced Captain. But Billy's stammer would not let him speak and Billy's nature could not prevent him from violence. Like Ahab, Billy's only response to evil is to lash out and annihilate it. And like Ahab, Billy becomes inextricably entangled in the very evil which he would destroy.


The Master-at-Arms, John Claggart, like Billy, is the last of a long line of similar Melvillean characters, but has, like Billy, his individuality. Claggart is the accomplished hypocrite. Like the missionaries in Typee and Omoo, like Redburn's captain and White Jacket's officers, like Derwent in Clarel, like society generally in Melville, Claggart wears the congenial mask of respectability to conceal from the world his true nature. Claggart may be best described as a cross between Fedallah, with his infinite capacity for the grossest of evils, and the Confidence Man, with his cunning and craft in the pettiest of crimes. The mask with which Claggart confronts his superiors is persuasive. His responsible position, master-at-arms, a “sort of chief of police,” has been bestowed upon him by his officers because of his “constitutional sobriety, his ingratiating deference to superiors, together with a peculiar ferreting genius” and a “certain austere patriotism.” (172)

Nothing less than “natural depravity” itself is the real motivating force within Claggart. This natural depravity has the quality but not the universality of Calvin's. It has nothing to do with the brutish or the sordid or the sensual, but is “dominated by intellectuality” and an overruling pride which transcends “vices or small sins.” (185–86) The person born with this “natural depravity” may appear “subject to the law of reason”—but “toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of malignity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgment sagacious and sound.” (186–87) Curiously enough, the master-at-arms is one of the two individuals on the Indomitable “intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd” (192)—and the appreciation is galling. In a passage which imparts to the relationship a fascinating psychological complexity, Melville speculates that, Claggart being “well moulded” himself, it was probably Billy's “significant personal beauty” which aroused simultaneously Claggart's “envy and antipathy.” (191) But on the symbolic level Claggart's plot against Billy is one act in the eternal drama of the war between good and evil, innocence and guilt.

Claggart at first devises small schemes to keep Billy, in spite of his resolve to conform, in constant “petty” trouble. The first major encounter of the two is in a minor incident involving spilled soup. By accident Billy spills his soup-pan when Claggart happens to be passing the mess, and the “greasy liquid” rolls across the path of the master-at-arms. This small event, charged symbolically with psychological subtlety, comes to assume gigantic proportions in the minds of both. Claggart's quick but calculated exclamation—“Handsome is as handsome did” (180)—disarms Billy (if the unarmed can be disarmed) by convincing him that Claggart is his friend. But the reply, too subtle for the victim or his companions, is ironic. In Claggart's distorted but keen intellect, the spilled soup is interpreted as “the sly escape of a spontaneous feeling on Billy's part more or less answering to the antipathy of his own.” (193) And Claggart welcomes this “justification” for shifting from trivial to significant plotting against Billy.

The scheme for entangling Billy in a mutinous conspiracy succeeds in appearances only, but that success is sufficient for Claggart's main purpose—the destruction of Billy. Neither Captain Vere nor his officers could be convinced of Billy's guilt in a conspiracy, but they know of his guilt in killing a superior officer—an individual “mutiny” extremely serious in war-time—and they must render judgment within the knowledge of the clear consequences of Billy's act on the crew. So Claggart's scheme succeeds not because of its cleverness but because of Billy's weakness at the crucial moment of the accusation, his primitive violence substituted for civilized reason. But Claggart's success necessitates his own death. As he lies sprawled under Billy's blow, Claggart's inert body resembles a “dead snake.” (227) But the Satanic snake is never really dead: Claggart's “soul” has no doubt taken flight to Hell, there to join the devil's eternal rebellion.


If Billy is the subtly masked man of innocence, appearing in the cloak of Christ's purity to the world and to himself while in reality harboring the savage impulse of the barbarian, the child, the animal; and if Claggart is the deceitfully masked man, deliberately and craftily misleading the world as to his true evil nature; then Captain Vere is Melville's maskless man, his man of forthrightness and frankness, who by his balance of reason and emotion, mind and heart, recognizes evil and its inevitability on earth, comes to honorable terms with it, and endures, albeit with a heightened tragic vision.

Captain Vere is a middle-aged Jack Chase or Rolfe, past their physical prime but exhibiting most of their fine qualities. As Billy Budd is a man of all heart and no intellect, and John Claggart a man of all intellect and no heart, Captain Vere is the man of moderation with heart and intellect in ideal balance. He is wise enough to refrain from “developing” his virtues to that extreme at which they become vices. He is “mindful of the welfare of his men, but never [tolerates] an infraction of discipline.” (160) He is “intrepid to the verge of temerity, though never injudiciously so.” (160) Though he displays usually an “unobtrusiveness of demeanour” and an “unaffected modesty,” when the times call for action he demonstrates that he possesses a “resolute nature.” (161) Though he is “practical enough upon occasion,” he betrays sometimes a “certain dreaminess of mood.” (161) In all things, that is, Captain Vere avoids exaggerations, extremes. His nickname—Starry Vere—might at first appear ironic as applied to one who, “whatever his sturdy qualities,” is “without any brilliant ones.” (162) But the stars themselves are not flashily brilliant, like the sun: they are held sturdily fixed in heavenly balance.

Like Melville's admirable maskless men such as Rolfe and Chase, Captain Vere adds to an instinctive wisdom the wisdom of books: he likes “unconventional writers, who, free from cant and convention, like Montaigne, honestly, and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities.” (163–64) This love of books, though it deprives him of a certain boisterous “companionable quality” common to his profession, and though it gains him the reputation of possessing a “queer streak of the pedantic,” (165) nevertheless underlines the dominant trait of his personality—his utter openness. He is interested in confronting the “realities” he is so avid to read about without flinching and without a trace of deception. It is precisely this bluntness (characteristic also of Rolfe and Jack Chase) which, though never cruel, frequently puzzles or startles his colleagues and sets Starry Vere apart. Melville carefully points out that in natures like Captain Vere's, “honesty prescribes to them directness, sometimes far-reaching like that of a migratory fowl that in its flight never heeds when it crosses a frontier.” (166)

Captain Vere's crucial action in handling Billy Budd's trial demonstrates that he is the only individual on board the Indomitable who understands what White Jacket instinctively learned on his voyage and what Plinlimmon formulated as a philosophy in his pamphlet—the wide and necessary separation of heavenly wisdom and earthly wisdom, and the “impossibility” of the application of the one in the province of the other. Captain Vere understands further—and it is this understanding that divides his sympathies and almost unbalances this balanced man—that both kinds of wisdom are right in their place, that the “failure” of one out of its place by no means signifies its insufficiency. It is this insight that enables Captain Vere to sympathize so profoundly with Billy Budd while at the same time arguing so persuasively the necessity of his conviction. At Billy's execution, Captain Vere's emotions, as compelling as the crew's, are simply more intellectually disciplined. As Billy's “God bless Captain Vere” echoes about him, Vere, “either through stoic self-control or a sort of momentary paralysis induced by emotional shock, [stands] erectly rigid as a musket in the ship-armour's rack.” (265) Sometime after the Billy Budd incident, when Captain Vere lies dying on his ship in the midst of battle, he is heard to murmur “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.” A member of Billy's drum-head court is present to testify that the refrain is not whispered with “accents of remorse.” (275) On the verge of death, Captain Vere still clearly understands the necessity of his action even as he cries out his affection for his departed sailor.

When Billy Budd climbs to the scaffold for his punishment, his execution appears to be more an ascension than a death. As the hangman's signal is given, “the vapoury fleece hanging low in the east [is] shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision,” and Billy ascends, “and ascending, [takes] the full rose of the dawn.” (266) Miraculously there is no involuntary movement or muscular spasm in Billy's body—nothing but the rhythmical motion created by the roll of the ship. This phenomenon, together with the appearance of the large sea-fowls who with their “outstretched wings and the cracked requiem of their cries” (271) circle close and continuously the burial spot in the sea where Billy's body plunged, impresses upon the awed sailors a vaguely superstitious realization of the transcendent nature of the event they witness. Although Billy dies, his continued existence, like Claggart's, seems assured, for as surely as Claggart descended to Hell, there to enter the eternal service of the devil, Billy ascends to Heaven, there to sit at the throne of God.

The portrait of Billy completes Melville's gallery of Titanic Innocents—Taji, Ahab, Pierre, Mortmain—all of whom suffer from some intricate disorder that renders them ultimately non-human. Melville created these “heroes” in a “descending order” of self-awareness: Taji, as he commits himself to an eternal search for Yillah, recognizes and confesses his own hardheartedness; Ahab, in gazing down into the ocean and searching Fedallah's steady gaze, discovers and reveals, but does not confront the consequences of his awful commitment to evil; Pierre glimpses into his “unconscious” motives, but the horror is too great for his mind to hold; Mortmain recognizes the universality of evil and his despair grows from his instinctive awareness of his inability to dissociate himself from it; but Billy Budd is lacking not only an intellectual consciousness but even an instinctive awareness of his potentiality for evil, in spite of his stutter and his quick fist: he is the one completely unselfconscious “masked Innocent.” And unlike the others, he has in Captain Vere a hero of humanity who shields society from the cataclysmic consequences of his nakedly spontaneous and raw Innocence. Since Billy's disorder is that which springs from the dominance of an out-sized heart over an almost non-existent intellect, his fate, although catastrophic on earth like that of the others, ultimately partakes of a spiritual transfiguration.


  1. Written in 1888–89 and not published until 1924, Billy Budd has already attracted a distinguished series of commentaries. E. L. Grant Watson first in 1933 described Billy Budd as “Melville's Testament of Acceptance” (New England Quarterly, vi, 319–327). In 1940 Charles Roberts Anderson explored the various possible “sources” of Melville's last novel as he charted “The Genesis of Billy Budd” (American Literature, xii, 329–46). Richard Chase, in a 1948 “Dissent on Billy Budd” (Partisan Review, xv, 1212–1218), aligned Billy with Marnoo, Jack Chase and the protagonist in Pierre—as Melville's abortive attempts to create the “true” Promethean hero. Also in 1948, F. Barron Freeman published his fine, scholarly edition of Billy Budd (Harvard University Press). In 1950 Joseph Schiffman published “Melville's Final Stage, Irony: a Re-examination of Billy Budd Criticism” (American Literature, xxii, 128–136). In 1951, Ronald Mason in The Spirit above the Dust (London: John Lehman) claimed for Billy Budd the “Victory of Innocence.” And in 1951 H. M. Campbell suggested that Melville portrayed a world in which “even the most innocent are doomed” in a treatment of the irony in “The Hanging Scene in Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman” (MLN, lxvi, 378–381). In 1952 Lawrance Thompson defined Billy Budd as the final episode (a “bitter comedy”) in Melville's extended Quarrel with God (Princeton University Press). And Wendell Glick in 1953 contended that Billy Budd was Melville's final declaration in favor of expediency as opposed to “absolute morality” (PMLA, lxviii, 103–110). In 1955, G. Giovannini argued against irony in “The Hanging Scene in Melville's Billy Budd” (MLN, lxx, 491–497), and H. M. Campbell answered with “The Hanging Scene in Melville's Billy Budd: A Reply to Mr. Giovannini” (MLN, lxx, 497–500).

  2. White Jacket, vol. vi in The Works of Herman Melville (London: Constable and Company, Ltd., 1922), pp. 407–08.

  3. Pierre, vol. ix in The Works of Herman Melville (London: Constable and Company Ltd., 1923), pp. 284–300.

  4. Quotations from Billy Budd are identified in the text by page reference to Melville's Billy Budd, ed. by F. Barron Freeman (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948).

Vern Wagner (essay date 1958)

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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 earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore. …

But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God—so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod!

Of course Billy Budd deals with democracy, naval law, history. Of course it presents on one level an admirable young hero done in by a black-hearted villain—who is aided in his act by a good man manacled to “social justice.” But all these things are minor. A man like Herman Melville, writing his last testament, seeking to reveal his final recognition, aiming at posterity or maybe only personal clarification alone (there is no evidence he planned to publish this piece)—such a man will deal with the ultimate question: the true mysteries of iniquity. I believe Melville kept the open independence of his sea of thought. I think he bore himself grimly to the last in the consideration of Lucifer and of God, of crucifixions and the deadly Serpent, and of the ambiguities of white and black.

The writing of Billy Budd is dishabille. Nowhere else does Melville write with so relaxed, so humble, so scattered an air. The story is stuffed with digressions, historical flotsam, bits and pieces. The sentences are casual. The paragraphs are entirely tentative, full of “perhaps,” “it may be,” and “presumably.” It hardly ends—and the author apologizes for this. The narrative drags. It is garrulous. Moby Dick wanders, too, but there is such vim in the asides, such vigor in the digressions, the reader knows it to be the work of an intense young man at the height of his powers who feels with excruciating force the storms and gales of wide-ranging thought. Billy Budd seems to be the work of a tired old man who is more tolerant and more careless. It is all very disarming.

But the writer of Moby Dick is still fully evident, and this undress, distant style is nearly all deception. The final manuscript was improperly punctuated, as F. Barron Freeman found, but it was complete enough. Melville had spent nearly two and a half years on the various versions of it, short story, revisions, and final novel. This was a time equal to that which had long before covered nearly all the writing of White Jacket, Moby Dick, and Pierre. Melville was crafty to pretend senilities, I think, for by means of such tactics he penetrated to greater depths of probabilities than ever before. He did not cry uncle and seek the safety of the lee shore. He exhibits the lowering rage of that aged bull whale in Moby Dick, who, an isolato suffering from penal gout, his admiring harem lost, spends his final time regretting final truths. In Billy Budd Melville was forced into more devious indirection than ever before, but not this time by the demands of a tender-minded public; rather, the terrible complexities and agonizing suppositions of his own mind compelled him to try this gentler tack to get it said.

So, for example, he comments simply on the chaplain of the warship Indomitable, a “minister of the Prince of Peace serving in the host of the God of War—Mars”:

As such, he is as incongruous as that musket of Blucher etc. at Christmas. Why then is he there? Because he indirectly subserves the purposes attested by the cannon [canon?]; because too he leads the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which practically is the abrogation of everything but brute force.

And with “quiet” sardonic wit he explains that “if that lexicon which is based on Holy Writ were any longer popular,” it would explain such a man as Claggart; but (he sighs), “one must turn to some authority not liable to the charge of being tinctured with Biblical element.” So he turns—or so it seems—to Plato the pagan.

Must such passages because quietly written be taken as quiet acceptance? I think the old wounds ached increasingly at the end and that Melville persisted in being Bulkington, still the very man who, his friend Hawthorne said so memorably in 1856, was one who “can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.” A thicker, more steady view of this final work shows that Melville finally smites the sun as Ahab said he would do if the sun insulted him. Let us examine the record.

Consider Billy. He is a curious figure.

1. When impressed by Lieut. Ratcliffe from the Rights of Man, “To the surprise of the ship's company, … Billy made no demur. … Noting this uncomplaining acquiescence, all but cheerful one might say, the shipmates turned a surprised glance of silent reproach at the sailor.” This is odd. Billy is devoid of loyalty, without roots, and a mere chip on the wave.

2. When Billy says, “And good bye to you too, old Rights of Man!” Melville quickly declares that Billy intended no satire—he lacked the “sinister dexterity” satire requires. “To deal in double meaning and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to his nature.” How then could we tell Billy a joke? We can't get close to him, for he's another, simple-minded beyond compare.

3. Transferred to the more complicated life of the Indomitable, he remains “unaware.” He “scarce noted” the subtleties of this new world.

4. Billy has no background. His father? “God knows.” He evinced “noble descent,” though, and with God as his father and nobility his lineage, he is separated from nearly everybody else.

5. He exists without yet having been proffered “the questionable apple of knowledge.” He lacked any of “the wisdom of the serpent”; though “nor yet quite a dove,” he had no self-consciousness. He was an “upright barbarian,” Adam before the fall. He is mindless, a tabula rasa on which no experience had written. He is “very harmlessness itself.”

Billy's appearance is that of a blank, empty vacuum; and this is a state of non-being we all know nature abhors. Human growth and development are always a darkening of some sort, and Billy Budd fully deals with this particular fact of life. What I think Melville sought to do with Billy was to beat the dusty darkness out so that we can see his content of real humanity. All this was an intricate undertaking and a daring one, for Melville sought to show that the beautiful Billy Budd, nature's boy in truth and in fact, was only another manifestation that nature “paints like the harlot.”

Of itself blankness bothers all of us, for it is nothing. An object that is pure, innocent, virgin, ignorant, naive, disturbs the soiled, the corrupt, the experienced, the knowing and the sophisticated—disturbs because we envy and admire simultaneously. A magnet, such a thing cries for substance; it is an irresistible challenge, and we are all like mischievous brats who would throw mud balls on the drying sheets. Are we really supposed to accept the notion that Billy's appearance is a Melvillean ideal? Such a belief implies, then, that Melville also held the Wordsworth-Emerson idea that innocence is godliness since trailing clouds of glory do we come. Melville believed no such thing. Calvin, Schopenhauer, and self study had taught him otherwise.

Human suspicion confirms the validity of this notion. A freshman student of mine recently wrote this: “I don't trust Billy Budd. Something—intuition, or doubt, or something—tells me he's a phony.” This boy has never read Moby Dick and “The Whiteness of the Whale,” for if he had he'd see that in all likelihood Melville thought so too. I think Melville saw that Billy's real attraction was that he was a target with all that unsullied blankness. His only redeeming feature was his stutter, a “flaw” we can feel since it exists—a hint that probably Billy existed too, underneath.

What is made only too evident about Billy is his blindness and willful deafness, his “instinctive” insistence on retaining nonentity. He neither saw Claggart for what he was nor really heard the old Dansker or listened to the mutinous plot. The deaf mute in The Confidence Man heard nothing either as he exhibited his signs of “Charity endureth all things” to his fellow passengers aboard the Fidele, and he would not see the “No Trust” sign over the barber shop door. Lucy in Pierre, blind and deaf by her own virgin dream, does not heed the existence of Isabel's dark fascination as she journeys to New York to join Pierre Glendenning. The admired Jack Chase of White Jacket was oblivious too, steeped as he was in beauty. And there is Moby Dick.

What all these figures have as a common appearance is color. They are white, which to Melville at its most extreme was inscrutable blankness but still a hint that “the invisible spheres were formed in fright.” It is this “mystic” aspect of white that so infuriated Ahab and so frightened Ishmael: whiteness “when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, [serves] to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds,” he wrote in “The Whiteness of the Whale.” At first no one can see Billy Budd as an object “terrible in itself,” for he is a Christ-like “hero,” a beautiful golden boy. He lacks even in the old Dansker's sight “any touch of defensive ugliness.” But like similar golden lads he too must come to dust, for this is the rule of God.

In the concluding paragraph of “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Melville says that light which is white and colorless in itself “if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge.” Billy's horrible quality is that he seems to provide no medium, and when light strikes his matter it hints at a palsied universe that is intolerable. Melville provides a final stop by explaining when he ends the section describing Billy's refusal to dig deeper into the mutiny scheme because he wants to protect himself against the possible consequences of being involved, “But something more, or rather, something else than mere shrewdness is perhaps needful for the due understanding of such a character as Billy Budd's.” He does not tell us what the something is—not directly at any rate. Rather, in the paragraph immediately following the remark he shifts to Claggart's monomania (“if that indeed it were”), saying in effect that by watching the dark Claggart we will get that understanding of Billy Budd's character his blankness prevents. This is the decisive moment in the story when the whole account turns to action. The paragraph ends with the foreboding statement, “Something decisive must come of it.”

What of this Claggart to whom our attention is thus directed? “What was the matter with the master-at-arms?” What is the matter of the wicked John Claggart?—whose “portrait I essay,” says Melville, “but shall never hit it.” Claggart is likened in one place to “the man of sorrows” when his glance followed the gorgeous figure of that “sea-Hyperion” Billy Budd. This is an odd business since he is so black a villain. He yearns for Billy, “but this [yearning look] was an evanescence, and quickly repented of, as it were, by an immitigable look, pinching and shrivelling the visage into the momentary semblance of a wrinkled walnut.” This relationship seems clear. But “Claggart's envy struck deeper” than mere homosexual attraction, and it is here, I think, that the basic explanation of Claggart lies—as Melville wrote earlier, “The point of the present story [turns] on the hidden nature of the master-at-arms,” and Melville says that to comprehend Claggart we must pass from normal nature, crossing “the deadly space between.” We can understand this, for Melville says specifically that Claggart is a man “in whom was the mania of an evil nature … born with him and innate, in short ‘a depravity according to nature.’” It is easy to see, therefore, that Claggart must be the Serpent to Billy's Adam, a serpent who possessed “a peculiar ferreting genius” that is becoming to both the infamous snake and a master-at-arms. On this basis the story is to be read as a war between good and evil in which Billy as God's son is pitted against a Lucifer who is filled with “pale ire, envy and despair” and persists eternally (for he is immortal) in battling God by continually destroying God's chosen creature.2

The trouble here is that since Billy's emptiness repels, too, we cannot altogether despise his enemy, and a close look at John Claggart's “matter” shows he has a good deal of “medium.” Throwing a light on him gives us something.

First, though, there is the question whether natural depravity is a reality in human beings. A modern instance of the naturally depraved is Cathy Ames in Steinbeck's East of Eden who was a moral monster, bereft of a sense of good, born without it. She burnt her parents alive at twelve, deserted her twin children at their birth, and ran the most vicious whore house in Salinas—after poisoning her patroness. And had no regrets. Cathy is an extreme example of the cankered born, a romantic imagining of what can be being here. And like all extreme picturings, she is unacceptable since Steinbeck drew her as apart from human kind.

Claggart was no moral monster like this. He was a human being whose abnormal base was “perhaps” monomaniac antagonism. He existed past the deadly space beyond “normal” nature all right, but this is not to say he is absolute evil. What he possessed—here we take Melville's own “indirection” in order to assess him—was something of the “mysteries of iniquity” which is to say “gross injustices”—and which is probably to say further a sense of inequality. Unlike Cathy he is not pure viciousness but a doubled soul, halfway here and halfway there, helpless to prevent antipathy from lunging forth against “very harmlessness itself.” I don't think it is so hard to see why at this point. Claggart's nature could not abide the persistence of the white. Billy's purity detonated his animosity, and though able to apprehend the good he was “powerless to be it.” He wept tears of recognition and regret, for he had a “disdain of innocence,” and his complaint against Billy was the groan, “to be nothing more than innocent!” That gravelled him. Melville quietly ends this passage by explaining,

… a nature like Claggart's surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible, act out to the end the part allotted it.

And finally, when he looked at Billy for the last time his glance was “the hungry lurch of the torpedo-fish,” for his look had sunk to the pre-human, to that of “certain uncatalogued creatures of the deep.”

At this point, if we stop, we must decide to condemn Claggart despite our sneaking sympathy with his position. But my main point is not just that he did Billy in to the distress of all kind readers. I think Claggart is meant for much more, for he ruined Billy beforehand by tarnishing his white, or rather, by seeing through it to something else. He forced the astonishing revelation that Billy was a masked man, that his white gold was fraud and deception, that his stutter was by no means only a gimmick designed to disarm the simple but was an opening to Billy's blacker beyond, to his humanity. “Handsome is as handsome does,” Claggart said of Billy, and what he meant was that as Billy did nothing his handsomeness was nothing but a blind.3 In making his charge against Billy,

With the measured step and calm collected air of an asylum-physician approaching in the public hall some patient beginning to show indications of a coming paroxysm, Claggart deliberately advanced. …

And he won the necessary knowledge he gave his life to find: the knowledge that Billy no more than any other human creature was able to “endure all things.” Claggart's sophistication, his sense of iniquity, if you will, taught him the fact that innocence does not truly exist and that its appearance is only pasteboard. In getting Billy to strike him he got Billy to do the unfortunately unchristian human thing in that he made him retaliate a tit for a tat. It was Billy's undoing; it was Claggart's victory; and it was Melville's deep intent.

Much earlier in the story Billy's dark interior had lunged forth in exactly the same way. Aboard the Rights of Man he had quelled Red Whiskers, the one holdout among that crew who “out of envy, perhaps” mockingly designated Billy like Claggart later such “a sweet and pleasant fellow.” Penetrated too deeply by Red Whiskers, Billy sucked him into position by reasoning with him in a “pleasant way.” Then one day “quick as lightening Billy let fly his arm” and converted Red Whiskers into a staunch supporter. How? By giving Red Whiskers the assurance the latter's nature demanded—the evidence of Billy's dark humanity.

Is my interpretation strained at this point? What then of Billy the night before his execution when Melville speaks of “the prone sailor's exterior apparel [“exterior” was a word added to the extended version of the short story], white jumper, white duck trousers, each more or less soiled, [that] dimly glimmered in the obscure light of the bay like a patch of discolored snow in early April lingering at some upland cave's black mouth”? Is this not the master's clever stroke, proof that Claggart knew all along Billy's white veiled a blacker beyond? It is not idle to emphasize this. Billy's position at this time is curiously described. Billy himself does not show through the soiled white in “the dirty yellow” light of the lanterns polluting the moonshine “ineffectually struggling.” As ever, light striking no medium reveals no substance. Billy's genuine darkness again lay hidden behind the mask of white he had reassumed after killing Claggart.

But we have not done with John Claggart. He does more yet than I have indicated. He exposes Captain Vere too, the half-innocent, middle-blond man who did not shy at Billy's white gold but in his starry way resented Claggart's declaration that “a man-trap may be under his ruddy-tipped daisies.” Vere should have called for Claggart's proof of Billy's mutinous behavior. If the false-witness risked the yardarm, in the interests of building good feeling in the crew of his ship, as well as supporting the naval law and etiquette for which he was such a stickler, Vere should have quietly sought out other witnesses to support or ruin Claggart's charges. But no. Since Vere was Starry Vere, mutinous parlous times or no he would do the idealistic, the innocent thing, by skipping the obvious and hasting toward a romantic solution in “practically” testing the accused alone. So Melville adds to his deeper theme: He shows Vere's Budd-like innocence and consequent ignorance (“struck dead by an angel of God,” Vere says) and emphasizes Claggart's wisdom in properly assessing Vere's character as well as Billy's. Claggart knew this man, too.

It is not easy to type Billy Budd. All Melville says is that it's not a romance.4 Regardless of type, however, its special value lies in the peculiar Melville context, especially as it elucidates the greatest American novel, its author's own Moby Dick, and ultimately as it reveals more “Melville” than anything that had gone before.

In the first place, the similarity between Billy Budd and Moby Dick is striking. At first thought it is ridiculous to equate a pure and lovable young man to a monstrous, man-eating whale; but a slower consideration reveals that if Billy Budd is a man-trap as Claggart suggests, then he is cousin-german to the tremendous fish.

We can begin this slower consideration by noting that the pre-eminent quality in both Billy Budd and Moby Dick is whiteness, the quality that meant the most appalling things to Melville. In Billy the white indicates innocence and goodness to the simple-minded since Billy is no “object terrible in itself.” But since the corollary of innocence is unfortunately not only goodness but ignorance too, it is clearly a lack. To Captain Ahab, heaven-bent or hell-bent, he cared not which, the most heaping, the most tasking, of all Moby Dick's characteristics was the completely impenetrable fact of his white. How can you get hold of nothing? And the nothing masks—well, what can it mask? It is inscrutable. Damnation: “Sometimes I think there's naught beyond,” says Ahab, and such a possibility was totally intolerable to this very sophisticated man. I must proffer here the reminder that sophistication may be knowledge, but that it is also a worldliness which implies a kind of corruption. Melville fully realized this; in Bully Budd he wrote, “A child's utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and the innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes.” Is corruption so awful then? A nurse reminds me it is not per se, for we should witness fleshly wounds wherein corruption through concentration permits cleansing. Nor can it be altogether bad otherwise if we believe in the superior power of reason since corruption is the inseparable corollary of waxing intelligence and the very contrast that supplies matter to reality.

I interpret Moby Dick here with Ahab as the protagonist. It is what I think Melville meant after all. There is no doubt we can reverse these roles and should for richer reading; so Ernest Hemingway chose to interpret Moby Dick when he rewrote it as The Old Man and the Sea. (But more about that in another place at another time.) Ahab is a hero. He is classic, tragic, admirable, compelling, magnetic, terrible. We thank God he has loaded the weight of all man's protesting, questioning, resentful mind onto his own back, a human Atlas. Thus burdened he sets himself to solve a Promethean problem, thinking that blankness, masks, and the monstrous Moby Dick himself are possible opponents for human beings.

The full quality of Ahab's monumental anger will never be fully assessed: What really provided the fuel for his fiery temper? Not the loss of a leg. Not the blasting thunderbolt of God that blistered a line all down his steely length. Ahab had been at schools. He had explored the deep-most sinks of man's inequality. Evermore he had met non-explanation and more iniquity. So he resolved at last to strike at iniquity itself. The depths of the midnight provided no answers; the brightness of noon therefore must. So we see he thought when he looked at the doubloon and saw the sun and the flashing peaks as spurs to his activity. So we know he believed because of Fedallah, the worshipper of the sun, the fire, and the light. So we have it impressed upon us while he adopted Black Pip in order to set him aside and increased his enmity at Moby Dick.

The insulting irony was that Ahab found man can thrust and thrust his penetrative sword into a dark and meaty resistance but never to a final answer. If the dark would yield no ultimate, only further deeps of dark, then the light must, and the lighter the better for his purposes. Hence Ahab's violent and entire rage toward Moby Dick, who was an enemy that should be black by all reasonable law, but who roamed the world as a white Leviathan of mockery. But how can man fight the light, the white, the blank? Starbuck reproached Ahab by crying, “Violence on a dumb brute!” and Ahab was set aflame by the adjective. It is the very dumbness Ahab can't abide because he knows it is deception and fraud.

Just so Claggart identified Billy's dumbness. Be the dumbness agent or be it principal both men sought to wreak their hatred on it, the greatest strength they had. Did Ahab love? As much as Claggart did, I think: They both loved answers, and the whiteness of both Moby Dick and Billy Budd barred the way. Ahab finally drove Moby Dick to retaliation too, and in so doing made Moby Dick show himself to be not dumb, not utter white and not blank. Ahab won this much for human kind: He found that white is a lie, for behind its polar, blizzardy veil beats a life not so dissimilar to our own that it will not strike back. Just so much did Claggart win in revealing the “matter” of Billy Budd, for when he accused Billy to his face, Billy did not turn merely pale: “… his cheek looked struck as by white leprosy.” Ishmael pointed out in Moby Dick that the ultimate aspect of white is that it reminds us, when we consider, that “the palsied universe lies before us a leper.”

The white is a damnable puzzle to be sure, but Ahab discovered its weakness when it was attached to natural objects: It is only a mask, after all, over existent substance. It is agent, it is not principal, it is not real in itself. Behind it lie the facts of truth. Is virgin virgin? White white? Blond blond? Not unless these things are nothing, and the mind can envision nothing no more than it can infinity. Space must have a stop as time must too, or we are totally adrift. Such a concept is almost inconceivable—or was before 1900. Time did not bend for Melville, nor did space explode, and atoms did not disappear under the most powerful microscopes. So Ahab found only a terrifying hint of the “existence” of nothing. He had to rip through the mask, he had to find something there, and he did: He found that Moby Dick was only a deceiver after all, and that the universe was real if it was malign.

What then of Claggart? I suggest he is in most respects an exaggerated version of Captain Ahab. Melville gave the screw another turn. A study of Claggart is a study of Melville at seventy—a greatly developed thinker. Clarel only served to improve the time from Moby Dick to Billy Budd. If a man thinks hard for a lifetime, try as he will he can hardly escape from himself unless he is a mystic, and Raymond Weaver notwithstanding, Melville was ever the mariner and never the mystic when it counted. It counted in Billy Budd. Melville remained Bulkington. He had sailed ever farther from shore into even more perilous infinities.

What then is Claggart? A “sensitive spiritual organization” in contrast to his opponent whose “innocence was his blinder.” Both characters, as men, are at opposite extremes of the human scale, but both are still human, nevertheless. Claggart is part Lucifer, a “peculiar human creature the direct reverse of a saint.” But Billy Budd is a peculiar human creature too, though the direct reverse of a devil. Claggart focussed his purple glance on Billy, discovered the truth, and perished for it. Milton did not mean that Lucifer should dominate his poem and be heroic. But he does and he is. We can know him when we can't know God—except in Satan's reflected light—and Satan gets our grudging admiration for his stoutness of heart in fighting Omnipotence. He is, finally, more human than not. So Ahab, that “grand, ungodly, god-like man,” is a hero after our own limited human hearts, a protestant against the imperial will of the Father, discontented to accept, to believe, and to knuckle under.

Melville says Billy is no conventional hero. Indeed, he can be no hero at all because he has no content and is “nothing more than innocent.” Moby Dick can not be a hero either for he is only a dumb brute. Both lack medium. Both are pristine. Melville says Billy had “one thing amiss in him,” his vocal defect. “In this particular Billy was a striking instance that the arch interferer, the envious marplot of Eden still has more or less to do with every human consignment to this planet of earth.” It is a “striking instance” because this is Billy's only defect by means of which he can be subverted.

In the never flagging war of immortal Lucifer against God and of Man against mysterious iniquity, such stout warriors can only take advantage of that defect which God in the pride of His own perfection allowed His prime creature, the blemish that would keep human beings from like godliness. Lucifers know this and attack God's vanity—they strike at the sun by forever and forever aiming darts at the weak spot.

Claggart like Ahab could not abide the white mask because he was convinced it covered something else. He sought to tear it off and he did. Beneath the mask was no blankness, no purity, and no blondness. Billy was an artificial blond.

The sealing proof is Billy's famous valedictory, “God bless Captain Vere!” These were his final words as he felt the hemp around his neck, “his only ones, words unobstructed in the utterance.” Melville had said earlier that “under sudden provocation of strong heart-feeling [Billy's] voice … was apt to develop … a stutter.” Are we supposed to think, then, that there was no heart in Billy's words? Presumably. At any rate, this line pierced Vere to the heart because of the unconscious derision of such a truly Christ-like benediction. It needed no “low laugh from the hold” for emphasis, but Claggart could have supplied it from his ocean grave.

Melville's irony here is overwhelming and it capped the climax, a subtle arrow. As Billy “ascends,” an additional signal, a

preconcerted dumb one was given. At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East, was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision. …

All the last of the story, five more sections, all these are irony, too. Like a real symphony, not that one in Moby Dick, Melville stills and quiets the clamor he had aroused by supplying quiet explanation. He digressed to present the discussion between the Purser and the Surgeon about Billy's curious absence of muscular spasm at the moment of death. He added the passages on the dispersal of the crew, the distorted newspaper report of the case, the death of Vere, and the sailor's ballad “Billy in the Darbies.” All this is no softening, though, but irony on irony. Melville quietly apologizes in the midst of these final sections—or so it seems:

The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact. Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial.

What he must mean is that there is no real end because truth is without an end, residing as he had said long ago “in landlessness alone … shoreless, indefinite as God. …”

One other passage requires final mention. Melville writes that after Billy's burial:

And now it was full day. The fleece of low-hanging vapor had vanished, licked up by the sun that late had so glorified it. And the circumambient air in the cleanness of its serenity was like smooth white marble in the polished block not removed from the marble-dealer's yard.

This is the conclusion of the narration. Melville “quietly” informs us of the frightful fact that frightful white remains, untouched in its immensity. But he implies that it is still assailable because it still remains. It still calls forth from Ahabs, Claggarts and all of us an unresting antagonism and an active protest against what may lie beyond. If naught, says Melville, then let us know. But if something, let us see. At least, let us continue to try to see.


  1. I have examined some twenty studies made of the story, beginning with E. L. Grant Watson's “Melville's Testament of Acceptance,” in New England Quarterly, VI, (1935), 319–327. The current interpretation of Billy Budd, with little variation, is represented by this comment in one of the newest anthologies of American literature for college students, S. Bradley, R. C. Beatty and E. H. Long, The American Tradition in Literature (New York, 1956), I, 709:

    This testament of reconciliation provides a clarifying contrast with the novels of the earlier period, with the young novelist's heartbreaking rebellion against the overwhelming capacity of evil in man and the universe, and the inescapable doom, as in Moby-Dick, of those who pit themselves against the implacable Leviathan of God. In Billy Budd the author has made a truce, perhaps a peace. He is at least reconciled to the enigma represented by Captain Vere's ordeal in sentencing Billy to death for killing, in Claggart, the festering “depravity according to nature.” By “natural law,” Billy is guiltless, but not by “law operating through us. For that law and the rigour of it, we are not responsible.”

    Another recent textbook, J. D. Hart and C. Gohdes, America's Literature (New York, 1955), p. 514, describes the novel as

    … a controlled tale of an eighteenth-century sailor, symbolic of the passive and pure Christian who, though led to execution by the ways of the world, triumphs in death as his virtue wins him salvation in the hearts of man.

    The first of these interpretations declares that the “horological vs. chronometrical” conflict of Pierre is dealt with in the last novel merely as an admitted though sad fact of human life. The second view fails completely to see anything below the surface story of Billy Budd, assuming far too easily that Billy must be viewed as a pure hero defeated by evil society but triumphant in man's eyes. Both interpretations fail to suppose Melville kept to the open seas for the last thirty years.

  2. It is fit that in his present guise as chief of police Claggart should cause “mysterious discomfort” to the ship's crew. It is ironic of course to note that the policeman ostensibly serving the rule of order should so discommode the sons of Adam. As we know, Satan carries with him a smell of Tartarean smoke, and Claggart like Satan was one deposed, living incog, fallen on hard times, no longer a quarter-deck figure, but forced to prowl the bowels of the ship and of existence.

  3. Richard Chase in “Dissent on Billy Budd,” in the Partisan Review, XV (1948), 1216–1217, says:

    The weakness of Billy Budd is the central character himself. The trouble is that he is not in any meaningful way what Claggart says he is: “deep” and a “man-trap.” He ought to be “deep” and in some inescapable human way a “man-trap.” Otherwise he cannot function meaningfully in a tragedy which tries to demonstrate the opposition between human nature and the heart on the one hand and law on the other.

    Chase also says that Claggart has a claim to sympathy. He notes that Claggart's complaint about Billy, “To be nothing more than innocent!” is somewhat beguiling. But Chase goes no further than this. He concludes: “The fact is that Billy Budd is the final, and almost the first—first crucial—self-indulgence of a great intelligence.” Chase almost had it here, but failed to think far enough.

    Another study of depravity is in The Scarlet Letter—with which Melville was of course quite familiar. The depravity is in the character of the black Roger Chillingworth. But who gets sympathy in this novel? Hester Prynne, the predominantly red and human? Arthur Dimmesdale, the palely white and loitering? Only D. H. Lawrence asserts that Chillingworth has a case, but his argument is impressive, for aside from his shocking attack on Hester as a man-eater, he made very clear that the villainous Roger, who is also filled with pale ire, envy and despair, fulfills a necessary human role in exposing the blond fraudulence of Dimmesdale.

  4. It is easy to call Billy Budd a tragedy. In most interpretations Billy is a tragic hero in classical, Aristotelian terms. The explanation is that Billy is a good man whose flaw is the stutter that caused his last minute of passion. Catharsis is achieved in the pity Billy excites, the fear his unjust execution arouses; purgation comes from our realization of his apotheosis, his “triumph in the hearts of men,” when he forgives Vere, the unwilling executioner. But Billy never recognized the flaw, and the flaw itself is unacceptable since the stutter is only physical and the moment of passionate temper was accidental in its result. Billy thus fails to be a tragic hero because he has no mind and no real will.

    Captain Vere can be suggested as the tragic hero, too. He fits the classic pattern better in some ways, especially in that he is a good man who comes to full recognition of what his achieved position in the world has forced him to do. But no or little catharsis is possible with Vere as hero, since even his defeat in wanting to save Billy, “the angel of God,” was only academic, so to speak.

    No definition of tragedy is apt, of course, unless it is founded on the realization that pride is the essential base of the tragic hero. Thus Arthur Miller's contemporary definition has merit:

    The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity.

    Applying this definition to Billy Budd, the curious result is that only Claggart fits the formula—if we believe that Claggart's “essence” was a sense of personal dignity or pride that demanded Billy's destruction.

    The final result of my speculation is that I have decided Billy Budd is no tragedy in any ordinary formulistic sense. It is nothing so romantic. It may well be a parody of tragedy, however, for the wicked Claggart is genuinely heroic in both Aristotle's terms—and Arthur Miller's. The final question is whether Claggart is a “good” man, good enough to elicit the reader's admiration and sympathy.

Phil Withim (essay date 1959)

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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 article which reviewed all these interpretations as well as those of Mumford, Weir, and Sedgwick, put forth a suggestion, which he credited to Gay Wilson Allen, “that Billy Budd might best be understood as a work of irony.”7 Since this article appeared, a number of other critics have also objected to the “testament of acceptance” theory or have supported an ironic interpretation; sometimes they have done both.8

This [essay] is another step in this same direction. It accepts the point of view that Billy Budd was written in a basically ironic style; it will attempt to establish a thesis in harmony with all of the parts of the story and to demonstrate that the “testament of acceptance” theory is essentially self-contradictory.

The body of the story is concerned with the relationships of three men: Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Captain Vere. Whatever arguments may rage concerning other elements of the story, there is general agreement as to the character and significance of Billy Budd and John Claggart. Billy Budd is the Handsome Sailor uniting “strength and beauty,” whose moral nature is not “out of keeping with the physical make” (p. 135). Claggart is Billy's reverse. He is pale and unhealthy looking; his visage seems to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood. This contrasts with the conjunction in Billy of beauty and goodness. Claggart had an “evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short ‘a depravity according to nature’” (p. 187).

Melville is explicit about his desire to have Billy and Claggart taken as types of good and bad, and this, I think, is the chief argument against those who, like Matthiessen and Freeman, consider homosexualism an aspect of the problem. For if Melville had desired to hint at homosexualism, he would not have denied its possibility; when speaking of Claggart's peculiar nature, he says, “In short the depravity here meant partakes nothing of the sordid or sensual” (p. 186). And speaking of Billy, he says he was “preëmently the Handsome Sailor” (p. 192) who, as Melville has told us in the opening pages of the book, typifies strength united to beauty. In those descriptions of Billy emphasizing his delicate color and the fine detail of his features, the point is to impress us with his purity, his aristocratic heritage, not his femininity. Melville takes care to remind the reader that Billy had thrashed the bully, Red Whiskers (p. 137).

But it is around the third figure, Captain Vere, that the greatest disagreement has arisen. This suggests that a detailed examination of his character and function is essential to any understanding of the novel. He is described as apparently the best type of British naval man:

always acquitting himself as an officer mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline; thoroughly versed in the science of his profession, and intrepid to the verge of temerity, though never injudiciously so.

(p. 160)

He loves to read, particularly those books “treating of actual men and events no matter of what era—history, biography and unconventional writers, who, free from cant and convention, like Montaigne, honestly, and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities” (pp. 163–64). In the reading he found

confirmation of his own more reserved thoughts—confirmation which he had vainly sought in social converse, so that as touching most fundamental topics, there had got to be established in him some positive convictions which he forefelt would abide in him essentially unmodified so long as his intelligent part remained unimpaired.

(p. 164)

This particular sentence creates a question as to Melville's meaning. Does he suggest here that the only result of Vere's reading is that his mind becomes more and more firmly fixed on his earliest opinions, that no author can ever modify them, either because he will not let their ideas penetrate or because he never reads books that do not agree with him; or does Melville imply that Vere's opinions are instinctively right and that all the books in Vere's library, “compact, but of the best” (p. 163) agree with him unfailingly? But it is as yet too early to decide. Melville continues to describe Vere as one whose “settled convictions were as a dyke against those invading waters of novel opinion social political and otherwise” (p. 164) and as one who opposed these novel opinions because they seemed to him not only “incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind” (p. 164). This last phrase sounds suspiciously like cant, like sarcasm. Vere's reasons here are such terribly stock arguments that it is hard to accept them at face value.

The possibility arises that the reader is expected to understand that Vere's reasoning is presented without comment because it is simply and transparently a rationalization of an uninformed and bigoted man who reads only those authors who reinforce his views. But if this possibility is to be accepted as fact, the reader must find other implied criticism of Vere, and, indeed, it does not take much searching. Melville, for example, goes to the trouble of devoting several pages to Nelson, the greatest of English captains,9 pointing out with approval that Nelson challenged death by his brilliant apparel.

Personal prudence even when dictated by quite other than selfish consideration is surely no special virtue in a military man; while an excessive love of glory, impassioning a less burning impulse the honest sense of duty, is the first.

(p. 157)

Nelson, of course, dies a soldier's death, while Vere dies drugged and ashore before ever reaching fame. Nelson is a fighter in direct contact with the enemy; but Vere, in the encounter described in Billy Budd, does not have an opportunity to catch the opposing ship. Vere is frequently used for diplomatic missions, the very opposite of a captain's usual job; Vere, says Melville, though a man of “sturdy qualities was without brilliant ones” (p. 162). Nelson is asked to take command of a ship recently involved in the Great Mutiny, for “it was thought that an officer like Nelson was the one, not indeed to terrorize the crew into base subjection, but to win them, by force of his mere presence back to an allegiance if not as enthusiastic as his own, yet as true” (p. 159; italics mine). Vere, in a similar situation, hangs Billy, “thinking perhaps that under existing circumstances in the navy the consequence of violating discipline should be made to speak for itself” (p. 254).

It is clear that this comparison is not favorable to Captain Vere, and if we look back to earlier descriptions, we find that they apparently contain an implied criticism: “ever mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline”; “intrepid to the verge of temerity, though never injudiciously so.” The second half of each statement could merely qualify the virtue mentioned in the first half, or it could cancel the virtue completely.10

After Claggart accuses Billy of projected mutiny, Vere decides to confront the two men with each other in his cabin. There Billy, infuriated by the charge, confused and frustrated by his stammer, strikes Claggart dead. Apparently Vere's purpose in bringing them together is to find out the truth.11 But how does he expect the interview to accomplish this? Claggart would have accused, and Billy would have denied. There seems to be no relevant reason for Vere's decision. Claggart had suggested that there was substantiating evidence not far away, but Vere had not sent for it, since he wished to keep the affair secret because he was afraid of the crew. In short, Vere's decision is based on the single element of prudence, and he ignores all other elements inherent in the situation. Now Claggart is dead. As Vere looks on, he cries, “‘Struck dead by an angel of God. Yet the Angel must hang’” (p. 229). Vere must have acute perception, indeed, to see so quickly to the heart of so complex a situation. He realizes instantly that there is no alternative to Billy's death.

Vere calls a court-martial, reserving, however, “to himself as the one on whom the ultimate accountability would rest, the right of maintaining a supervision of it, or formally or informally interposing at need” (p. 236). During the trial the members of the court seem reluctant to hang Billy, and the Captain has to talk them into it. But it is hard to understand why Vere called the court at all. What purpose does it serve? Was it called to guide him to a right decision? But Vere had already made his decision. In any case the court did not guide him; he guided the court. Perhaps he thought the court would overrule him and free the boy. But Vere had reserved for himself the right of supervising and interfering at need. Apparently all Vere wants is to have on record a trial agreeing with his decision.

Vere begins his argument (pp. 244–48) by saying that he would not interfere with their deliberations, but that he sees them at a crisis proceeding “‘from the clashing of military duty with moral scruple.’” He advises them to “‘strive against scruples that may tend to enervate decision.’” When the men look startled, he explains thus:

“How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow-creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?—Does that state it aright? You sign sad assent. Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King.”

This is the main basis of his argument: we do not serve nature but the king.

“We fight at command. If our judgments approve the war, that is but coincidence. So in other particulars. … Would it be so much we ourselves that would condemn as it would be martial law operating through us? For that law and the rigor of it, we are not responsible. Our vowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.”

The officer of marines points out that Budd “proposed neither mutiny nor homicide.” Vere agrees with him, saying that, after all, “‘At the Last Assizes it shall acquit,’” but not now. “‘War looks but to the frontage, the appearance. And the Mutiny Act, War's child, takes after the father. Budd's intent or non-intent is nothing to the purpose.’”

No one at any time questions his argument. No one suggests that the king's law should be in harmony with nature's law, or that if there is disagreement between them, the allegiance must be to the higher and the more universal law of nature. No one asks Vere to support his peculiar thesis; it is merely slipped in, so to speak, with the analogy of the buttons: because the men wear the king's buttons, they are to violate natural laws. Even though Vere has admitted that the Mutiny Act looks only to frontage, to the appearance, no one suggests that the point of justice is to see through appearance to reality. But the reason that no one questions Vere's arguments is that no one understands them. “Loyal lieges, plain and practical … they were without the faculty, hardly had the inclination to gainsay one whom they felt to be an earnest man, one too not less their superior in mind than in naval rank” (pp. 248–49).

Vere, however, soon gives them an argument they can understand, for when the junior lieutenant asks why, if they must convict, they cannot mitigate the sentence, Vere replies that they cannot because the crew “‘will ruminate. You know what sailors are. Will they not revert to the recent outbreak at the Nore. … Your clement sentence they would account pusillanimous. They would think that we flinch, that we are afraid of them.’” And this is the only argument the court really understands, for, as Melville says, “it is not improbable that even such of his words as were not without influence over them, less came home to them than his closing appeal to their instincts as sea-officers. …” So for all the finely spun thought, the issue is decided by fear. When subtle arguments fail, Vere calls on, not a rational argument, but an emotional one: an appeal to fear.

Another clue to Vere's thinking comes after Billy has been hanged. The men are put to work at various tasks; they are swept into the routine as fast as possible. Melville writes of this:

“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 woods.” And this [Vere] once applied to the disruption of forms going on across the Channel and the consequences thereof.

(p. 272)

Stripped of verbiage, Vere is saying that men cannot think for themselves, that form and habit can control men as if they were no more than beasts. Vere, in an earlier passage, had thought to himself that Billy was a “‘King's bargain,’ that is to say, for His Britannic Majesty's navy a capital investment at small outlay or none at all” (p. 220). In this light, Vere, far from being a wise man, balanced in his judgments and fair in his attitudes, is discovered to be narrow, literal, prejudiced, completely circumscribed by the needs of the navy, less compassionate than his officers, and lastly, guilty of that worst of naval sins, over-prudence.

The core of Vere's argument is that we must bow to necessity; “‘For that law and the rigor of it, we are not responsible. Our vowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it’” (pp. 245–46). A logical extension of this argument is that man should abdicate responsibility for unjust law and enforce it mechanically. Man should not try to change that which is wrong, but merely accept injustice and tyranny and lie supinely beneath them; man is to stand by and watch the innocent as indiscriminately ground under the heel of unresisted law as are the evil.

Melville makes his opposition to this view clear by dedicating the book to Jack Chase, his companion years before on the frigate United States. It was this voyage that became the story of White-Jacket, the novel that cried out so eloquently against impressment, flogging, the captain's tyranny. Jack Chase is here mentioned by name and is referred to as “a stickler for the Rights of Man and the liberties of the world.”12 It would be ironic indeed to dedicate Billy Budd to such a man if the novel was devoted to submission. However, the preface (pp. 131–32) helps to make clear the direction of the book. In it, Melville speaks of the French Revolution as an expression of “the Spirit of that Age [which] involved the rectification of the Old World's hereditary wrongs.” He points out that, although the revolution had in its turn become an oppressor, the outcome was “a political advance along nearly the whole line for Europeans,” and he concludes by saying,

in a way analogous to the operation of the Revolution at large the Great Mutiny, though by Englishmen naturally deemed monstrous at the time, doubtless gave the first latent prompting to most important reforms in the British Navy.

In short, tyranny can be successfully resisted.

We can now be sure of the direction of the theme of Billy Budd. In local context it suggests that it is wrong to submit to unjust law. Those in power, such as Vere, should do all they can to resist the evil inherent in any institution or government. All men are flawed, but not all men are depraved; and we must not let those institutions designed to control the evil destroy the good. In a larger context, man should not resign himself to the presence of evil but must always strive against it. It is possible to check the validity of this view by making sure that the various incidents, descriptions, and points reinforce it, and that they also contradict the “testament of acceptance” theory.

Observe that Vere dies drugged and on shore before he has “attained to the fullness of fame” (p. 275). In other words, Vere's end is suitable to one who did not deserve such renown as the daring and imprudent Nelson, a man capable, as Vere is not, of inspiring his men to loyalty, of substituting persuasion for coercion.

Observe that Claggart is characterized as civilized and intellectual;

the man's even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in his heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational.

(p. 186)

But such men, continues Melville,

are true madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous but occasional evoked by some special object; it is probably secretive which is as much to say it is self contained, so that when moreover, most active it is to the average mind not distinguishable from sanity. …

(p. 187)

This material comes into sharper focus when considered in relationship to Vere. He, like Claggart, is civilized; he, like Claggart, is intellectual; and he, like Claggart, uses reason to a bad end. Melville had suggested that Claggart was mad, and yet in Chapter 21, the surgeon, after seeing Claggart's body and hearing Vere say that the boy must hang, cannot banish this treasonable thought: “Was Captain Vere suddenly affected in his mind … ? Was he unhinged?” (p. 231). The surgeon reports, as instructed by Vere, to the lieutenants and the captain of the marines. “They fully stared at him in surprise and concern. Like him they seemed to think that such a matter should be reported to the Admiral” (p. 232). Melville pushes further; in the next chapter he says,

Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? … So with sanity and insanity. … Whether Captain Vere, as the Surgeon professionally and primarily surmised, was really the sudden victim of any degree of aberration, one must determine for himself by such light as this narrative can afford.

(p. 233)

Observe that Billy was removed from a ship called the Rights of Man by a lieutenant named Ratcliffe.

Observe that, although Vere was “solicitous of his men's welfare,” yet the day after Billy was impressed, the captain flogged “a little fellow, young, a novice an after-guardsman absent from his assigned post when the ship was being put about …” (p. 174). It is useful to remember here that, when Melville was a novice, he was almost flogged for the same reason, but was saved by the interference of Jack Chase.13

Observe that white is not used to portray innocence, as Matthiessen suggests; on the contrary, it is used as Melville had used it in Moby-Dick: to imply terror and possibly evil. For example, Claggart is described as pale in visage; Billy, when accused of treachery, appears “struck as by white leprosy” (p. 225); the young man who tries to persuade Billy to join a mutiny had “glassy eyes of pale blue, veiled with lashes all but white” (p. 202); Claggart's voice is silvery and low; the whistles used to pipe the men to witness the punishment of Billy are silver whistles; the moon that shines at midnight as Vere tells the men about Billy's sentence silvers the white spar-deck (p. 254) as, in the ballad also, it silvers the bay where Billy lies shackled, awaiting death. In this light the whiteness of Billy's clothes may not be a sign of his purity but of the evil which is successfully destroying him; and the “circumambient air in the clearness of its serenity … like smooth white marble” (p. 273), which surrounds him as he hangs from the yardarm, may be more concerned with all-conquering evil than with submissive purity.

Observe that Vere appears at the court-martial as the sole witness, “and as such temporarily sinking his rank, though singularly maintaining it in a matter apparently trivial, namely, that he testified from the ship's weather-side with that object having caused the court to sit on the lee-side” (p. 238). Vere thus chooses the side which puts him literally and metaphorically above the court and gives him, in the slang meaning of the term, the advantage.

Vere, when preparing to address the court, that is, to persuade it to his opinion, paces the cabin,

in the returning ascent to windward, climbing the slant deck in the ship's lee roll; without knowing it symbolizing thus in his action a mind resolute to surmount difficulties even if against primitive instincts strong as the wind and the sea.

(p. 243)

But Melville has suggested already that the instincts of the untutored barbarian are sounder than the civilized intellect.

Observe that this is corroborated in the very next paragraph. “When speak he did, something both in the substance of what he said and his manner of saying it, showed the influence of unshared studies modifying and tempering the practical training of an active career” (p. 243). But practicality is exactly what is called for. Vere never refers to these qualities, preferring instead to weave a complex skein of thought which none of his court, though thoroughly competent, can follow.

Even the governing circumstance of the entire story, namely, the recent mutinies and the consequent peril hovering over the fleet, does not go unchallenged by Melville. For at the conclusion of Vere's speech, just after his appeal to the fear of a new revolt, Melville describes the court's frame of mind as akin to that

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. Which resolution was carried out though in a time of peace and within not many days sail of home. An act vindicated by a naval court of inquiry subsequently convened ashore. 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.

(p. 249)

Thus, Melville introduces a case whose justice had been considered extremely dubious and which, after forty years, was still being debated in the papers.14 Melville does not stop here; the last two sentences state that the circumstances are not the same, and that perhaps the need for swift action on the Indomitable is urgent and perhaps it is not. Thus even the circumstance responsible for Vere's basic motive is undermined.

It should be pointed out that the adherents of the “testament of acceptance” theory have to deal not only with the unsuitability of Captain Vere as a spokesman for Melville, but they also have to explain away the presence of a number of contradictions which arise in the story solely as a result of their position. For example, if the story concerns the acceptance of necessary evil, then why does Melville continue beyond the death of Billy, where, and only where, an emotional equilibrium favorable to such an acceptance is attained? Vere's untimely death would be a poor reward for so faithful a servant and in the “acceptance” context would be meaningless, for the point is made and the tale ended with Billy's death. Only an ironical reversing of the point would justify continuation of the story.

It is even possible to bring into question the tone of the hanging scene. Joseph Schiffman, B. R. McElderry, and Harry Campbell have each noted contradictions in this scene that arise only if the story is interpreted as an “acceptance.” Schiffman15 points out that, even though the crew echoes Billy's cry, “God bless Captain Vere,” they are not thinking of the captain, for, in Melville's words, “yet at that instant Billy alone must have been in their hearts, even as he was in their eyes” (p. 265).

B. R. McElderry demonstrates that Billy's cry is not unprecedented in the literature of the sea; he cites two plays and a novel by Marryat which have similar scenes. Thus Billy's cry is

what Melville said it was: “a conventional felon's benediction directed aft towards the quarters of honor …” (p. 265). It is the traditional ritual of the condemned man forgiving the official who is duty bound to order his death.16

If this episode is taken ironically, then it fits the rest of the story as so far interpreted and acquires tremendous power. For Billy is willing to die as Isaac or as Christ was willing; he accepts all the captain's arguments, but it is Billy alone who is noble. The captain suffers and wishes he could avoid this duty, but he has no nobility and above all no trust in man. Yet Billy's very acceptance of his role is the evidence that proves man can be trusted, that man can rise above the need for forms.

Harry Campbell17 has analyzed the hanging scene and perceives therein an attempt on Melville's part to strike a balance between the sacrificial religious aspect and the aspect of the scene as sheer injustice, as an execution. For example, Melville says that “Billy ascends; and ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.” But he ascends only to the yardarm, where he remains a pinioned figure. Campbell also notes that the reading of the early Baby Budd, Sailor for “rosy dawn” was the powerful religious term “shekinah” (p. 339) and that the “silence accompanying the ascension” (p. 340) later becomes “The silence at the moment of execution” (p. 269). This last change, particularly, suggests that Melville wants us to realize that Billy's death, though noble, is still unjust. If Vere had had such nobility and strength, Billy need not have died. As Kark Zink has said, “The lesson is not that Billy learns to accept the necessary harshness of the forms, but that in their high impersonality there is a dangerous lack of discrimination—dangerous to the individual and to the social structure itself.”18

Another contradiction inherent in the “acceptance” theory lies in Melville's argument that barbarians with their instincts and warm hearts have sounder values than civilized men with their intricate intellects and their rabied hearts. Would it not be contradictory for Melville to suggest this not once, but twice, and then have Vere, Melville's foremost spokesman, weave a complex intellectual argument? Would it not be contradictory for Melville to have Billy die bravely, crying “God bless Captain Vere,” and then have Vere say directly that mankind is a denizen of the forest and must be controlled by form and routine?

Would it not be contradictory, in the “testament of acceptance” framework, for Melville to use for the captain's name a word which at first glance suggests veritas “truth,” but on second glance can as easily suggest veritus “fear,” or on third glance, vir “man”?

Would it not be contradictory for him to use as symbols of evil flogging, impressment, arbitrary hanging, when these evils had been corrected by the time that he wrote this story, partly through his own writing?

Would it not be contradictory for Melville to use Vere as a symbol of the proper recognition of necessary evil: a man who had opposed the French Revolution and all its new social and political doctrines which since have changed the globe and reduced tyranny, injustice, poverty, and disease? Might it not be argued that, since Vere was wrong in his judgment of these attempts to change existing evils, he might also be wrong about the case in hand?

Would it not be contradictory for Melville to have a captain who is intelligent and widely read in both the ancients and the moderns, who does not apply this breadth of experience, who sees no larger context than the immediate needs of the navy?

Again, would it not be contradictory for Melville to represent Billy as inarticulate, nonthinking, naïve, emotionally adolescent, and morally undeveloped, and then expect the reader to accept his cry, “God bless Captain Vere,” as indicative of full understanding, instinctive or otherwise?

And finally, is not the “acceptance” theory contradictory to all that Melville stood for and fought for throughout his entire life? He had been a seaman and had witnessed at first hand the floggings and the tyrannies of the captains. He had never approved of such practices, and in White-Jacket he thundered against them from every angle.

No matter, then, what may be the consequences of its abolition; no matter if we have to dismantle our fleets, and our unprotected commerce should fall a prey to the spoiler, the awful admonitions of justice and humanity demand that abolition without procrastination; in a voice that is not to be mistaken, demand that abolition to-day. It is not a dollar-and-cent question of expediency; it is a matter of right and wrong. And if any man can lay his hand on his heart, and solemnly say that this scourging is right, let that man but once feel the lash on his own back, and in his agony you will hear the apostate call the seventh heavens to witness that it is wrong. And, in the name of immortal manhood, would to God that every man who upholds this thing were scourged at the gangway till he recanted.

(p. 147)

Melville was a fighter, he was stubborn, he never accepted the easy way out. Would it not then be contradictory for him, after a lifetime of resisting practical evil in the world at large and metaphysical evil in his novels, at the very end to discover that he had been wrong all along and that his duty had always been to lie down and accept evil as unavoidable?

It is now possible to review the story swiftly. It begins with a cue from a narrator; a rebellion, like the French Revolution or the Spithead Mutiny, may result in good, although in the beginning it may not seem so. Thus, rebellion is justified in the first pages, the implication being that evil can and perhaps should be resisted. We have seen how the various characteristics of the three main actors are clues to the working out of this theme. Claggart is evil through and through; he possesses the perverted intelligence of a serpent, an intelligence used for irrational purposes. Billy Budd, on the contrary, is pure innocence, acting and judging on instinct alone. When Vere is introduced, his central characteristic is his intellection, by means of which he can justify or rationalize an over-prudence that leads to injustice. The chapter on Nelson reminds us that Vere's kind of caution and Vere's way of preventing possible mutiny are not admirable.

It may be argued that, while both Vere and Claggart possess intelligence, Vere uses his wisely and justly. But this argument collapses when it is perceived that Vere does not do what reason would suggest in so dubious a case, i.e., jail Billy until they reach land. The real point is, of course, that Vere does not act on reason and intelligence at all, but on fear; his intelligence, instead of being a guide, is a perverted instrument. Such scenes as the confusion of the officers and the doubt of the surgeon concerning Vere's sanity make sense only when regarded as putting into issue Vere's stature and ability.

It may also be argued that such episodes are intended to demonstrate that Vere and only Vere has the intelligence and insight to perceive the deeper issues. But this explanation falls to the ground when it is realized that Vere's whole argument is irrational and that his final appeal is to brute force. The ballad at the end becomes particularly rich in this context. Billy is to be sacrificed, but unjustly and unnecessarily so. The ballad, written by one of his comrades who does not understand the issues but who feels obscurely the truth of the matter in spite of a calumnious official report, speaks of Billy as unafraid but sad. Billy, being innocence personified, does not fear death; but as an unjust sacrifice, he is pictured as alone and unhappy. He longs for companionship and affection and thinks wistfully of his friends; in the end he contemplates with a melancholy resignation his death:

Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I'll dream fast asleep.
I feel it stealing now. Sentry, are you there?
Just ease these darbies at the wrist,
And roll me over fair.
I am asleep, and the oozy weeds about me twist.

(p. 281)

Thus, Billy's cry, “God Bless Captain Vere,” is the crowning irony and really the climax of the story, for he was hanged unjustly. Melville says here that a harsh truth of this harsh world is that good folk can be misled, that they can be abused by the evil simply because they are trusting. Thus Melville reminds us that we must keep up the good fight: evil must not remain uncontested. And he does so not by a call to arms but by demonstrating the consequences of unresisting acquiescence.


  1. E. L. G. Watson, “Melville's Testament of Acceptance,” New England Quarterly, VI (1933), 322.

  2. F. Barron Freeman, ed., Melville's Billy Budd (Cambridge, 1948), p. 115. All page references to Billy Budd will be from this edition and will be inserted in parentheses directly following the quotations.

  3. F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (New York, 1941), p. 510.

  4. Willard Thorp, Herman Melville: Representative Selections (New York, 1938), p. lxxxiv.

  5. Alfred Kazin, “Ishmael in his Academic Heaven,” The New Yorker, February 19, 1949, pp. 84–89.

  6. Richard Chase, “Dissent on Billy Budd,Partisan Review, XV (1948), 1212–13. See also his book, Herman Melville: A Critical Study (New York, 1949), p. 265.

  7. Joseph Schiffman, “Melville's Final Stage, Irony,” American Literature, XXII (1950), 128–36.

  8. Among them are Tyrus Hillway, “Billy Budd, Melville's Human Sacrifice,” Pacific Spectator, VI (1952), 342–47; Ray West, “Primitivism in Melville,” Prairie Schooner, XXX (1956), 369–85; and see below, footnotes 14, 15, 16, and 17.

  9. Wendell Glick, in his article “Expediency and Absolute Morality in Billy Budd,PMLA, LXVIII (1953), 103–10, devotes much attention to the Nelson episode, equating Nelson not with Vere but with Billy, and discovers both to be heroic. This may be true, although the differences in station, occasion, and motivation seem to be unsurmountable obstacles to such an interpretation. On the other hand, it seems natural to compare Nelson with Vere: both are captains of ships in time of war, both are asked to deal with mutiny. An additional difficulty with Glick's article lies in the fact that his defense is built on the following unsupported statement: “[Melville] agreed with the Captain that justice to the individual is not the ultimate loyalty in a complex culture; the stability of the culture has the higher claim, and when the two conflict, justice to the individual must be abrogated to keep the order of society intact” (p. 104). Since this is exactly the point in question, so far as any interpretation of the meaning of Billy Budd is concerned, it seems facile to present it as axiomatic.

  10. Cf. James E. Miller, Jr., “Billy Budd: The Catastrophe of Innocence,” MLN, LXXIII (1958), 168–76. Miller uses the quotations I have just cited to demonstrate the opposite of my point, namely, that Vere, as opposed to both Billy (all heart) and Claggart (all mind), “is the man of moderation with heart and intellect in ideal balance,” who recognizes the “wide and necessary separation of heavenly wisdom and earthly wisdom and the ‘impossibility’ of the application of the one in the province of the other.” In this interpretation Vere becomes a “Hero of Humanity” who shields society from the cataclysmic consequences of Billy's “nakedly spontaneous and raw innocence.”

    Apparently Miller does not take the quotations in question ironically, whereas I do. But how does one know when to read any line ironically? The answer, I suppose, must be: when such a reading is suggested by and found to be consistent with the total context. In this article, I have tried to submit my own reading to such a test, but I do not find that Miller has. Rather, pretty much abandoning Billy Budd, he retreats to Pierre, to the Plinlimmon pamphlet, to its famous distinction between heavenly and earthly truth and to its call for a “virtuous expediency.” Unfortunately, this pamphlet is not the clearest of Melville's work, and in Willard Thorp's words, “the critics will argue its significance perpetually.”

    It would seem, therefore, an invalid critical procedure to attempt to explain the uncertain meanings of Billy Budd by an appeal to the uncertain meanings of Pierre. Even if Melville's intentions, ironic or otherwise, in Pierre were crystal clear, which they are not, there is no guarantee that Billy Budd embodies them, forty years later.

  11. This point is taken from Lawrence Thompson's Melville's Quarrel with God (Princeton, 1952), a book which has been widely and deservedly criticized as totaling somewhat less than the sum of its parts; yet many of those parts are valuable for their detailed analyses and suggestive insights.

  12. Herman Melville, White-Jacket (London, 1952), p. 29.

  13. Melville, White-Jacket, p. 269.

  14. For further information relating to the case, see Freeman, pp. 57–65, and Charles R. Anderson, “The Genesis of Billy Budd,” American Literature, XII (1940), 329–46. The latest full-length examination of this incident has been conducted by Richard Thorson Stavey in his 1953 doctoral dissertation at Princeton, “Melville's Billy Budd: A New Approach to the Problem of Interpretation.” In his abstract (DA, XIV, 822) he says that “because Melville regarded the executions on the Somers as ‘murder’ and because the modifications introduced in Billy Budd do not seriously alter the basic situation of the Somers incident, it is extremely unlikely that Melville meant Billy Budd to be a ‘testament of acceptance.’ Protest against injustice would seem, under the circumstances, to be much more in order.”

  15. Schiffman, pp. 128–29.

  16. B. R. McElderry, “Three Earlier Treatments of the Billy Budd Theme,” American Literature, XXVII (1955), 251–57.

  17. Harry Campbell, “The Hanging Scene in Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman,MLN, LXVI (1951), 378–81.

  18. Karl E. Zink, “Herman Melville and the Forms—Irony and Social Criticism in Billy Budd,Accent, XII (1952), 139.

William Bysshe Stein (essay date 1961)

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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 rectification of the Old World's hereditary wrongs … [d]uring those years not the wisest could have foreseen that the outcome of all would be what to some thinkers apparently it has since turned out to be, a political advance along nearly the whole line for Europeans.1

This rubric advises the reader that the fictional action is to be framed in the philosophy of the French Revolution. By extension, then, the narrator becomes the spokesman for this vision of human destiny with its basic assumption that man can make history.2 Ironically, this faith in man's ability to direct the course of civilization towards preordained secular goals undermines the basis of religious redemption. The linear timetable of Christian salvation (as it moves from the Fall to the Resurrection and finally to the Day of Judgment, when time ends with the establishment of the eternal city of New Jerusalem) is subverted. History usurps the role of the church. Man unwittingly estranges himself from the vital moral tradition that hitherto gave his life meaning and purpose. Melville, I think, takes note of this spiritual dilemma in his cryptic reference to “a crisis for Christendom.” In any event, his alter ego in the novel gives expression to this awareness. For when he sets out to resolve the enigma of Billy Budd's fate in the light of this current philosophy of history, he fully realizes that the effort will culminate in ludicrous confusion. Hence in order to reveal his knowledge of what the real issue is, he invariably counterpoints his mock-serious recapitulation of events with ironic allusions to the redemptive pattern of Christianity. In effect, the action is projected on two different levels of reality, the historical and the religious (or mythic).

The first chapter, in its varied perspectives, validates this critical approach to Billy Budd. Beginning with an historical reminiscence (a form of interpolation, supposition, and speculation), the narrator alternates this presentation with a report of immediate action. As the two strands of narration interweave, it becomes evident that the notion of history itself threatens the destruction of Christian civilization. Viewed traditionally, his correlation of the mythic figure of “the Handsome Sailor” with the hierophantic icons of Aldebaran, Taurus, “the grand sculptured Bull” of ancient Assyria, and the biblical Ham attests the continuity of a universal belief in divine redemption. But, conversely, his accompanying reference to the course of recent events suggests that this faith has been reduced to an outmoded superstition. This is clearly implied when he connects the notorious Anacharis Cloots, an avowed enemy of Christ and all religions, with the conduct “of the first French Assembly” (808). This revolutionary tribunal based its Declaration of the Rights of Man upon a repudiation of all transcendental religious authority. The implications of this legislation are dramatized in the adoption of the Republican Calendar which, in eliminating Sunday as one of the days of the week, denied any importance to Christianity in the development of modern culture. And so Melville more accurately defines “the Spirit of that Age” alluded to in the preface: it is the spirit of atheism.

This level of reference controls the narrator's treatment of Billy's impressment, and it materializes in a sequence of witty equivoques. The sailor, for instance, is forced to renounce his allegiance to “the old Rights of Man” (813). Here the qualifying “old” distinguishes the rights on the vessel from those of the revolutionary declaration. For under the influence of the hero, who is constantly referred to in colloquial epithets adapted from conventional attributes of Christ, “the jewel of 'em,” “the flower of the flock,” and “peacemaker,” behavior on the ship owned by a radical Scot, an admirer of such famous debunkers of religious authority as “Voltaire [and] Diderot” (812–13), is nonetheless tempered by the practice of Christian love. Billy converts “a rat-pit of quarrels” into a tranquil fellowship, exercising the prerogatives of “a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy.” This role, however, is subverted by his transfer to the Indomitable. Lieutenant Ratcliffe, who enforces the impressment, is the agent of a new code of the Rights of Man, the content of which is symbolized in the toast of grog drunk to celebrate the addition to the crew: “‘Well, blessed are the peacemakers, especially the fighting peace-makers’” (811–12). This blasphemous parody of the Sermon on the Mount is by extension a mock Eucharistic gesture, a denial of the law of love. This reversal of Billy's intuitive loyalty to divine justice and authority is illuminated in a climactic pun; when he “enter[s] the King's Service,” that of a secular monarch, he is compelled to abandon his allegiance to the true King (809).

Adjudged as artifice, this method of narration is comic in tone. For the voice which addresses the reader is at once pompous and ironical, pedantic and subtle, moralistic and skeptical. In effect, its deliberate ambiguity is irresistibly tempting; while seeming to promise endless revelations it only piques curiosity, the verbal strategy of a trickster. On the one hand the narrator blandly argues that the events of history are the key to a total understanding of fate; on the other he insists that the enigma of human destiny is embodied in the redeemer tradition of myth. Both arguments, as he formulates them, are specious. The French Revolution offers no concrete proof of historical determinism.3 And if the hero is a contemporary manifestation of a savior, then he is unacceptable to his culture, at least if the Indomitable is taken as a microcosm of a perverted Christian world. His role has been arrogated by secular and military authority. Thus with both lines of imagery converging upon the affirmation of an untenable conception of human salvation, it would seem that Melville intends Billy Budd to be read as pure mummery—a mock Christ in quest of a sacrificial function in a society that is preoccupied with the idea of a redeemer as an emotional sentiment, not a spiritual force—Vere's evaluation of Billy.

The second chapter continues the ambiguous characterization of the hero. The narrator at first encourages the belief that Billy's role aboard the “old Rights-of-Man” has been undermined in his transfer to the warship: “hardly here was he that cynosure he had previously been … [in] the merchant marine.” The corruption of his function is patently defined in the conversion of his beauty into homosexual attraction: “as the handsome sailor Billy Budd's position aboard the seventy-four was something analogous to that of a rustic beauty transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the high-born dames of the court. But the change in circumstances he scarce noted. As little did he observe that something about him provoked an ambiguous smile in one or two harder faces among the blue-jackets” (815). Yet, even as one begins to nibble meditatively on the substance of these remarks, the trickster-narrator withdraws the invitation, deliberately confuting this hideously worldly description of the hero. Alternating reports of the past and the present, he relates Billy's appearance to “something suggestive of a mother eminently favored by Love and the Graces; all this strangely indicat[ing] a lineage in direct contradiction to his lot.” Moreover, he is rumored to have been abandoned and “found in a pretty silk-lined basket.” Whether or not the first allusion is a cryptic reference to the Virgin Mary, the royal ancestry and the motif of desertion (persecution and flight in the Christian variation on the theme of the lost and found) establish Billy in the line of the saviors of myth. And further affirmation of this intention seems harbored in the answer he gives in regard to his parentage: “‘God knows, Sir’” (816).

A moment later, however, this approach to an understanding of the hero's role in the action is abandoned and another one implemented. And the process goes on endlessly. Therefore it seems pointless to quote the details of these contradictory interpolations; they sustain the strategy of this chapter—and every other chapter in the novel. Obviously they have a purpose. But what? They characterize, I think, a method of reductio ad absurdum, a narrative interpretation of reality that is designed to reveal the intellectual and moral confusion of the nineteenth-century mind, specifically its vacuously optimistic conception of the destiny of man.

In any event, Chapter III is devoted to an examination of the nature of the ludicrous self-deception upon which the age founds its belief in temporal salvation. Recapitulating the historical incidents that led up to the incident on the Indomitable, the shifty narrator begins to weave into his commentary all the intimation of the preface to the novel. He refers to the crucial date of “1797,” to the “conquering and proselyting armies of the French Directory,” and to “a crisis … the Kingdom might have anticipated.” In the light of atheistic tendencies of the revolutionary leaders, it would seem here that the “proselyting” is undermining faith in the Kingdom of Heaven. This association, certainly, is an inevitable corollary of Billy's degradation on the warship. Yet even though Melville's alter ego knows that a moral exigency is impending for humanity, he ironically exalts those men whose values reflect the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual disorientation of the times. For instance, he quotes the chauvinistic ballad-writer Dibdin, who sentimentally and fatuously argues that man owes his complete loyalty to the secular authority and to the ruthless justice that quelled the Great Mutiny: “‘And as for my life, 'tis the King's!’” Melville's italics and the capitalization of “King's” are, I think, rubrics which call attention to the corruption of the image of God in the public mind and to the emergence of “law and freedom” defined by force (819–20).

This defection from the traditional ideals of human dignity is also connected with the historians of the rebellion. Likewise pandering to secular authority, they prudently neglect to report the sordid aspects of England's naval triumphs: “Such events cannot be ignored, but there is a considerate way of historically treating them. If a well-constituted individual refrains from blazoning aught amiss or calamitous in his family; a nation in the like circumstances may without reproach be equally discreet” (820). This rationalization of objective truth is, no doubt, a clue to the role that Melville's historian is enacting. Like his counterparts in the world of reality, he is not averse to betraying the trust of his gullible readers, though of course for the purpose of mocking their self-satisfaction.

And it is with this thought in mind that one must appróach his digression on Nelson's military exploits. Not only is the religious imagery associated with the exposition a profanation of the guiding principles of Christianity, but the facts are deliberately distorted. Even though he admits at one point that the mutinous crew fought under intimidation, in front of officers “stand[ing] with drawn swords” (825), he nevertheless illogically proceeds to extol the outcome: “thousands of mutineers … helped to win a coronet for Nelson at the Nile, and the naval crown of crowns for him at Trafalgar. To the mutineers those battles and especially Trafalgar were a plenary absolution; and a grand one; for all that goes to make up scenic naval display and heroic magnificence in arms, those battles stand unmatched in human annals” (821). These affected sentiments are, I think, concrete evidence of the narrator's method of reductio ad absurdum. Indeed, it would be difficult to establish any other function for them.

The same intention is clearly manifested in the subsequent re-creation of Nelson's ceremonial preparation for a heroic death. For once again the juxtaposition of hallowed religious imagery with martial splendor disvalues the apparent tribute: “At Trafalgar Nelson on the brink of the opening fight sat down and wrote his last will and testament. If under the presentiment of the most magnificent of all victories to be crowned by his own glorious death, a sort of priestly motive led him to dress his person in the jeweled vouchers of his own shining deeds … [and] thus to have adorned himself for the altar and the sacrifice” (824). This self-pretension, glibly passed off by the narrator as a virtuous but “excessive love of glory” (823), is an outrageous burlesque of the Eucharistic sacrifice. It marks the attempt of man to transform the sacred ritual of Christianity into the vehicle of historical vainglory.

In the next chapter Melville's eiron painstakingly chisels out a profile of Captain Vere; at least this appears to be the intention. A kind of biographical retrospect, the endeavor at first glance reflects no satirical purpose. But even as Nelson's historionics betray the moral disorder of contemporary Christianity (a subtle extension of the influence of the French Revolution), so also do the secret motivations of the Indomitable's commander. In both instances the exacting demands of historical necessity take precedence over spiritual values.

The narrator, of course, does not convey this impression directly. With his usual duplicity, he encourages the reader to admire the Captain. The latter, he engagingly recounts, is “thoroughly versed in the science of his profession, and intrepid to the verge of temerity, though never injudiciously so.” (Is this a non sequitur?) Moreover, he is always “mindful of the welfare of his men” (as in the case of Billy Budd). Such observations blandly flow on, and one is apt to overlook the disturbing insinuations that punctuate the measured praise. This “most undemonstrative of men,” for instance, has “little appreciation of mere humor,” and he “never tolerat[es] an infraction of discipline.” And on occasions he “show[s] more or less irascibility” but instantly “controls it.” In fine, he is a martinet whose calm, official exterior conceals a malignant egoism. But even while the narrator calls attention to this fact, he pretends to ignore it. Or rather he leaves the judgment of Vere's “exceptional character” up to the sensibility of the reader. And such is the challenge of the descriptive passage that follows:

He had a marked leaning toward everything intellectual. He loved books, never going to sea without a newly replenished library, compact but of the best. The isolated leisure, in some cases so wearisome, falling at intervals to commanders even during a war-cruise, never was tedious for Captain Vere. With nothing of that literary taste which less heeds the thing conveyed than the vehicle, his bias toward those books to which every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world naturally inclines; books treating of actual men and events no matter of what era—history, biography and unconventional writers.

(826–28, italics mine)

Are these the interests of a discerning, sensitive mind? Are history and biography the vehicles of the deepest truths about the human condition? I think not. Vere's conception of ultimate reality is directly linked to the delusions fostered by the French Revolution in regard to man's ability to make history or, to put it in terms of the Captain's ambitions, to achieve “the fullness of fame” in time (900).

The narrator's further delineation establishes the irony underlying his professed esteem for Vere. As he points out, the kind of reading in question can warp intellectual integrity: “In this love of reading he found confirmation of his own more reserved thoughts—confirmation which he had vainly sought in social converse, so that as touching most fundamental topics … which he forefelt would abide in him essentially unmodified so long as his intelligent part remained unimpaired.” By extension, these attitudes subordinate emotional and moral values to expediency. The salvation of man, “the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind,” no longer depends upon Christianity; according to Vere, history operates to define the basic patterns of human experience: “in illustrating any point touching the stirring personages and events of the time he would … cite some historic character or incident of antiquity”; and “considerateness in such matters [was] not easy to natures constituted like Captain Vere's” (827–29). In so reducing the conduct of the affairs of life to mechanical precedents, he dissociates human nature from instinct and spontaneity, thereby surrendering the dignity of man to the atheistic and deterministic illusions of the Zeitgeist.

As opposed to the blatant irony of Vere's characterization, the multiple perspective on Claggart is deviously contrived. As the narrator in mock humility confesses, “This portrait I essay, but shall never hit it” (829). Here he speaks like a typical nineteenth-century man who is spiritually rootless, without any resources of metaphysical or ethical valuation, without a sustaining myth to bring order and intelligibility to the moral vagaries of existence. And this he openly admits: “my inexperience was such that I did not quite see the drift of all this. It may be that I see it now. And, indeed, if that lexicon which is based on Holy Writ were any longer popular, one might with less difficulty define and denominate certain phenomenal men. As it is, one must turn to some authority not liable to the charge of being tinctured with the Biblical element” (841–42, italics mine). Under these circumstances, confronted by what appears to be an insoluble problem of evil, he undertakes a resolution in terms of the muddled and bemused conscience of his age. His first approach to an understanding of Claggart's corruption depends upon an absurd combination of historical fact and pseudo-science:

The face was a notable one; the features all except the chin cleanly cut as those on a Greek medallion; yet the chin, beardless as Tecumseh's, had something of strange protuberant heaviness in its make that recalled the prints of the Rev. Dr. Oates, the historical deponent with the clerical drawl in the time of Charles II and the fraud of the alleged Popish plot. It served Claggart in his office that his eye could cast a tutoring glance. His brow was of the sort phrenologically associated with more than average intellect; silken jet curls partly clustered over it, making a foil to the pallor below, … This complexion … seemed to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution of the blood.


It is, I think, difficult to find anything relevant to the issue of Claggart's unique moral nature in the sequence of facial analogies. And as to the meticulous description of the latter's physical appearance, it suggests a deplorable familiarity with the worst features of the archaic Gothic novel. In a later development of the implications of these external traits, one is almost certain that the sinister Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter is grimacing behind Claggart's pallid countenance: “But upon any abrupt or unforeseen encounter a red light would flash forth from his eyes like a spark from an anvil in a dusky smithy. The fierce light was a strange one, darted from orbs which in repose were a color nearest approaching violet” (856). But then—so what! This is all finical tomfoolery.

At least so the narrator's next digression seems to prove, a half-hearted philosophical speculation: “In a list of definitions included in the authentic translation of Plato, a list attributed to him, occurs this: ‘Natural Depravity: a depravity according to nature.’ A definition which though savoring of Calvinism, by no means involves Calvin's dogma as to total mankind. Evidently its intent makes it applicable but to individuals” (italics mine). Here his argument is invalidated by an apocryphal text and a Christian interpolation of Plato, even if one is willing to accept the logic of his final assumption. However, he himself almost immediately disclaims any such accomplishment, for he decides that this “question of moral responsibility” is best handled by “clerical proficients.” Yet even though he confesses the futility of his interminable casuistry, he nevertheless defends his undertaking: “The point of the present story turning on the hidden nature of the master-at-arms has necessitated this chapter. [And] the resumed narrative must be left to vindicate as it may, its own credibility” (842–44). It would seem that here he admits that the present phase of narration has no organic connection with what follows.

And he means what he says, no doubt, for this is the method of the traditional trickster. Since there is no respect for sense in the society whose mask he wears, he is under no obligation to explain his contradictions. This attitude is also in evidence a moment later. While earlier he unctuously apologizes for not invoking the authority of the Bible in establishing his conception of Claggart's evil nature (the “savor of Holy Writ … was far from being intended[,] for little will it commend these pages to many a reader of today”), he now sees fit to quote the Old Testament in order to prove, of all things, that Claggart's animus towards the sailor “was no vulgar form of passion.” That is, unlike the example he chooses, it was not a manifestation of repressed homosexuality: “Nor, as directed toward Billy Budd, did it partake of that streak of apprehensive jealousy that married Saul's visage perturbedly brooding on the comely David.” But having dropped this profane, pre-Freudian insinuation into the kettle of confusion, he quickly discards the idea in favor of another approach to the riddle of Claggart's hatred for Billy, a consideration of a petty infraction of discipline: “And the circumstances that provoke it, however trivial or mean, are no measure of its power. In the present instance the stage is a scrubbed gun-deck, and one of the external provocations a man-of-war's spilled soup” (844–46). And like spilled soup, his arguments run willy-nilly through the cracks of his ironically puckered lips. But his conscious manipulation of the principles of reductio ad absurdum is inherent in the theme of the novel. Mocking the metaphysical poverty of nineteenth-century man, who, without a frame of transcendental reference, was lost in the domain of moral speculation, he demonstrates that under this condition it is impossible to bring order and coherence into the dislocations of human experience. This predicament, of course, is the direct outcome of the current infatuation with the idea of historical determinism.

Contingent circumstance, Billy's accidental slaying of Claggart, puts the philosophy of historical determinism on public trial for the reader (here is the dramatic enactment of the symbolic underthought of the preceding narration). As I believe I have established, Vere is the representative custodian of its values: he exalts its authority, he respects its justice, and he sympathizes with its secular goals. Hence when he allows these articles of conviction to govern his conduct of the court-martial, he renounces allegiance in the sustaining moral traditions of Western culture. Therefore in the re-creation of the trial and its aftermath, the narrator deliberately emphasizes the disjecta membra of these religious beliefs, mockingly invoking parallels to the sacrifice of Christ which no longer affects the human soul.

This irony pervades Claggart's interview with the Captain, and is a later modulation of Ratcliffe's travesty of Billy's (and Christ's) redemptive role in the opening pages of the novel. Listening to the accusation of treason against the seamen, Vere recalls that he had been thinking of promoting him to “the captaincy of the mizzen-top.” In the immediate context of the action this phrase is related to the statement, “Captain Vere had from the beginning deemed Billy Budd to be what in the naval parlance of the time was called a ‘King's Bargain’”; and quite obviously the correlation is symbolic. The mast is a conventional icon of the cross on the dominical ship of salvation, and the bargain is the colloquial equivalent of the atonement insured by the crucifixion. This explication is substantiated a moment later by an analogy that figures the sailor as “young Joseph” betrayed by his brothers (863–64), for in the familiar typology of the Bible this perfidy anticipates the treachery of Judas and, in the plot of Billy Budd, of Vere.

Structurally, this pattern of imagery dictates the narrator's handling of the murder episode, for a startling reversal of reader-expectation occurs. In his description of the seaman's reaction to the charge of treason (his “expression … was as a crucifixion to behold”), he invites the kind of commiseration that belongs to a rehearsal of the agony on Golgotha. And such appears to be the response of Vere when suddenly Billy's blow sends Claggart crashing to his death on the deck: “‘Fated boy!’” For with the Captain's impulsive cry, “‘It is the divine judgment on Ananias,’” there seems little reason to doubt the integrity of his moral convictions. But if this is so, it is a matter of the heart and not of the head, a temporary relapse of emotion. Only in this way can one explain his vehement announcement: “‘Struck dead by an angel of God. Yet the angel must hang.’” For here Vere exhibits his intellectual contempt for the Christian ethic. Though the trial has not yet been held, he has already vowed that the sailor must die. Like an automaton, he cedes the administration to the impersonal authority of a court-marital which is hardly actuated in its procedures by any of the spiritual awareness implicit in his verbal outbursts: “‘Go now,’ said Captain Vere with something of his wonted manner, ‘Go now. I shall presently call a drumhead court’” (868–70, italics mine).

The full import of Vere's inhuman legalism is revealed in the narrator's pretense of objectivity in his interpolation (“What he said was to this effect”) of Vere's trial instructions. Instead he blatantly calls attention to the officer's outrageous perversion of Christian love, to the disavowal of moral justice:

If, mindless of palliating circumstances we are bound to regard the death of the Master-at-arms as the prisoner's deed, then does that deed constitute a capital crime whereof the penalty is a mortal one. But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?—Does that state it aright? You sigh sad assent. Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean is inviolate Nature primeval, though this be the element where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King's officers lies our duty in a sphere correspondingly natural? So little is that true, that in receiving our commissions we in the most important regard ceased to be free agents.

(879–80, italics mine)

This argument, of course, is the epitome of reductio ad absurdum, so ludicrous in its reasoning that one cannot discount the grimacing trickster who authors it. He has pulled off his mask and has dared the reader to think (is twentieth-century man as morally callous as Melville believed his contemporaries to be?). Can the individual renounce free will and still aspire for spiritual dignity—that is, after he has delegated to a temporal king a control over predestination that in his own day has been denied to God? In terms of Jonathan Edwards' famous essay, the question can be answered in the affirmative; but, when coupled with the qualification, even his logic is inadequate (and, no doubt, Melville has Edwards in mind at this point). Unfortunately, as the narrator would apparently have it, Vere is not aware of his contradictions. His facile references to divine and natural rights are counterfeit sentiments of self-deception, vestiges of a dead faith whose authority has been usurped by historical events which, in this novel, are the forces of political determinism. The allusion to the omnipotent king in this context simply extends Billy Budd's equivocal savior role, a function which he affirms at the end of the trial: “‘Captain Vere tells the truth. It is just as Captain Vere says, but it is not true as the Master-at-Arms said. I have eaten the King's bread and I am true to the King’” (875). In effect, the obvious Eucharistic imagery underscores Vere's repudiation of the Christian law of redemptive love.

The aftermath of the trial provides the narrator with another opportunity to deride Vere's custodianship of moral truth and justice. As in his burlesque of the argument against free will, he resorts to the type of casuistry that, as a vehicle of truth, is an insult to anyone who pretends to have intelligence: “Beyond the communication of the sentence what took place at the interview was never known. But in view of the character of the twain briefly closeted in that stateroom, each radically sharing in the rarer qualities of our nature—so rare indeed as to be all but incredible to average minds, however much cultivated—some conjectures may be ventured.” To swallow this sentimental bait without protest is to be befooled, for so the knowing fool fools the unknowing fool. And this is the basic premise that operates in his biblical parallel to the meeting:

The austere devotee of military duty letting himself melt back into what remains primeval in our formalized humanity may in the end have caught Billy to his heart even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest. But there is no telling the sacrament, seldom if in any case revealed to the gadding world. … There is privacy at the time, inviolable to the survivor, and holy oblivion the sequel to each diviner magnanimity … covers all at last.


This turgid rhetoric recalls the narrator's similar treatment of Nelson's absurd sacrifice, but on this occasion the Abraham-Isaac analogy outwardly reveals his ridicule of the incident at issue. The patriarch's “exacting behest” originates with the divine King; Vere's determination to hang Billy is motivated by his subservience to historical necessity (and personal expedience). The sailor, then, is the scapegoat of man's belief in temporal perfection. The vision of linear time is substituted for the vision of resurrection in eternity.

The narrator rounds off this insidious subversion of evolutionary historicism in a chapter devoted exclusively to an explanation of his narrative method and its relation to the action. As I stated earlier, in the preface to the story he implies that the Spirit of the Age is atheistic in orientation; now he proceeds to prove it: “The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction can not so readily be achieved in narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact. Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narrative is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial.” But the formlessness in question, a sequence of anticlimactic incidents illustrating the godlessness of the French Revolution, is indispensable to his thematic argument; it enables him to substantiate his conviction that Christianity was corrupted by the new intellectual freedom. For example, he refers to the renaming (rechristening) of warships which expressed this outlook: “the St. Louis line-of-battle ship was named the Athéiste. Such a name, like some other substituted ones in the Revolutionary fleet while proclaiming the infidel audacity of the ruling power was yet, though not so intended to be, the aptest name, if one consider it, ever given to a warship.” Can he be more explicit? Does he not mean here that the “infidel audacity” prepared later generations to accept the substitution of historical for religious redemption, even as he indicates in the preface? If not, how else is one to interpret the fate of Vere? For the consequences of this defection from traditional moral values is symbolized in the death of the Captain of the profane dominical ship: the Indomitable which carries in its crew a debased incarnation of Christ. In his failure to allow the power of divine justice to rule his intellect, he dooms himself and his culture. His physical death merely records the death of the spiritual man: “On the return-passage to the English fleet from the detached cruise during which occurred the events already recorded, the Indomitable fell in with the Athéiste. An engagement ensued; during which Captain Vere in the act of putting his ship alongside the enemy … was hit by a musket-ball from a port-hole of the enemy's main cabin.” Fittingly, the narrator links the Captain's apostasy with his earthly aspirations for immortality, a direct reflection of the ridiculous pretensions of man infatuated with the permanence of historical deeds: “The spirit that spite its philosophic integrity may yet have indulged in the most secret of all passions, ambition, never attained to the fullness of fame” (899–900, italics mine). The contrived symbolism of this incident, I think, suggests the secret of the “inside narrative” of the novel (the subtitle, 807). It binds together the fact and the fable of the story. It reduces history to an insubstantial drama in which man plays out the delusion of temporal transcendence. Thus the fact becomes the fable, the fable the fact. And so the narrator's quarrel with himself evolves into Melville's quarrel with the counterfeit God of the institutional church of his day.


  1. William Bysshe Stein, with degrees from Rutgers University and the University of Florida, is Associate Professor of English at Washington and Jefferson College. Author of Hawthorne's Faust: A Study of the Devil Archetype, he has also published widely in American journals on nineteenth and twentieth-century fiction.

  2. Billy Budd in Selected Writings of Herman Melville, ed. Jay Leyda (New York, 1952), p. 805 (italics mine). All parenthetical page references hereafter are to this edition.

  3. It is almost a truism that, from the seventeenth century on, history ceases to be a manifestation of the will of God (that is, a recurring theophany of love and anger). No longer does the belief prevail that Christ died in order to redeem the dislocations of time. Instead events begin to have value in and for themselves, as concrete evidence of progress towards finite perfection. This doctrine was proclaimed by Leibniz in the eighteenth century, and with the triumph of evolutionary ideas in the next century it developed into a social and political gospel (Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return [New York, 1954], p. 145).

  4. The two poems that Melville was revising at the same time he was writing Billy Budd, “At a Hostelry” and “Naples in the Time of Bomba,” testify to his disillusionment with any such theory of history.

Lee T. Lemon (essay date 1964)

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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 it. This, at least, is the way Hemingway's novel seems designed to work. Similarly, when we have a rogue hero, as in Fielding's Jonathan Wild, we know which way our sympathies are supposed to run because the hero's actions and fate are in accord with the context the author has created.

Even in much more complicated works like Light in August or Crime and Punishment, the context in which the hero acts out his drama still generally supports the value system implicit in that drama. Our responses to Raskolnikov may be more complex than our responses to Robert Jordan, but the patterns of value Dostoevsky provides for him and his world in the novel are compatible. If a generous spirituality is good in Sonia, it is also good in Raskolnikov; if progressivism is evil for Lebeziatnikov, it is equally evil for Raskolnikov.

The Russian Formalist critic Victor Shklovskij1 originated a distinction that may help explain my meaning. The distinction is between story and plot: the story is the sequence of events in their causal-temporal relationship; whatever falls outside that relationship or distorts it belongs to the plot. All literary narratives have both, and they can be roughly separated by reducing the narrative to its essential story pattern—that “A happened, which caused B, which in turn caused C …” and so on. A novel may have two or more related stories, as in Light in August or Vanity Fair. Thus if one were telling Becky Sharp's “story,” much of the detail about Amelia would be totally irrelevant in tracing Becky's fate. Likewise, much of the description of clothes, social customs, Thackeray's intrusions, and the like, would be irrelevant. All such irrelevancies would, however, be part of the plot.

My point is that in most narratives story and plot involve the same, or at least compatible, patterns of sympathy and revulsion. In Vanity Fair it seems clear that Thackeray wants us to be repelled by Becky's grasping ambition. The plot—including the material centering around Amelia—directly reinforces this theme. We know how bad Becky is partly by her effect on Amelia, partly by the contrast between the two women, partly by the dictums of Thackeray's that “All is vanity,” and partly by the emptiness of her temporary success. Quite simply, the plot reinforces the thematic implications of the story.

I shall argue that in Billy Budd the thematic implications of the plot and those of the story are often in direct opposition and that this causes much of the confusion about the book. But I want to argue further that the opposition is itself functional and leads to a more subtle and more mature theme than could either aspect alone.

Put in its most general terms, Billy Budd is the familiar story of a young man forced into strange circumstances who, having unintentionally incurred the enmity of a person more powerful than himself, is hounded until he strikes out in self-defense and is murdered by society. From the outline of the story, nothing could be clearer than that our sympathies are to be with Billy and against society. When society kills innocence, right thinking men bristle naturally, and authors make such natural responses the basis of their themes. Moreover, Melville goes to great lengths to impress his readers with Budd's innocence and society's guilt; parts of the plot, in other words, work conventionally to reinforce the sympathies and revulsions aroused by the story. Others work ambiguously, and still others work unconventionally—that is, against the story. I shall begin with what seem the most conventionally used elements of the plot and work through to the more unconventional.

For a number of reasons, Melville develops Claggart, the antagonist, least ambiguously. In the story he is unalloyed evil. He hates Billy for no reason, plots against him, and tries to destroy him; nothing in the cause and effect sequence of the story alleviates Claggart's evil—he even lacks all normal human motivation. In the plot, Melville goes out of his way to inform the reader that Claggart is born with “a depravity according to nature”; he is one of those “madmen, … of the most dangerous sort”2 whose very rationality is a threat. On the level of plot he assumes a specific symbolic identity that comes as much from what we do not know about him as from what we do know. He appears to be a man “who for reasons of his own was keeping incog” (p. 64). None of the crew's speculations on Claggart's origins reflects credit on him. He is possibly a swindler and certainly not a native Englishman; the only hint as to his nationality is the word chevalier, which suggests that he is French and therefore, in the context of Billy Budd, an enemy of the established social order. We know as little of Claggart's background “as an astronomer knows about a comet's travels prior to its first observable appearance in the sky” (p. 67).

I am belaboring what we do not know about Claggart, because we lack the same information about Billy. Like Claggart, he has no antecedents, although he appears to be unalloyed English, with “a mother eminently favored by Love and the Graces” and a noble father. But a curious exchange occurs when Billy is questioned about his parents:

“. … Who was your father?”

“God knows, Sir.”

(p. 51)

On the strength of this I shall not attempt to make Billy into a Christ figure; at this point I merely want to emphasize that Melville is at great pains to hint that neither he nor Claggart is of this world, as if Melville were preparing us for a confrontation of a good and an evil whose purity is unalloyed by anything earthly.3

The purity of Claggart's evil is so beyond the range of human experience that Melville cannot trust himself to present it dramatically; instead, he stops the story at Chapter 11 to speculate on natural depravity and to suggest a radical discontinuity between the moral and the social worlds. To understand Claggart, “to pass from a normal nature to him one must cross ‘the deadly space between’” (p. 74). Possibly “to know the world and to know human nature [are] … two distinct branches of knowledge,” so that one may know either and yet know “little or nothing of the other” (p. 75). In fact, natural depravity or complete moral evil has so little to do with the everyday business of the world that society fosters the former and condemns the latter.

Symbolically (hence still on the level of plot) Claggart is linked with the serpent of the Garden of Eden. Claggart's henchman gains the attention of pre-lapsarian Billy by saying “Hist,” and again, “Hist, hist!” (p. 82)—the sound of a serpent. When Claggart himself confronts Billy, “the first mesmeristic glance was one of serpent fascination” (p. 98); when the sailors carry away the dead Claggart, “it was like handling a dead snake” (p. 99). Both the narrative thread of the story and the supplementary details of the plot combine to condemn Claggart, as in any conventional narrative. The plot serves merely to specify symbolically the nature of Claggart's evil.

The same conventional plot-story relationship holds true for Billy, but only in part. The story requires that we sympathize with this example of hounded innocence, and the plot defines that sympathy by defining its object. I have already pointed out that Billy, like Claggart, is not of this world. “God knows” who his father is, and he is constantly referred to as a kind of noble savage. The “natural regality” (p. 43) of his type specifically contrasts with Claggart's “natural depravity.” His virtues are strength and beauty rather than the more civilized understanding and cunning. It should not be necessary to press the point that whenever Billy is compared to something, it is always something either before or beyond civilization. Claggart, who the narrator tells us is “intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd” understands that Billy is “nothing more than innocent” (p. 78). If we try to make a Christ or an Adam of Billy, we are attributing both too much and too little to him; symbols, even literary and mythic symbols, are seldom mutually convertible. At most we can say that Billy is Christ-like and Adam-like in his innocence and Christ-like in his role as victim.

Melville further specifies the innocence as both moral and social. His moral innocence makes the conflict with Claggart inevitable; his social innocence dooms him. He is, no matter how regrettably, “Baby Budd” in a social world that requires manhood. It is fitting that the world in which Baby Budd is most at home is the world of the Rights-of-Man which, Melville tells us, is named after Paine's book; the world of the rights of man is a “natural” world just as Budd is a “natural” man. On board the Rights-of-Man, discipline, which would seem to be social if anything is, is clearly and certainly presented as natural. It is not enforced by authority (the honest but rather ineffectual Captain Graveling) but rather by Billy: “‘Not that he preached to them or said or did anything in particular; but a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones’” (p. 47). Even when Billy quiets the last trouble maker, Red Whiskers, he does it naturally by instinctively striking out, not by civilized or social means. The natural world—or, if the oxymoron is permissible, natural society—is better for Billy's presence. Yet Billy himself leaves that world with no regrets, as if Melville were telling us that Billy himself knows that he is twenty-one and must become a man. Thus he has no complaints when he is separated from his rights and impressed on board the Bellipotent, a warship in hostile waters and so a fitting symbol for society at its most organized and most authoritarian. As he changes ships, he shouts, “‘And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man’” (p. 49). He is, in fact, leaving the world of natural rights. The lieutenant, the representative of authority at this point, “roars,” “‘Down, Sir!’”

All of this plot material functions quite conventionally, enlisting our sympathies with the hero and defining them. But a question about Billy should be taking form: can the natural man assume the responsibilities of the social man? The plot tells us that he cannot. Perhaps the most telling incident is his response to the temptation by Claggart's henchman.4 Billy is utterly confused, for this is “the first time in his life that he had ever been personally approached in underhand intriguing fashion” (p. 83). More important than his confusion, however, is his refusal to report the incident; because of his “novice magnanimity” he feels that informing “would savour overmuch of the dirty work of a telltale” (p. 85). His attitude here is essentially adolescent; he neither understands the importance of the event nor conceives of a duty higher than that to his private moral code. Equally important, he lies to Red Pepper, telling him that the tempter was only an afterguardsman on the prowl, and lies again at the court-martial. Both times, and this is significant, Billy lies deliberately, so deliberately that he even overcomes his speech impediment. On the second occasion,

The reply lingered … the question immediately recalling to Billy's mind the interview with the afterguardsman in the forechains. But an innate repugnance to playing a part at all approaching that of an informer against one's shipmates—the same erring sense of uninstructed honor which had stood in the way of his reporting the matter at the time, though as a loyal man-of-war's man it was incumbent on him, and failure so to do, if charged against him and proven, would have subjected him to the heaviest of penalties; this, with the blind feeling now his that nothing really was being hatched, prevailed with him. When the answer came it was a negative.

(pp. 106–07)

I have quoted this passage at length because in it the narrator (whom we have no reason to distrust; I find the arguments that the narrator is ironic singularly unconvincing) specifically accuses Billy of a crime punishable by death. The crime can be thought of narrowly in terms of severe military justice; but it can also be thought of broadly as Billy's failure to protect the society he has joined. Billy is not only irresponsible, he is not responsible—in the sense in which children and feeble-minded persons are not responsible.

I am being very hard on Billy because critics generally have been too easy on him. And with good reason, for as I have shown, the story and much of the plot material built around him are designed to make him appealing. To state the case somewhat more fairly, Baby Budd has morally and intellectually never left the world of the Rights-of-Man, although we are told that at twenty-one he bade the rights good-bye and cheerfully entered the world of social responsibility, of duties as contrasted with rights.

To put this in a way hinted at earlier, Melville is opposing two ethical systems, the natural and the social, and he makes the former as attractive as possible by his description of the relaxed informality aboard Captain Graveling's ship and by the “natural regality” of Billy, the representative of the natural. Unfortunately, Billy has outgrown the natural, although in his simplicity he does not understand that he has to make a choice—or better, that by the mere fact that he is twenty-one a choice has been made and that he has been placed in a social world where responsibilities must be accepted.

It might be instructive to compare the responses of students to both Billy Budd and Walden. I have found that students usually dislike Walden because (once we decide that Thoreau probably did not expect all mankind to settle by a pond) their good sense tells them that a society of individualists would be intolerable; if each man marches to his own drummer, each stumbles over the other. Yet they accept Billy Budd, failing to see that Billy instinctively follows Thoreau's advice—he settles issues that affect others on a purely personal basis. In a sense, we may read Billy Budd as Melville's final answer to Thoreau, Emerson, Paine, and in general to that whole strain of ultra-individualistic feeling that pervaded nineteenth-century American thought.

At the end Billy seems finally to accept his social responsibility, not passively (as is usually argued) but actively. Actually, for all his innocence, Billy is not a passive creature. When taunted loutishly on board the Rights, he strikes out at his tormentor; when accused falsely by Claggart, he again strikes out. He may not be subtle enough to detect covert harassment (as the incident of the bags and the episode at the mess show), but he is certainly a man who defends himself when he is unjustly imposed upon. Yet he does not lash out when Captain Vere tells him that he must hang. On the contrary, Melville does everything within his power to show that Billy accepts Vere's judgment, even to the point of guessing at what might have happened when Vere told Billy of his sentence after the court-martial: “Not without a sort of joy, indeed, he might have appreciated the brave opinion of him implied in his captain's making such a confidant of him” (p. 115). Does Billy's joy come from his natural and personal response to the meeting of two individuals? Or does it come from his sensing that acceptance of Vere's jurisdiction has placed him within the social system? I do not know, and the sections of the text dealing with Billy help very little. Billy's final exclamation, “God bless Captain Vere” (p. 123), could support either alternative, although the fact that the crew echo it, and thereby affirm their allegiance to the Captain and through him to society, supports the second.

If I have been reading aright—in outline, if not in all details—what we have seen is a growing opposition of the values implicit in the story by those in the plot. The villain of the story is the naturally depraved Claggart, the hero the naturally good Billy; the action of the story is designed to arouse our natural responses towards villains and heroes. But as the plot thickens we find just enough emotional correspondence between it and the story to help the latter along and to keep the reader reminded of his natural emotional reactions; additional elements of the plot seem calculated to evoke an unnatural, a social, response. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the development of Captain Vere.

The story of Billy's hanging requires that Vere have certain characteristics, for not everyone has conviction enough to demand the death of an appealing and innocent young man. The story requires that Vere have a certain hardness, a certain stubbornness, and a quickness of judgment coupled with prudence. The plot gives Vere these qualities, but qualifies them in important ways. Vere is “always … mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline” (p. 60). His convictions are “settled,” yet settled against a floodtide of opinion “which carried away as in a torrent … minds by nature not inferior to his own” (pp. 62–63). He is also “resolute” (p. 60) and “bluff” (p. 63). If one reads the section on Vere quickly enough and wants to make a villain of him, one can conclude that Vere is a prejudiced, cowardly, and inhuman martinet—precisely the kind of man who would kill Billy. Yet each of the unfavorable traits is qualified. His prejudice is “disinterested” (p. 63) and comes from reading writers “free from cant and convention” (p. 62); an officer who keeps discipline, yet is “mindful of the welfare of his men” is, I believe, an exceptionally fine officer; I shall say more about the cowardice later.

The implied adverse criticism of Vere is—and I believe this point is crucial—just sufficient to substantiate the value system implicit in the story. It is there simply because without it Vere would not be the man to demand Billy's death; without it, the story would be unconvincing. What is far more interesting is the material that is irrelevant to the story, the material that qualifies and perhaps even reverses our attitude towards Vere's severity. Perhaps I can summarize briefly by noting that the story requires a Captain Vere and all the military sternness of that rank; the story does not require a Starry Vere and all the intellectuality, dreaminess, and idealism suggested by Starry.

Actually, Melville works the plot very hard to make Starry Vere appealing; he must, because in terms of the story he is a villain. Since there is a great deal of controversy about the goodness or evil of Vere, I shall present the strongest evidence of Vere's essential goodness before taking up the more dubious. Most obvious is Vere's conversation with Billy after the court-martial—the scene that Melville, in a sense, did not write. The usual argument at this point, that Billy is Christ and Vere Pilate, fails because Vere's decision to confront the condemned is most un-Pilate like and because the specific biblical allusion is to Isaac and Abraham, the sacrificial son and the father mournfully going about what he believes is God's will. The Pilate analogy probably carries over from the trial scene, in which Vere convinces the jury that Billy must hang by appealing to expediency, much as Pilate acted expediently when he turned Jesus over to the mob. Yet here the analogy breaks down quickly. Vere does not refuse to judge; he insists upon judging, and even forces a judgment against the will of the court. And furthermore, Melville explicitly shows that Vere's own decision is not based on expediency. Vere ignores naval custom, Melville tells us, by appointing an officer of the Marines to the court because he thinks the officer “a judicious person, thoughtful, and not altogether incapable of grappling with a difficult case unprecedented in his prior experience,” although Vere does have misgivings (pp. 104–105). Vere does understand that the case is beyond the experience of the usual officer, tries to choose the best court he can, but must settle for what he can get. When he argues his case, he is forced to present two distinct arguments. At first he tries to argue the moral issue, which, bluntly, is the difference between natural justice and social justice and the necessity of accepting the latter within the framework of society. Vere argues from expediency only after noticing that “the three men moved in their seats, less convinced than agitated. … Perceiving which, the speaker paused for a moment; then abruptly changing his tone, went on” (p. 111). Vere clearly argues from expediency only as a last resort, only because his listeners understand no other argument. If the officers could have understood Vere's moral argument, Billy's hanging would have been unnecessary—the moral universe would be the social universe.

A number of other elements, major and minor, seem clearly designed to make Vere appealing. He quickly recognizes Claggart's evil and is as repelled by it as the reader is; he is equally quick in recognizing Billy's moral innocence. Generally, he is described as exceptional, as superior in all ways to his fellow officers.

With one exception, and with that exception we turn to the less obviously pro-Vere elements. The exception is the passage on Nelson, and the issue is whether Vere is compared or contrasted with the great admiral. The problem is an important one, because the whole section on Nelson is totally irrelevant to the story except, if the purpose is to contrast, to prepare for Vere as villain by showing that he is not the man Nelson was. The telling passage is this: “it was thought that an officer like Nelson was the one, not indeed to terrorize the crew into base subjection, but to win them, by force of his mere presence and heroic personality, back to an allegiance if not as enthusiastic as his own yet as true” (p. 59). It would seem, on the surface, that Vere does “terrorize the crew into base subjection,” unless it be remembered that, with Billy in their hearts, they bless Vere after the hanging.5 Furthermore, the quality that Melville seems to admire most in Nelson is his lack of “personal prudence” (p. 58), which Nelson proves by being shot down on the deck of his ship, just as Vere is. The obvious point, I believe, is that Vere compares favorably with “the greatest sailor since our world began” (p. 58).

At first sight, the fears of the surgeon concerning Vere's sanity would seem at least as damaging as the comparison with Nelson, but again the difficulties not only vanish when placed in their proper light, but the incident puts Vere in even a better position. The surgeon, who we are told is “as yet unapprised of the antecedents,” was profoundly discomposed and wondered if Vere were “unhinged” (pp. 101–102). This seems damning, especially since a surgeon would be the most likely person to assess Vere's sanity; but Melville is at great pains to inform us that the surgeon is incapable of understanding. He, not Vere, is like Pilate, for despite his conviction of Vere's guilt he does not act. Immediately thereafter we learn that few dare to pronounce on a man's sanity except professional experts “for a fee” (p. 102). The surgeon, clearly, is not a man to be trusted. Later the surgeon and the purser discuss Billy's stillness at the moment of the hanging; the surgeon doubts anything that is not scientific, which is another way of saying that he has no moral understanding, which is another way of saying that he is the person least qualified to express judgment on any moral issue. Actually, the whole tone of the conversation between the surgeon and the purser shows the latter's complete obtuseness and perhaps thereby insists on Vere's sanity, especially since Melville has told us that Vere and Billy share “in the rarer qualities of our nature—so rare indeed as to be all but incredible to average minds however much cultivated.” (pp. 114–15)

Even though the bulk of the plot material relating to Vere either clearly or indirectly presents him as an ideal, the final meaning of Billy Budd is not the simple acceptance of Vere and the social morality he represents. To show the complexity both of Melville's acceptance and of his technique, I shall retell the story once more, and then repeat it, the second time emphasizing the elements of the plot. The story is that a young sailor, impressed aboard a British man-o'-war, incurs the unmotivated enmity of one of the crew, is falsely accused by him, kills him in a flash of instinctive anger, and is tried and hanged. The story, along with those elements of the plot which support it, especially the many allusions to Billy's natural innocence and Claggart's natural depravity, recognizes that evil exists in the world and that it is powerful enough to destroy the good; the story is bleakly pessimistic.

The plot, though, is a different matter. Baby Budd, who has just reached the age of manhood, is forced to go from the Rights-of-Man to His Majesty's Ship the Bellipotent, commanded by Edward (guardian of the realm) Fairfax (fair facts) Vere (truth, manliness). Baby Budd is tempted by the serpent; although he does not yield to the temptation, he does yield to his naive (primitive, natural) nature by refusing to act responsibly. He is accused of a crime of which he is not guilty (a formal, “social” mutiny; he is guilty of a private mutiny), and kills the accuser-tempter-serpent. The Captain forces a court-martial and accuses Baby Budd of the right crime—failure to accept his social responsibility—but is forced to punish him for the technical crime because of the limited understanding of his officers. Billy is eventually executed, and Vere is mortally wounded in a successful engagement with the Athée (the Atheist). Is it too much to suggest that the battle with the Athée is an externalization of Vere's personal engagement with Billy? Billy, after all, is a creature of the Rights-of-Man, a ship named after a book written in defense of the French Revolution. If so, then Billy, like the French Revolution, is an instance of the impossibility of translating an ideal morality into a less than ideal social world.

The opposition between the story and the major elements of the plot, then, embodies the conflict in Melville's own mind between the claims of natural moral law and social law; and further, the growing attention he gave to Vere as the manuscript grew and the sheer bulk and importance of those plot elements that run counter to the thematic implications of the story show that Melville was forced—reluctantly, regretfully, and even painfully—to the realization that man, because he must live in the social world, must abide by its laws.


  1. Razvertyvanie sjuzheta and Tristram Shandy Stern'a i teorija i romana (Plot Development and Sterne's Tristram Shandy and the Theory of the Novel), published separately in Petrograd, 1921. These and other Russian Formalist essays have been translated into English by L. T. Lemon and M. J. Reis; their first printing in English will be by the University of Nebraska Press in 1965.

  2. Herman Melville, Billy Budd: Sailor (An Inside Narrative), Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., eds. (Chicago, 1962). All references are to this text, the first definitive edition of Billy Budd.

  3. Captain Vere, on the other hand, is earthly. As the novel's representative of social order it is appropriate that Melville tells us much about his background.

  4. I would include the temptation scene as part of the plot rather than the story because it is inconsequential; Claggart does not refer to it when he accuses Billy and, on the level of the story, it results in no further action.

  5. The difficulty here might result from the unfinished state of the manuscript of Billy Budd.

Edward H. Rosenberry (essay date 1965)

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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 available evidence in and out of the text.1

Fundamentally, the problem of Billy Budd is not unlike that of Ivan Karamazov's youthful article on ecclesiastical government, which was taken to favor both churchmen and atheists and finally suspected of “impudent satirical burlesque.” Billy Budd has been read as a parable of God the Father sacrificing His Son for a fallen world, and alternatively of Pontius Pilate selling out Jesus for present and personal convenience; and finally its sober voice has been taken for a dry mock protesting God and the whole created scheme of things. As in the case of Ivan's article, the problem hinges largely on the question of tone, though there are crucial points of substance and reasoning to be considered as well. The issues are intricately interconnected, since after all what we have to deal with is meaning in an organic work of art; but in as orderly a manner as possible I shall try to analyze the causes of critical error, as they appear to me, and then to show, by examining first the tone of the novel and then its ethical logic, that the plainest reading of this disputed book is the only valid reading possible.


A good starting point for this conservative case was provided several years ago by Richard Harter Fogle, who identified two “heresies” of Billy Budd criticism and dismissed them with entire justification, in my opinion, but without the formal refutation evidently needed to lay such stubborn ghosts.2 He complained of the widespread attribution to Melville of an ironic tone resulting in a sardonic reversal of the story's ostensible meaning; and he complained particularly of Lawrance Thompson's invention (in Melville's Quarrel with God) of a quasi-authorial narrator in whose “bland” and “stupid” vision the apparent straightforwardness of the narration may be conveniently discounted. Thompson's idea is spectacular enough to deserve special mention, but it is basically the ironist heresy tricked out with a supporting device which no other ironist has been clever enough to bring to his case. In effect, it only postpones the collapse of the case by one step, because there is no evidence that such a mediator between author and reader exists. Despite Wayne Booth's proper insistence on every author's “undramatized narrator” or “implicit second self,”3 never altogether identical with the man behind the mask of art, a considerable burden of proof falls on the claim that these psychic twins are militantly opposed, and the obligation is not discharged by showing that the alter ego must be present if the meaning of the novel is to be reversed. Thompson's argument is simply circular and would perhaps have raised more general objection than it has if he had not invented also an “alert reader” who always adopts his views and with whom one is instinctively reluctant to dissociate himself. The real issue lies behind this little smoke screen: are we to take Melville at his word and read Billy Budd as a parable of the plight of innocence in a “man-of-war world,” or are we to find beneath its tragic benediction a satiric attack on the complacency of earthly and heavenly authority?

Since the latter reading would render the novel, in Fogle's words, “cheap, puerile, and perverse” (witness Pierre), no one entertained that possibility until, in 1950, one adventurous essay4 loosed a spate of ironist interpretations from the scholarly presses. The reasons for this, I am convinced, must be sought in the critics and their milieu rather than in the book. Wayne Booth makes the valuable point that a book tends to mean what we expect it to mean, “and the last several decades have produced—for whatever reasons—an audience that has been thrown off balance by a barrage of ironic works.”5 Irony-hunting has joined symbol-hunting as a fashionable indoor sport, which has so conditioned us to the expectation of obliquity and ambiguity that, as Booth says, “We can't accept a straight and simple statement when we read one.” The popular mystique of close reading inclines us to see weasels in clouds and exposes contemporary criticism to what Plinlimmon would have called “strange, unique follies and sins.” The most conspicuous of these in reading Melville is mistaking an occasional romantic petulance of temper for a considered philosophic posture.

In fact, our expectations of Melville constitute as real a source of error as did the very different expectations of his contemporaries. For them he was “the man who lived among the cannibals,” and the leap from Typee to Saddle Meadows, or even to the try-works, was too much for them. For us he is the voice of Ahab and the Confidence-Man, the sayer of “No! in thunder.” We easily forget that the nay-saying he praised was Hawthorne's and not Beckett's or Sartre's, and that the remark was not made in Billy Budd or within thirty years of it. The ironist critics are at least partly disabled by the same prejudice that afflicts the anti-Stratfordians: the man in their minds could not possibly have written this work.

Reinforcing the idée fixe about the author is an equally powerful preconception of the characters in Billy Budd. The norms of the novel and the rhetoric that expresses them are clear enough in themselves, but they encounter resistance in the natural interests and sympathies of the reader. Booth has commented on the force in literature of “our irresistible sympathy for the innocent victim,”6 a sympathy so strongly generated by “Baby Budd” as to tempt the most wary of us (in Merlin Bowen's words) “to risk the luxury of at least following our own conscience.”7 Abetting this reaction is the equal and opposite inclination against Captain Vere. Melville, as I shall try to show, made Vere as attractive as he could in the face of his official austerity; but Billy, just as he stands, is an American Adam, loved from the start, and fit to be forgiven anything after he has struck his sacrificial blow at oppressive authority. We must resent his judge, irrespective of the merits of the case, on precisely the ground Melville once supposed to underlie the popular opinion of God: “The reason the mass of men fear God, and at bottom dislike Him, is because they rather distrust his heart, and fancy him all brain like a watch.”8 It is belief rather than disbelief which it is difficult to suspend in such a story as Billy Budd. Yet to be ruled by indignation, however righteous, is to subvert tragedy to melodrama. It happens to every freshman who lets himself be carried away by the “injured innocence” of Oedipus into the mistake of casting the oracle as villain. It is instructive to reflect on the critical abuse Billy Budd would deservedly draw if it really said what the ironists claim it says. Weltschmerz has never had much survival value as art.

Several allied faults of interpretation, more logical than emotional, though perhaps emotionally conditioned, may be briefly added to the indictment. Most basic is the rejection of donnée, the refusal to honor the author's proffered coin of meaning. The critic with a thesis to prove or with simply a sophisticated aversion to the obvious—pandemic in our time—can follow the bent of his ingenuity to any predetermined conclusion, undeterred by patent narrative facts often reinforced by pointed authorial comment. Reviewing the notorious Turn of the Screw case, Wayne Booth hangs between amusement and dismay, “wishing for more signs of respect for standards of proof” (p. 315). One characteristic misuse of evidence in Billy Budd criticism is reasoning categorically from prior works. White-Jacket, because of obvious resemblances in character and setting, has been a fertile field for such deductions. Since the Somers affair of 1842 is one of the sources of Billy Budd (though by no means the primary one, as once supposed), a condemnation of it in White-Jacket as “murder” has been taken as symptomatic of Melville's attitude toward it in Billy Budd. In the later book, however, the purpose and context of the citation (Ch. xxi) are totally different: what was once a loaded exhibit in a reform polemic is now “history, and here cited without comment,” to illustrate the exigencies of naval command. In the same way, Billy's response to punitive flogging is read in the light of the sensational attack on naval discipline in White-Jacket, while more moderate and pertinent references in both the early fiction and the late verse are ignored.9 The correctives are many and evident, not the least of them the differences among these works as art. White-Jacket, like all the early books (until well into Moby-Dick), has a fully dramatized narrator with his own created opinions, attitudes, and purposes; Billy Budd is narrated by an unmediated author who, unlike Chaucer, gives no hint that his “wit is short” or his artistic distance great. More defensible is reasoning from the poems, which both time and rhetoric link closely with Billy Budd; and both of the studies I have seen making such comparisons conclude as I do that Melville's tone in this last novel was affirmative and his point of view conservative.10

Most pervasive of the fallacies I have noticed in the Billy Budd literature is the confusion of dramatic facts with the personal views of author or reader. The whole “testament” controversy is shot through with this flaw or the threat of it—the danger, that is, of allowing no artistic distance at all in the narrative or of imposing on the fiction one's own norms in place of those provided, implicitly or explicitly, by the author. Much print has been devoted to the problem of whether Billy's benediction to Captain Vere expresses Melville's feeling or its opposite. Since Billy is an imaginary figure in an imaginary situation contrived by a professional novelist who plainly labels the cry “conventional,” there is no reason to suppose that the question is even relevant. In the case of Vere, as much time has been wasted agitating the question of whether the reader would have acted as he did, or whether Captain Mackenzie of the Somers did so, or whether naval law (British of 1797? American of 1842? or 1888?) required a commander to act in such a way—all matters having nothing to do with the self-consistency of the fictional character in question.


The assumption that a fictional character can be taken as a reliable spokesman for his author is boggy ground to build on. Yet somewhere within every successful fiction there must be adequate clues to that much-disputed but still indispensable value, the author's intention. What I mean by intention, let it be clear, is not belief but tone—that is, the belief-making mechanism of the story as we have it. Does the author's apparent attitude invite acceptance or rejection of the value system on which the story is based?

Some of the critical confusion which has beclouded Billy Budd has arisen out of an initial failure to define the “irony” which is supposed to throw its belief-making mechanism into reverse. So far as I know, R. H. Fogle is the only commentator to have illuminated this crucial point by observing that while Billy Budd is ironic enough in the Aristotelian sense (reversal of fortune, the “irony of fate”), it is not ironic in the rhetorical sense (reversal of meaning, the irony of satire).11 Unhappily, the presence or absence of this latter irony is difficult to prove, and proof has so far been largely limited to assertion and counter-assertion. The critic peers into the text and sees, like Thurber at the microscope, his own eye. It helps, but it does not solve all problems, to say that irony is grounded in absurdity. In much contemporary literature absurdity is the norm, and even in fiction based on traditional norms the author's notion of what is out of joint, or his way of expressing it, may differ sharply from the reader's. One can only inspect what clues the text provides with an impartial eye and in the perspective of a scale of values as nearly exempt from the dangers of subjective manipulation as possible.

Much of the textual scrutiny has already been done piecemeal and only needs to be reviewed here.12 There is first the fact of the novel's dedication to Jack Chase—simple, direct, reverent, memorializing the “great heart” of the most admirable man Melville had ever met. It may be, as Warner Berthoff has proposed, that this theme of magnanimity is the central strain of the narrative; at the very least it provides a keynote unmistakable in its sincerity and quite lacking in the ironic potential of the dedication of Pierre to Mount Greylock or of Israel Potter to the Bunker Hill monument.

This keynote is consistently echoed in Melville's portrayal of his principals. Capping his introductory sketch of Captain Vere in Chapter vii, Melville emphasizes that natures like Vere's are rare in that “honesty prescribes to them directness.” Characterizing the common seaman in Chapter xvi he writes with simple nostalgia of the “old-fashioned sailor” whose “frankness” stands in contrast to the landsman's “finesse,” “long head,” “indirection,” and “distrustfulness.” In describing the life ashore Melville anticipates our popular concept of gamesmanship: “an oblique, tedious, barren game hardly worth that poor candle burnt out in playing it.” In the following chapter he appeals for acceptance of his simple protagonist by disarming the anticipated skepticism of the sophisticated reader and demanding in its place “something else than mere shrewdness.” His only devious and ironical character is the villain Claggart, and to him he has Captain Vere say, “Be direct, man.” Here, in short, is an internal scale of values as poorly contrived to nourish an ironic tone as can well be imagined.13

As the story develops, it becomes steadily plainer that the irony is all in the case and not in the author's attitude toward it. Into his climactic episode in Chapter xxi Melville built a classic Aristotelian irony by which “innocence and guilt … changed places” and it became a fact as unalterable as the parricide of Oedipus that Billy had killed an officer in performance (however badly) of his duty. Then, in the next breath, Melville extended his donnée to include the inevitable judgment of the captain, who “was not authorized to determine the matter on [the] primitive basis [of] essential right and wrong.” At the end of the chapter, as a further inducement to our acceptance of that decision, he appended a warning to the “snug card players in the cabin” not to pass judgment on the actions “under fire” of “the sleepless man on the bridge.” In the face of such rhetoric one might rather expect to find an author reproached for excessive explicitness than debated as an enigma.

On the other hand, if it seems impossible for the ironists to be right, it is not wholly their fault that they are wrong. The seal of reconciliation which the condemned Billy is made to place upon his captain's intransigent sentence is mystical and as hard to accept as the forgiveness of Christ on the cross. On such a scene as their final interview in Chapter xxii, the author felt obliged to draw the curtain and to content himself with hinting at the passionate consonance supposed to have welled up in the spirits of these two “phenomenal” natures. His allusion to them as Abraham and Isaac is a clue to both his sincerity and his difficulty. The originals are accepted (when they are accepted) by a suspension of disbelief in which poetic faith is immeasurably assisted by religious faith. Melville can only invoke his biblical counterparts by allusion and hope for the best. That he fears the worst, however, is apparent from the nervous manner in which he reminds us of the “rarer qualities” in the natures of his “Abraham” and “Isaac”—“so rare indeed as to be all but incredible to average minds however much cultivated.” This is diffidence, and well founded, but not irony. Melville is not mocking belief but pleading for it. The ironists are simply those readers with whom his appeal has failed.

Finally we must consider the sources of what dubious testimony he allowed to stand in his manuscript. It is notable that all the reservations about Vere are held by minor characters with patently inferior vision: his fellow officers, whose imputations of pedantry must be written off to professional jealousy; the surgeon, whose suspicions of his captain's sanity are an almost comical reflection of his own lack of information, involvement, and insight;14 the chaplain, who is presumed to disapprove the sentence on grounds of higher morality but who lacks perception or authority to influence the course of events. Melville's attitude toward this chaplain is instructive. We are not to hold the clergyman accountable, we are told, for his failure to protest Billy's sentence, since such a protest would have been both “idle as invoking the desert” and “an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function.” On the other hand, the idea of a chaplain on a warship is treated as an absurdity—“incongruous as a musket would be on the altar at Christmas.” The contrast in tone is palpable: Melville is struck by the irony of the chaplain's institutional or symbolic presence, but not by his personal sufferance of the double standard he is anomalously bound to. This is not the Melville who once pilloried clerical hypocrisy in the Rev. Mr. Falsgrave, but it is a possibly more mature writer for whom the eternal dilemma of man's dual allegiance is not resolved by romantic gestures.

Outside the text itself, the search for tone is reduced to conjecture. The ironists have tried to deduce from Melville's earlier writings what his attitude might have been in this one. It seems to me at least as legitimate to apply the touchstone method instead, holding up to Billy Budd parallel passages from works by other authors in which the intention is not in doubt, and in this way confining the problem to purely rhetorical grounds.

From the outer limit of the ironic scale we may take a piece of gross satire like Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs by Johnson Jones Hooper (1845, reprinted 1846, 1848, 1881). The tone of this book is signaled by the moral code of its frontier anti-hero: “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” Suggs cheats his way through a series of escapades, two of which were borrowed by Mark Twain for Huckleberry Finn,15 and another of which (Ch. viii) bears enough resemblance to the crucial episode of Billy Budd to provide a measure of extreme contrast in tone. As self-appointed captain of the “Tallapoosa Volunteers,” Suggs impounds a motley group of frightened civilians, declares martial law, and threatens to shoot anyone who fails to “walk the chalk.” When a harmless widow sneaks out for a pinch of tobacco, Suggs convenes a drum-head court, seconded by his next-in-command (“Lewtenants ought allers to think jist as their captings do”), and terrorizes the old lady with a death sentence, ultimately commuted to a $25 fine. His addresses to court and culprit neatly parody Vere's: “It's a painful duty, Lewtenant! a very painful duty, Lewtenant Snipes; and very distressin'. But the rules of war is very strict, you know! … And officers must do ther duty, come what may. [And to the widow] It ain't me that's a-gwine to kill you; it's the Rules of War … You've 'fessed the crime, … and ef me and the Lewtenant wanted to let you off ever so bad, the rules of war would lay us liable ef we was to.” Any comparison of such outlandish farce with Billy Budd may seem impertinent, but, apart from dialect, nothing really separates them except the absurdity built into Hooper's story by a conscious and exploited incongruity between word and fact.

Vere is sometimes treated as if he were a Simon Suggs: either hypocritical, in not really believing what he says, or cowardly, in not daring to break the rules. This is not so much, I think, because Vere himself is misunderstood as because Melville's world is mistaken for Hooper's, in which there is no real moral dilemma at all—in which what poses as moral dilemma is plainly the crowning absurdity of the whole affair. But there is nothing inherently absurd either in the dilemma Vere faces or in the choice he makes, as a very different sort of touchstone may illustrate.

In Chapter xxv of Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine the central character, an erstwhile Communist named Pietro Spina, hears a confession of political duplicity from a young revolutionary torn between conflicting loyalties. Though he is no longer an active leader in the movement, it is significant that Spina makes no judgment on the boy's conduct without first defining the ethical posture from which he must speak:

“If I were head of a party, or of a political group, … I would have to judge you according to the party's rules. Every party has its morality, codified in rules. These rules are often very close to those which moral sentiment inspires in every man; but they are sometimes the precise opposite. … But here and now I am just an ordinary man, and if I must judge another man I can be guided only by my conscience.”

Compare the statement of Melville's Vere from the alternative position:

“Do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King. … We fight at command. If our judgments approve the war, that is but a coincidence. … For [martial] law and the vigor of it, we are not responsible. … Tell me whether or not, occupying the position we do, private conscience should not yield to that imperial one formulated in the code under which alone we officially proceed?”

The rhetoric, in context, is decisive. If an author's intention is to ridicule the Organization Man for his lack of independence, he will sound something like this: “The Roman sword would never have conquered the world if the grand fabric of Roman Law had not been elaborated to save the man behind the sword from having to think for himself. In the same way the British Empire is the outcome of College and School discipline and of the Church Catechism.”16 Nothing resembling this tone is to be found in either Silone or Melville. On the contrary, both were at pains to create strikingly non-conformist characters, so independent as to be dramatically isolated from the mass of men.

But the character of Billy has troubled the dissenting critics as much as that of Vere. After all, they reason, Melville did make his Handsome Sailor a kind of Christ figure, innocent of blood lust if not of blood, and could hardly have contemplated such a fate as Billy's without giving it, however subtly, the colors of legal murder. Again, my denial of this view may be defended by a comparison of Melville's story with a parallel tale which is clearly activated by irony. The rhetorical contrast must speak for itself. In The Brothers Karamazov the story of Richard (“a charming pamphlet, translated from the French”) is recounted by Ivan to his brother Alyosha as part of the psychological preparation for the shattering ironic legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Richard, a foundling, brutalized by circumstance, drifts into murder as a young man and is promptly condemned to die for it. (“There are no sentimentalists there,” Dostoevsky's narrator remarks.) Once in jail, Richard is suddenly showered with all the benevolent attentions formerly withheld by the Christian society that ruined and doomed him; and in the end, converted, repentant, and limp with fear, he faces death parroting, “This is my happiest day. I am going to the Lord!” Then, says Ivan, “covered with his brothers' kisses, Richard is dragged to the scaffold. … And they chopped off his head in a brotherly fashion, because he had found grace.”

There is moral absurdity, and there is the rhetoric of irony by which it is effectively exposed. I contend that Melville chose not to use such rhetoric because the story he had to tell was not morally absurd.


Although no one piece of evidence on the norms of the novel is conclusive, the most compelling to my mind is a passage in Chapter vii citing Montaigne as one of Vere's favorite authors. In this fact we have not only Montaigne's philosophical posture to guide us, but Vere's reasons for approving it as well, reinforced by Melville's own recorded opinions on the subject. The case has not been made in detail, and it is one that deserves a full hearing. The heart of the matter, as a recent pioneer study has indicated, is that Montaigne had an overriding respect for law, however fallible, as against personal judgment, which he held to be still more fallible: “Private reason has only a private jurisdiction.”17 To this central point the argument constantly returns and refers.

The effort to see Vere's thought through Montaigne's, however, runs into paradox directly when we read that what Vere got from the philosopher was “settled convictions, … a dike against [the] invading waters of novel opinion.” This may be thought to smack of rigidity quite alien to the open-mindedness of the skeptic whose motto was “Que sais-je?” Rigidity is in fact the chief stick Vere's critics like to beat him with.18 But what Vere responds to in Montaigne, Melville makes clear, is not opinions but an attitude—honest, realistic, “free from cant and convention”; a mind not lacking in principles, but proof against convictions resulting from habit thinking and interested motives. Montaigne argued, on the one hand, the kind of moral relativism which Melville saw in Hamlet's remark that “nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so,”19 and on the other hand the supreme wisdom of ordering human conduct by fixed principles—“always to will the same things, and always to oppose the same things.”20 He was of course aware that the will cannot always be just, and for precisely that reason he insisted that men must live by definite laws superior to the will. These laws, it is important to understand, are civil statutes, “still supremely the judges of their judges,” as distinct from the so-called “laws of conscience, which we say are born of nature” but which in fact “are born of custom.”21

This distinction, pervasive in Montaigne, may be further instanced in the “Apology for Raymond Sebond” (ii. xii), from which Melville had earlier taken one of his whaling extracts for Moby-Dick. Here he stresses the common basis of all law in “possession and usage,” that is, custom. And custom, like a river, takes its force from growth, beginning in insignificance but ending in sometimes irresistible power (p. 440). This, for Montaigne, was the current of civilization, the organized movement of society, which ought to define the general course of a man's moral life through the laws which describe it. The alternative was ethical anarchy: “If it is from ourselves that we derive the ruling of our conduct, into what confusion do we cast ourselves!” (p. 436).

Earlier in the same essay (p. 419) he quotes Epicurus and Plato on the necessity of laws, that even the worst of them are needed to keep men from eating one another; and the remark is reminiscent of Hobbes, another philosopher whom Melville quoted on whales and who may have influenced his thinking. In the Leviathan laws are pictured as the “reason and will” of the social body; without their indispensable controls the life of man becomes, in the famous phrase, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In his biting critique of ideal morality Hobbes uses Melville's very image of the unordered society, the “man-of-war world”: men unchecked by civil power “are in that condition which is called war.” Society can survive only when its members “reduce their wills unto one will” in a surrender of moral sovereignty which presupposes the unreliability of private conscience and the necessity of some personal sacrifice for the general welfare. For Hobbes the exercise of private judgment in social decisions is tantamount to the state of “war” which exists when there are no public norms at all. Quite possibly Melville arrived at this conclusion independently, but the Leviathan, if only coincidentally, illuminates the tragic predicament of Captain Vere, caught between two warring worlds, one armed by legal tyranny and the other by legal anarchy. Melville criticism has given much sentimental attention to the former, and with reasons obviously shared by Vere; but it is the latter which the philosopher in him fears more profoundly and is doomed to fear alone.

The reader who dismisses Vere as a shallow formalist is taking part of Melville's donnée for the whole. When Vere proclaims his unalterable allegiance to the King's “buttons,” it is possible to think of him simply as a man in a sailor suit, “accustomed,” as Melville describes the species in Chapter xvi, “to obey orders without debating them.” What must be kept in mind is the hard prior debate inside “Starry” Vere which could alone persuade a thoughtful man to don the King's buttons in the first place. What was threatened in the Nore Mutiny, Melville reminds us in Chapter iii, was not just naval authority but “the flag of founded law and freedom defined.” It is this symbol to which Vere has sworn his difficult allegiance, an allegiance reaffirmed in his disputed reflections at the close of Chapter xxvii on the human need for “measured forms.” Like Hobbes, Vere sees unbridled man as a beast, and law (in Melville's provocative image) as “Orpheus with his lyre spellbinding the wild denizens of the wood.”22

Legality as music is a figure seemingly out of keeping with the harsh spirit of that “child of War,” the Mutiny Act. Yet in a world in which mutiny is a serviceable metaphor for the moral and theological condition of man, an imposed order is the only kind that is possible, and the articles under which Captain Vere takes his authority are not radically different from those under which Moses took his.23 With respect to the taking of life, neither the military nor the biblical statute goes beyond a general prohibition. The extenuations of circumstance, as Melville well knew, are as infinitely adjustable as the “Protean easychair” of the Confidence-Man, built to “ease human suffering [by] endlessly changeable accommodations” in which “the most tormented conscience must, somehow and somewhere, find rest.” Billy Budd, I contend, was conceived as the kind of story in which such accommodations are not available. It invites comparison in its ethical structure, not to “The Birthmark,” the one tale of Hawthorne to which Melville acknowledged a specific debt, but to The Scarlet Letter. Both stories deal with the collision of private morality and the law in a tight little community which admits no extenuations. They have a number of features in common—a devil figure, self-destroyed; a child of nature, innocent but flawed—but most importantly a central sensibility impaled on a dilemma precisely defined by the opposition of statutory and romantic law. Billy's exoneration, like Dimmesdale's marriage, is made in heaven but can only be recognized there. One irreducible fact gets all but lost in the personal sympathy generated by both characters: no law can sanction the execution of bad officers by their men or the extra-marital intercourse of clergymen with their parishioners.

Vere has been abused for his instant observation that “the angel must hang,” as though he were prejudging Billy and making a mockery of his trial. But it is hard to see how such a sentiment can prevail in any reasoned estimate of the story. If one sees a man commit murder, one knows that he ought to suffer the penalty; and one also knows that in a civilized society the guilt, however obvious, must be determined and the penalty exacted by due process. Vere's remark may sound unsportsmanlike, but it cannot be regarded as unjust. If he blunders at all at this point, it is not in anticipating judgment but in assessing character. Here and here only he displays prejudice: he likes Billy and dislikes Claggart. The reader allows him these feelings because he shares them and has privileged information which justifies them. But Vere does not have this information and decides on intuition alone that he has seen an “Ananias … struck dead by an angel of God.” If Claggart were a sympathetic character, our indignation would be justly turned against the superior who treated him with peremptory contempt, was prepared to take a subordinate's word against his, and laid him open to a judgment which not only preceded but precluded trial. The death of Claggart is exactly like that of a soldier Montaigne tells of in “Of Conscience” (ii.v), whose stomach was cut open to determine whether he had stolen food as charged. It appeared that he had, but, as Montaigne ironically remarked, what “an instructive condemnation!”

Unwittingly Vere misleads us in the direction of allegory. His word “angel” too effectively polarizes the principals of the drama in his cabin. It is a touch of romance which we can surely forgive in a character sometimes thought to lack heart; but it increases difficulty for both himself and the reader. Forgetting the patent symbolism of Billy's stammer and the reality of the crime it makes him commit, and ignoring Melville's explicit disclaimer of romantic intentions (end of Chapter ii), we are apt to mistake a human tragedy for the Death of Innocence in a morality play. And the tendency is aggravated by an equal and opposite gravitation, dramatized by the officers of the court, toward compromise rather than categorical decision in the matter of punishment. What shouldn't happen to a dog is happening to an “angel,” and we quarrel with that uncongenial part of the author's donnée expressed in Vere's indubitable mandate to “condemn or let go.”24

All of the problems of Billy Budd somehow converge on the fundamental issue of absolute versus relative values. Most of Melville's critics have recognized in his work the uneasy co-existence of anti-Platonism and romantic idealism, and some of them have tried to resolve this discordance by appeal to the Plinlimmon pamphlet in Pierre, the one document in which Melville dealt with it explicitly, if not in his own voice.25 Broadly, the case rests on a presumed correspondence between the alternatives confronting Captain Vere in the judgment of Billy and the two systems of morality predicated by Plotinus Plinlimmon. Plinlimmon's “chronometrical” or heavenly morality is supposed to be the same as Vere's “natural law” or the “last assizes” at which Billy will be acquitted; and the contrasting “horological” or earthly morality is equated with the martial or statutory law by which Billy is condemned. The inference is that the chronometrical standard is an ideal of universal perfection to which Vere has not the courage to aspire, and the horological a temporizing expedient on which he seizes to stay out of trouble.

No doubt the best corrective for this astonishing conclusion is to keep the Plinlimmon pamphlet out of Billy Budd, particularly in view of the uncertainty of its tone; but if it is to continue to raise its head it will have to do an about-face. It is not the law which is partial, local, “horological,” but ideal morality. Since the “chronometrical” is a Platonic idea, it can only be imitated, and law is man's imitation of it. Imperfect as it is in operation, law is in principle a universal and absolute good, and it is the only one we have. The higher morality, on the other hand, by which Vere would presumably free Billy or mitigate his punishment, is only a benign expedient by which this killer under these conditions is to be exempted from the normal (and normally correct) judgment. It is, in fact, precisely horological—of this time, of that place. The advocates of absolute morality are pleading Portia's case: “The quality of mercy is not strained.” But this means it is not codified, it is gratuitous, a product of individual will and not susceptible to the disciplines of social architecture. The fact that Portia's problem was solved by the letter of the law demonstrates what we have to build on.

At bottom the Plinlimmon argument is radically misleading because the analogy is false. As Henry Murray long ago pointed out, there is no rigid dichotomy between real and ideal morality,26 and what discrepancy there is cannot be described by a mathematical differential. An apter image, and one closer to the Melville of Billy Budd, is the one Dostoevsky uses in Ivan Karamazov's analysis of the same problem. Drawing his figure from geometry rather than chronometry, Ivan describes man's mind as “Euclidian” and refers to the realms of the ideal and the real as those in which parallel lines do or do not meet (v, iii). Melville evidently had the same idea, and in nearly the same terms, when he warned in Moby-Dick (Ch. xxxv) against the navigator “who offers to ship with the Phaedon instead of Bowditch in his head.” Later, in The Encantadas (Sketch Second), a similar thought took form as he watched a Galapagos tortoise butting patiently against a mast and saw in its hopeless inflexibility “the curse [of] straightforwardness in a belittered world.” These are figures which keep clear, as the Plinlimmon figure does not, the crucial distinction between expediency and practicality. Seen in this light, Vere's problem is one of moral navigation, and its solution is dictated by a respect for his charts which is both characteristic and heroic.


My plea for straightforwardness in literary criticism may be thought to labor under the curse of the tortoise. In this case, however, it is the “straight” reading which respects the author's sensitively wrought image of a tragically belittered world. It is the ironists who would oversimplify the work of art by stripping it of its mute, suspended ambiguities, its terribly insoluble perplexities, and leave us with an underdone sophomoric bleat. Notwithstanding the temperamental clarity I have claimed for it, Billy Budd bears an unexpected philosophic and aesthetic—sometimes even verbal—resemblance to the provocative “parable of the law” with which Kafka concluded Chapter ix of The Trial.27

In this dream-like tale an official doorkeeper of the temple of Law refuses a suppliant admission to the inner sanctum of ideal justice. The suppliant, in consequence, pines away his life on the threshold, though he perceives the “radiance that streams immortally from the door.” Like Vere, the doorkeeper is compassionate yet intransigent, at once father and enemy. He is somewhat “pedantic” in appearance, and “where his duty is concerned he is to be moved neither by pity nor rage.” Disturbingly, he performs a mechanical function without being himself mechanical; it is the paradox of his nature that (in the words of one commentator) “he represents without being responsible for what he represents.”28 This is the crux of the Billy Budd problem as of the problem in Kafka's parable. Among the points of view explained to Joseph K. is one which, despite important differences in legal circumstance, expresses well enough the case for Captain Vere: “that the story confers no right on anyone to pass judgment on the doorkeeper. Whatever he may seem to us, he is yet a servant of the Law; that is, he belongs to the Law and as such is set above human judgment.”

Enveloping the parable of the doorkeeper Kafka has created a still more relevant parable in the controversy over its meaning. In the crazy gamut of sophistical interpretations which the narrator reviews there is parodied every earnest critical battle that has been waged over problematical fictions like Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw. Out of the whole patchwork of plausibility the only statement that emerges with the sure ring of authorial sincerity is the one that undercuts all the others: “You must not pay too much attention to them. The scriptures are unalterable and the comments often enough merely express the commentator's bewilderment.”

It is not sneering at the great body of Billy Budd criticism to suggest, in conclusion, that it has expressed bewilderment. It is only saying that some very good thinking has chosen some very bad grounds. Unlike “The Lady or the Tiger?” Billy Budd was never conceived as a puzzle for our solution or a choice for our decision, but rather as a course of events for our contemplation. Unfortunately, the polemical virus runs strong in the scholar-critic, and the natural effect of being drawn into the story is to take sides on its warring values. A firm will is needed to remember, with Tindall, that Billy Budd is “not a conclusion, like a sermon, [but] a vision of confronting what confronts us, of man thinking things out with all the attendant confusions and uncertainties.”29 This is a Sophoclean Melville in Billy Budd, speaking with a detachment and a respect for fact that criticism must emulate if it is to get at his meaning.


  1. Alexander Jones's admirable survey of this familiar quarrel in “Point of View in The Turn of the Screw,PMLA, lxxiv (March 1959), 112–122, is a model of corrective criticism. See also Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago, 1961), pp. 311–315.

    By now any scholarly reassessment of works like these carries a Bunyanesque burden of prior study which it is impractical to spread out for detailed inspection, even in footnotes. The latest annotated text of Billy Budd, edited by Harrison Hayford and Merton Sealts (Chicago, 1962), to which this study refers throughout, lists 161 items in its bibliography, and a selection of this material edited by William Stafford under the title Melville's Billy Budd and the Critics (San Francisco, 1961) lists nearly a hundred in addition to the twenty-odd it wholly or partly reprints. Between them these sources (most concisely the former, pp. 24–27) tell all that the average reader of the novel or of this essay will want to know about the Billy Budd controversy. In the interest of progress and brevity I shall omit a good deal of the argument and formal documentation accessible in these compendia.

  2. R. H. Fogle, “Billy Budd: The Order of the Fall,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, xv (December 1960), 189–205.

  3. The Rhetoric of Fiction, pp. 151–152.

  4. Joseph Schiffman, “Melville's Final Stage, Irony: A Re-examination of Billy Budd Criticism,” American Literature, xxii (May 1950), 128–136.

  5. The Rhetoric of Fiction, p. 366. The entire section labeled (after Saul Bellow) “Deep Readers of the World. Beware!” is worth reading on this topic.

  6. Ibid., p. 132. Booth is referring here specifically to Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, but the problem of sympathy is explored at large in Chs. v, ix, and x.

  7. Merlin Bowen, The Long Encounter (Chicago, 1960), p. 233. The full case against the argument from conscience will be made from another point of view further on.

  8. Letter to Hawthorne, June 1851.

  9. Good discussions of both issues may be found in the notes to the Chicago text, pp. 157, 181–183.

  10. Fogle, op. cit. (note 2, above); Lawrence Barrett, “The Differences in Melville's Poetry,” PMLA, lxx (September 1955), 606–623.

  11. R. H. Fogle, “Billy Budd—Acceptance or Irony,” Tulane Studies in English, viii (1958), 109–110, 112.

  12. Among the many pertinent studies listed in the bibliography of Hayford and Sealts, I have found especially useful those of Berthoff (1960), Braswell (1957), Fogle (1958, 1960), and Miller (1958). A very important contribution of W. G. Kilbourne, Jr., will be discussed in another connection.

  13. Some of this very evidence is used by Wayne Booth, p. 178, in citing Billy Budd as an example of “reliable” narration.

  14. Cf. Shaw's Candida, in which everyone thinks everyone else “mad” for precisely these reasons.

  15. Walter Blair, Mark Twain and Huck Finn (Berkeley, Calif., 1960), pp. 280, 329.

  16. F. M. Cornford, Microcosmographia Academica, 5th ed. (Cambridge, Eng., 1953), p. 11.

  17. “Of Custom, and Not Easily Changing an Accepted Law,” Complete Works of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford, Calif., 1957), i.xxiii. The conservative implications of this and certain other passages have been explored by W. G. Kilbourne, Jr., “Montaigne and Captain Vere,” American Literature, xxxiii (January 1962), 514–517.

  18. Lawrence Thompson takes the observation that Vere found in Montaigne “confirmation” of his inmost thoughts as evidence that he was reading his own opinions into the text. I think that the “shock of recognition” was probably what Melville had in mind—Keats's “almost a remembrance,” or Emerson's own experience with Montaigne, as recorded in Representative Men: “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience.”

  19. Melville labeled this sentiment “Montaignism” in the margin of his Shakespeare: Jay Leyda, The Melville Log (New York, 1951), p. 291.

  20. “Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions,” ii.i.

  21. “Of Custom,” i. xxiii.

  22. See the discussion of this controversial passage, with a review of the principal scholarship on it, in the notes of Hayford and Sealts, pp. 195–196.

  23. The point is interestingly made in Paradise Lost xii. 300–306, as quoted and discussed by Norman H. Pearson, “Billy Budd: ‘The King's Yarn,’” American Quarterly, iii (Summer 1951), 99–114. Another valuable essay on Melville's conservative and anti-romantic conception of law is Frederick I. Carpenter, “Melville and the Men-of-War,” American Literature and the Dream (New York, 1955), pp. 73–82. Carpenter quotes an instructive passage from Mardi (Ch. clxi): “Though an army be all volunteers, martial law must prevail.”

  24. The groundwork which Melville laid for acceptance of Vere's alternatives is most clearly seen in the second paragraph of Chapter xviii, where, as prelude to Claggart's accusation, he describes the dangerous situation of the Bellipotent and the unique qualification of her commander to exercise “prompt initiative” in “unforeseen difficulties.”

  25. Melville's general opposition to absolutism and idealism is admirably analyzed by Milton Stern in the opening chapter of The Fine-Hammered Steel of Herman Melville (Urbana, Ill., 1957). The Plinlimmon case is most fully argued by Wendell Glick, “Expediency and Absolute Morality in Billy Budd,PMLA, lxviii (March 1953), 103–110; and James E. Miller, Jr., “Billy Budd: The Catastrophe of Innocence,” MLN, lxxiii (March 1958), 168–176.

  26. Notes to his edition of Pierre (New York, 1949), p. 477. Recall also the quotation from Bread and Wine, above, p. 493: “These rules are often very close to those which moral sentiment inspires in every man.”

  27. There are congruities between Kafka and the Melville of “Bartleby” and The Confidence-Man which deserve their own study, but they are beyond the scope of this one.

  28. Heinz Politzer, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox (Ithaca, N.Y., 1962), p. 183. Cf. Vere's remark to the court in Chapter xxi: “For that law and the rigor of it, we are not responsible.”

  29. William York Tindall, “The Ceremony of Innocence,” Great Moral Dilemmas in Literature, ed. R. M. MacIver (New York, 1956), p. 80.

Jon M. Kinnamon (essay date 1970)

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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 as well. Beyond the scope of character development, the political thought in Billy Budd contributes to the reader's understanding of the political climate at the time the action of the novel takes place and aids the reader in understanding those events which function as a manifestation of a political ideal.

Billy Budd is a book which depicts the attempt of man to seek accommodation with the diverse political ideals competing for his allegiance. It expresses the mental torment and the ambiguity found in any sagacious and honest attempt to solve a profound problem in human behavior. Billy Budd demonstrates the captivating power of Melville, who succeeds in portraying within this novel the foremost tensions of that age.

The problem is the role of man. Is he responsible to the welfare of the society of which he is a member, or is his responsibility to his private sense of what is moral?

Melville completed his manuscript on April 19, 1891—a scant five months before his death. Since that time, society has changed radically, but the importance of man's determining his role in the world has not. Man's relationship to the dictates of his conscience and the dictates of his society contributes greatly to the tensions prevalent in our time. Melville's insight and imagination capture a dilemma that belongs to no era. The author's narrative personifies the ideals which he and the political thinkers of the past have brought to bear on an eternal problem. Each reader finds himself caught in the subtle web of identification which makes the thought of the characters his own.

Melville is a man attempting to apply abstractions to his world of experience, grappling with ideals by using the physical and conceptual tools most familiar to him. He uses the setting which he knows best, that of the sea.


We meet Billy Budd as the “Handsome Sailor,” a foretopman aboard the merchant vessel the Rights-of-Man toward the close of the last decade of the eighteenth century. As the ship draws near England, it meets the H.M.S. Bellipotent, a warship of seventy-four guns that has sailed for action against the French without a full crew.1 Melville thus employs two symbols almost immediately: (1) the ships are to be taken as portraying two separate societies, the Bellipotent is the Old Order, the Rights-of-Man the New Order; (2) the homeward bound ship is transporting new political ideals to England, the ship headed out to sea represents the actual state of the world, ever-seeking, subject to the vagaries of unknown experiences. Billy Budd is taken off the Rights-of-Man and is impressed into service aboard the Bellipotent. The confrontation of Billy Budd with the differing structures of these two societies contains profound political implications.

We note that in the first community, the Rights-of-Man is held together by emotional ties. Here, to take up David Hume's and Jean Jacques Rousseau's philosophy, it is not the sovereign's power to compel obedience that holds the community together but the force of habit and bonds of sentiment. These philosophers believed that through the experience of societal living, men develop sentiments which make them respect the claims of one another. Rousseau states:

The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty. … Force is a physical power, and I fail to see what moral effect it can have. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will—at the most, an act of prudence. In what sense can it be a duty?2

Based on these observations, Rousseau advances his explanation of the forces which bind society:

Since no man has a natural authority over his fellow, and force creates no right, we must conclude that conventions form the basis of all legitimate authority among men.3

Hume's understanding of society corresponds strongly with the views of Rousseau.

In proportion as men extend their dealings, and render intercourse with others more complicated, they always comprehend, in their schemes of life, a greater variety of voluntary actions, which they expect, from the proper motives, to co-operate with their own. In all these conclusions, they take their measures from past experience, in the same manner as in their reasonings concerning external objects; and firmly believe, that men, as well as all the elements, are to continue, in their operations, the same, that they have ever found them.4

On the Bellipotent we discover a community with a different theoretical basis. The Bellipotent is a Hobbesian community, maintaining order through the use of discipline and force. This society is held together not by sentiment, but by the power of the authoritarians to demand obedience. Commenting on the laws of nature, Thomas Hobbes observed that an individual in society only has a disposition towards accommodation with other members of a community when he believes this accommodation would promote his self-interest. Therefore, Hobbes believed peace and obedience could never be achieved within a society without the sanction of a sovereign.

When a commonwealth is once settled, then are they [the laws of nature] actually laws, and not before; as being then the commands of the commonwealth; and therefore also civil laws; for it is the sovereign power that obliges men to obey them.5

In opposition to Hobbes, Rousseau and Hume assume that there is a natural harmony in man, a harmony which intuitively governs him. Therefore, the society of the Rights-of-Man when compared with the society of the Bellipotent is by nature more democratic than autocratic.

The guns of the Bellipotent may imply a Hobbesian view of the world, but the order of the ship's society also seems to be patterned after the political ideals of Edmund Burke. Here, the emphasis is on stability and the importance of institutions. Burke held the conviction that the historic community produces a presumption for its own conservation. The name Burke gave this principle is prescription. Prescription means that the past legitimizes what it produces.

It [prescription] is a presumption in favor of any settled scheme of government against any untried project … that the individual is foolish … but the species is wise.6

When Billy Budd is taken off the Rights-of-Man and placed on the Bellipotent, he is compelled to bring his nature into line with the realities of that society. However, the Bellipotent's Hobbesian society had no relevance to a man of Billy Budd's nature, because all men participating in it were regulated by the threat or the appliance of force, and were not trusted to seek accommodation by intuitive inner-action. Billy Budd continued to be the human heart—his nature would not allow him to be compromised to necessity.

Melville portrays the repercussions of Billy Budd's crime much as he depicts the repercussions of the French Revolution. They both strike at authority—embodied in the figures of Claggart and the king respectively—and society cannot tolerate this action because when order wanes, a deterioration of society ensues. To prevent a weakening of authority, Burke places emphasis on the individual's obligation to uphold his contract with society, while Hobbes places emphasis on the utilitarian need for strict compliance with the law. Burke states:

One of the first motives to civil society, and which becomes one of its fundamental rules, is, that no man should be judge in his own cause. By this each person has at once divested himself of the first fundamental right of uncovenanted man, that is, to judge for himself, and to assert his own cause. He abdicates all right to be his own governor. He inclusively, in a great measure, abandons the right of self-defense, the first law of nature. Men cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. That he may obtain justice he gives up his right of determining what it is in points the most essential to him. That he may secure some liberty, he makes a surrender in trust of the whole of it.7

Likewise, if you accept the Hobbesian view that man is weak, you cannot accept Billy's actions. You cannot accept it because lesser men may imitate it on lesser grounds. Captain Vere fears the disquieting influence of the mutinies, and knows that lesser motives often follow the path of greater ones. Society cannot allow acts, no matter how nobly inspired, to manifest themselves outside the law. Vere is aware of Billy's innocent nature, but he cannot allow the drumhead court to acquit him—the law would lose its power to control mankind. Vere follows the dictates of the sovereign, he will not allow himself to make a private judgment. Vere's stand is essentially Hobbesian:

… I observe the diseases of a commonwealth, that proceed from the poison of seditious doctrines, whereof one is, That every private man is judge of good and evil actions. … From this false doctrine, men are disposed to debate with themselves, and dispute the commands of the commonwealth; and afterwards to obey, or disobey them, as in their private judgments they shall think fit; whereby the commonwealth is distracted and weakened.8

Melville, through the example of Captain Vere, tells us that there can be no order without vision and no attainment of an ideal that is not grounded in reality. Vere symbolizes the painful, the necessary balance between the two extremes which enables society to preserve itself.

Melville seems to adopt G. W. F. Hegel's idea that law is the product of historical necessity, dialectically determined and fatalistically accepted.

Here we need only remark that each stage [of history] as distinguished from the others has its determinate and peculiar principle. Such a principle becomes in history the determinate spirit of a people or nation. In it the spirit expresses concretely all aspects of its will and of its consciousness, of its entire actuality. It is the common impress of its religion, its political constitution, its ethics, its legal system, its customs and culture. …9

In the story's conflict between man and law, necessity requires the virtuous man be sacrificed for the good of all because they are weak. In other words, the society aboard the Bellipotent cannot accept a man like Billy Budd within the context of existing law; the virtue in Billy Budd places his conduct above that which the law is designed to govern. Billy's continual submission to misfortune strikes a note of fatalism that might be attributed to Hegel or even Burke. Both philosophers consider man as morally obligated to fulfill his position. And man, as Captain Vere demonstrates, must follow that position and the law where it leads him.

We fight at command. If our judgments approve the war, that is but coincidence.

For Captain Vere, his duty is clear.

Our vowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may operate in any instances, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.

Thus, Vere, who administers the law, is bound by it. As a result, Vere must sacrifice Billy. Billy is like a part of Vere—a better part which he sacrifices in order to live in the world.

Vere comprehends Billy's intrinsic goodness as well as his own duty to follow the dictates of the law. He realizes that Billy's innocent nature makes him unique to all others.

An appraisal of the influence of civilization upon the natural qualities of man was presented by Rousseau in Book I of Emile.

All things are good as their Creator made them, but every thing degenerates in the hands of man.10

Melville, in his portrayal of Billy, echoes Rousseau's observation that civilization can be a corrupting influence.

And here be it submitted that apparently going to corroborate the doctrine of man's Fall, a doctrine now popularly ignored, it is observable that where certain virtues pristine and unadulterate peculiarly characterize anybody in the external uniform of civilization, they will upon scrutiny seem not to be derived from custom or convention, but rather to be out of keeping with these, as if indeed exceptionally transmitted from a period prior to Cain's City and citified man. The character marked by such qualities has to an unvitiated taste an untampered-with flavour like that of berries, while the man thoroughly civilized, even in a fair specimen of the breed, has to the same moral palate a questionable smack as of a compounded wine.

Many of Melville's ideas about the nature of man seem to stem from Rousseau. Billy Budd embodies the virtues of the simple heart, faith without the intellect to undermine belief. Moreover, Billy demonstrates this condition to the extent that it becomes a flaw. He lacks the capacity to understand and communicate, and the ability to evaluate his experience. Melville consistently signals that it is a balance of conditions that is required.

We have already noted a Hobbesian view of the weakness of man and his need for a strong sovereign to impose order upon him. Hobbesian psychology also enters Melville's writings, disclosed in regard to the nature of Claggart. The master-at-arms, we find, is controlled by his passion and yet capable of pursuing his ends very rationally. Melville describes him by saying:

… Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of atrocity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgment sagacious and sound.

A man of this nature would come as no great surprise to Hobbes—indeed, it was looked on as a normal condition. Yet, it should be noted that Claggart for Melville is a depravity—an extreme; he is not the normal man.

Dansker might also be considered as a comment by Melville on a Hobbesian society. The old sailor has been continually subjected to authority without vision, and the result has been a cynicism that views Billy as someone who cannot last in the world of the warship. “Baby” Budd must grow up or come to grief. Hobbes states:

… every man must strive to accommodate himself to the rest.11

Billy, of course, possesses too pure a nature for this society; his nature prohibits the acquisition of those characteristics of self-interest which are necessary for his conservation.

The execution of Billy Budd, in accordance with the court's decision, is carried through as a matter of course on the Bellipotent; Melville tells us that the Bellipotent's chaplain lifted not a finger to avert Billy's doom. The chaplain's behavior corresponds exactly to the philosophy of Voltaire.

In brief, the Church had to relinquish to the state any control over men's external actions and confine its activities exclusively to the spiritual relations between man and God.12

For Melville, the chaplain exists only to lend the sanction of religion to whatever the seventy-four guns of the Bellipotent choose to do. The chaplain, aware of Billy's essential innocence, would not intervene in the sailor's behalf.

So to do would not only have been as idle as invoking the desert, but would also have been an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function, one as exactly prescribed to him by military law as that of the boatswain or any other naval officer.


The end comes to Billy Budd because the maintenance of order is deemed a necessity; there can be no exemption from the law. If absolution is granted, the law would lose its power to control mankind. The reader must reject or sanctify Vere's action; but, as Melville wished, the reader in so doing exposes his own nature—the very depth of his mind and the strength of his compassion. In pondering this problem, the reader walks the deck; he is called on to make a decision that is not within his human capacity to make; he is aware, he understands, but he is above all a mortal. The reader's evaluation of Vere's decision reflects more than just the values which the individual has internalized; because the reader, like Vere, must also consider the external influences, those forces which obstruct the accommodation of a decision void of the realities of the world.

The reader continues to pace the deck.


  1. Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), pp. 44–45.

  2. Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses (London, 1930), p. 8.

  3. Ibid., p. 9.

  4. David Hume, Essays (London, 1875), II, 73.

  5. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford, 1946), p. 174.

  6. Edmund Burke, The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke (London, 1826), X, 96–97.

  7. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (New York, 1962), p. 71.

  8. Hobbes, p. 211.

  9. Carl Friedrich, ed., The Philosophy of Hegel (New York, 1954), p. 29.

  10. Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emilius and Sophia (London, 1783), I, 1.

  11. Hobbes, p. 99.

  12. Virgil W. Topazio, Voltaire (New York, 1967), p. 147.

Robert Merrill (essay date 1973)

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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 “sinister purposes of burlesque and ridicule” (p. 365)—except that it is necessary to his central thesis on Melville—and since almost no one has seconded Thompson's theory of the unreliable narrator, I will assume what all other readers have assumed in reading Billy Budd: that the narrative voice is a reliable guide to the novel's characters and events.

What clue to interpretation does Melville's narrator offer us? Thompson has recognized that the narrator encourages a nonironic reading of the novel because he repeatedly sympathizes with Captain Vere (p. 360). But critical controversy suggests that many readers do not share Thompson's belief that the narrator favors the character and conduct of Vere. The narrator has often been seen as no more than an impersonal “reporter.” The views of Joseph Schiffman are representative: “Melville wrote Billy Budd, his last work, without interjecting moral pronouncements; for this reason the story is usually taken as Melville's ‘Testament of acceptance,’ or, in the latest and most extended criticism, as Melville's ‘Recognition of necessity.’”3

The real nature of the novel's commentary may or may not move us to adopt either of these complementary positions. But it is simply not true that Billy Budd contains no explicit “moral pronouncements.” Often Melville's “pronouncements” concern aspects of character. Often they relate to the novel's setting. They may not be the moral pronouncements of a Father Mapple, but they function nonetheless in shaping our understanding of the story. And they function much as Thompson feared they would if the narrator was not discredited: they encourage a nonironic reading of the novel.

Its reliance on commentary is actually one of Billy Budd's most striking features. Notice the number of “scenes” actually dramatized, especially in the first half of the work. Here a very few incidents are made to yield a great deal of authorial analysis. The first eight chapters comprise an introduction to the setting and characters which is almost entirely given over to such analysis. Later incidents like the spilling of the soup are commented on at twice the length they are rendered dramatically. Through his analysis Melville limits the various meanings we can legitimately derive from the novel's action.

Melville's treatment of Claggart is representative. What should be noticed is how much we depend on the commentary for our understanding of Claggart. His every action persuades us that Claggart is “the direct reverse of a saint” (p. 74),4 but it is the narrator who provides an explanation for Claggart's viciousness: “Now something such an one was Claggart, in whom was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short ‘a depravity according to nature’” (p. 76). Rather than anything we see Claggart do, this passage accounts for the absence in Melville criticism of “sociological” explanations for Claggart's mischief. We are told that Claggart's evil is nothing less than “elemental” (p. 78). The peculiar nature of this evil is carefully defined: it is a dominance of “intellectuality” (p. 75), for “the depravity here meant partakes nothing of the sordid or sensual” (p. 76). Claggart's actions might suggest a character merely envious and mean, but Melville will not have his villain underrated. He observes of Claggart's envy, “But Claggart's was no vulgar form of the passion. … Claggart's envy struck deeper” (pp. 77–78). The whole of chapter 12, in its tortured effort to identify the “mystery of iniquity” which dominates Claggart, testifies to Melville's belief that such forms of evil must figure in the evaluation of man's nature. Claggart's irreducible depravity, because it is discovered in man's “elevating” intelligence, contributes immensely to our conviction that Billy Budd depicts much more than a petty conflict among shipmates. And it is the narrator who gives this dimension to the novel. Whoever would consider Claggart must return to the narrator's analysis.

Trusting to a narrative voice which directs our responses to such characters as Claggart, we can better face the “problems” of Billy Budd and Captain Vere. Since these two figures have inspired such contradictory interpretations, we can hardly afford to turn away from Melville's direct guidance as to their natures.

In the early chapters Melville is at pains to back up Captain Graveling's report of Billy's “peace-making” innocence and goodness. Emphasizing this side of the commentary, many of the novel's critics have identified Billy with Christ. E. L. Grant Watson is here the pioneer; for him, Billy manifests a “divine innocence and courage, which might suggest a Christ not yet conscious of His divinity.”5 A critic like Harry Campbell, whose position on the book directly controverts Grant Watson's, nonetheless agrees on the subject of Billy's “Christ-like innocence.”6 While not denying the something transcendent in Billy (the “exceptional” character noticed by the narrator), I think this identification is essentially facile. Significantly, the narrative commentary appears to confirm this.

As Melville introduces the generic Handsome Sailor, he suggests that Billy Budd is such a Sailor, “though with important variations made apparent as the story proceeds” (p. 44). These “variations” surely include Billy's total inability to be a “spokesman,” in the tradition of the Handsome Sailor or Christ. They include Billy's divergence from this ideal of the Handsome Sailor: “The moral nature was seldom out of keeping with the physical make” (p. 44). Billy's moral nature includes an “innocence” of strange composition for a young Christ: the novel's imagery associates him with dogs (pp. 52, 107), horses (pp. 52, 84, 88), animals generally (p. 49), barbarians (pp. 52, 120), and Adam before the Fall (pp. 52, 94). The animal-barbarian image cluster implies something all too human in Billy's character. Far from “divine” or “Christ-like,” Billy's innocence is indistinguishable from ignorance:

But a young seafarer of the disposition of our athletic foretopman is much of a child-man. And yet a child's utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and the innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes. But in Billy Budd intelligence, such as it was, had advanced while yet his simple-mindedness remained for the most part unaffected.

(p. 86)

This is indeed Adam before the Fall, not the Christ of supreme awareness. “Innocence was his blinder” is not often remarked of Christ (p. 88).

Indeed, the narrator repeatedly cautions against a too Christ-like reading of Billy's innocence. This innocence “does yet in a moral emergency not always sharpen the faculties or enlighten the will” (p. 70). Billy is candidly termed “immature” (p. 98). And his innocence is by no means perfect. There is the matter of his stutter, especially as it is interpreted by the narrator. In his stutter “Billy was a striking instance that the arch interferer, the envious marplot of Eden, still has more or less to do with every human consignment to this planet of Earth” (p. 53). Satan has his hand on Billy as surely as he does Claggart. Melville could hardly be more explicit in qualifying Billy's innocence, in suggesting the difference between this quality and the nature of Christ.

Just as explicit is the remark that Billy has “some of the weaknesses inseparable from essential good nature” (p. 81). Weakness here means Billy's “reluctance, almost an incapacity of plumply saying no to an abrupt proposition not obviously absurd on the face of it” (p. 81). Weakness is also betrayed in Billy's decision not to report his mutinous tempter, the afterguardsman. Here the narrator is most useful, for he leaves no doubt as to Billy's mistake: his scruples are said to be “unfounded” and “erring” (pp. 85, 106). In striking Claggart, Billy's “weakness” and divergence from Christ require no comment.

This is to say that much evidence exists for Schiffman's belief that “Melville regards Billy fondly, admiringly in many respects, but critically” (p. 133). It is not to argue that Melville's portrait is wholly negative or demeaning. Much of his commentary is devoted to an admiring analysis of Billy's “phenomenal” nature. At several points we are warned against judging Billy too quickly. “Passion, and passion in its profoundest, is not a thing demanding a palatial stage whereon to play its part,” the narrator remarks. “Down among the groundlings, among the beggars and rakers of the garbage, profound passion is enacted” (p. 78). Though Billy resembles a child, his story is tragic. As the narrator says,

But shrewd ones may opine that it was hardly possible for Billy to refrain from going up to the afterguardsman and bluntly demanding to know his purpose. … Yes, shrewd ones may so think. But something more, or rather something else than mere shrewdness is perhaps needful for the due understanding of such a character as Billy Budd's.

(pp. 89–90)

If the narrator is careful to observe Billy's limitations, he is no less concerned that we not see his portrait as contemptuous.

There is even good evidence that Billy plays a role comparable to Christ's. The evidence is in the novel's action, where Billy suffers a Christ-like fate. So that we might evaluate this role properly, the narrator sees to it that we neither exaggerate nor overlook Billy's virtues and limitations. Billy's “heavenly” character is important for Melville's purposes, but it is also important that we understand the dangers of such “heavenliness.”

The point is that while Billy does not “deserve” to be hanged, he suffers the fate of a complete moral innocent, not that of Christ. His fate is “the catastrophe of innocence,” as James E. Miller, Jr., has suggested.7 If we too closely identify Billy with Christ, we miss Melville's insight into the limitations of innocence. In effect, we miss the implication that we cannot afford to be so innocent (so ignorant). Perhaps Christ would be crucified if he were to come among us again. What we can be sure of is that Billy's kind of innocence must end in crucifixion. At the same time, Melville must insist on the essential goodness of Budd, for there is nothing tragic about his fate or Vere's dilemma if Billy is not one of “great Nature's nobler order” (p. 115). Because of his innocence, Billy must end a “martyr to martial discipline” (p. 121). Because of Billy's nobility, Vere must make the most painful of decisions in condemning him to death.

If the narrator helps define our views on Billy Budd, he is also crucial to any balanced view of Captain Vere. Here, of course, we reach the novel's controversial center. Vere upholds the priority of “martial discipline” over “that primitive basis” of “the essential right and wrong involved in the matter” when he sends Billy to the gallows (p. 103). Knowing that Billy is “innocent before God” (p. 110), Vere nonetheless imposes his will on the drumhead court. He does so in the belief that men cannot rule themselves by the standards of heaven while confined to earth. The modern reader is almost sure to condemn Vere, but we can assume that readers in Melville's day would have been similarly disposed had the work appeared in his lifetime. For this reason, I think, Melville has shaped his commentary to secure sympathy for Vere which the reader might otherwise withhold.

Like Claggart and Billy Budd, Vere is introduced at some length. Chapters 6 and 7 are entirely devoted to a sketch of his character. Those who believe that Melville is subtly attacking Vere in Billy Budd must explain the clearly sympathetic view of him in these early chapters. Melville is seldom more explicit than he is on Vere's character:

He had seen much service, been in various engagements, always acquitting himself as an officer mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline; thoroughly versed in the science of his profession, and intrepid to the verge of temerity, though never injudiciously so.

(p. 60)

Such commentary has been taken as ironic, the qualifying clauses supposedly “canceling” the preceding praise.8 To arrive at such a view, one must be searching for irony with real determination. If not forewarned that Melville has his ironic eye on Vere, the narrator's assurance that Vere's character is “exceptional” (p. 62) must seem like praise. Vere is said to have “a certain unaffected modesty of manhood” (p. 60), but the epithet “unaffected” has not convinced Vere's critics. These critics have cited Vere's moral insensitivity, while the narrator testifies to his “exceptional moral quality” (p. 96). The narrator distinguishes Vere from sea captains of a “wholly practical cast” (p. 109), while his critics attack even Vere's love of reading (that “pedantry” which the narrator ascribes to Vere's “honesty” [p. 63]). These are only a few examples of how the narrator defines Vere's strength of character. Of Vere's basic goodness, there is apparently to be no question. Like Billy, Vere is said to be one of “great Nature's nobler order” (p. 115).

The possibility remains that even the “exceptional” Vere falls into error with his decision concerning Billy. There is the matter of Vere's “fears” regarding mutiny. Does Vere act on false assumptions when he takes his fears into account in resolving Billy's fate? Chapters 3 and 5 patently exist to justify those fears, describing as they do mutinies which had recently occurred. “The Great Mutiny,” Melville remarks, was “a demonstration more menacing to England than the contemporary manifestoes and conquering and proselyting armies of the French Directory” (p. 54). Moreover, the narrator will not join with Vere's critics in justifying those aggressions: “To some extent the Nore Mutiny may be regarded as analogous to the distempering irruption of contagious fever in a frame constitutionally sound” (p. 55). Because of the Two Mutinies “it was not unreasonable to apprehend some return of trouble sporadic or general” (p. 59). Not unreasonable is Melville's verdict on Vere's fears.

When Vere's critics have not lamented his prudence, they have questioned his sanity—the surgeon's doubts have not gone unnoticed. But the narrator is careful to account for the surgeon's reservations. The surgeon is bothered by Vere's exclamation, “‘Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!’” (p. 101). But the narrator remarks that these “passionate interjections” are “mere incoherences to the listener as yet unapprised of the antecedents” (p. 101). When the surgeon is “disturbed by the excited manner” of Captain Vere, he is said to be “as yet wholly ignorant of the affair” which has transpired in Vere's cabin (p. 100). Clearly, Melville would discredit the surgeon's suspicions. It is ironic that Vere's critics have shared those suspicions, although perfectly “apprised of the antecedents,” as the surgeon was not.

“Whether Captain Vere, as the surgeon professionally and privately surmised, was really the sudden victim of any degree of aberration, every one must determine for himself by such light as this narrative may afford” (p. 102). As even Thompson remarks (p. 388), the assumption here is that the narrative affords plenty of light for a favorable verdict on Vere. This is made clear at once: “That the unhappy event which has been narrated could not have happened at a worse juncture was but too true. … Moreover, there was something crucial in the case” (pp. 102–103). Again the narrator justifies Vere's fears about mutiny. Incidentally he discredits what the surgeon has deduced from Vere's “desire for secrecy” (p. 101). Finally, he proceeds to sympathize with Vere for not being able to judge Billy's case on that “primitive basis” of the essential right and wrong involved in the matter (p. 103).

It is Vere's drumhead court and his arguments at Billy's trial which have most disturbed his critics. Although the narrator has praised Vere's character throughout, many readers find a significant authorial silence on Vere's crucial reasoning at the trial. For those who find his logic unpleasant (myself included), there is the strongest temptation to see the Captain as a victim of Melville's silent disapproval. But framing the trial is evidence that the narrator, for one, still sympathizes with Vere's handling of an admitted moral dilemma. Prior to the trial the narrator corroborates the Captain's fears that his fellow officers “might not prove altogether reliable in a moral dilemma involving aught of the tragic” (p. 105). In effect, this sets Vere apart as alone “reliable” in the moral situation which now exists. After the trial the narrator quotes approvingly “a writer whom few know” (obviously Melville himself):

“Forty years after a battle it is easy for a noncombatant to reason about how it ought to have been fought. It is another thing personally and under fire to have to direct the fighting while involved in the obscuring smoke of it. … Little ween the snug card players in the cabin of the responsibilities of the sleepless man on the bridge.”

(p. 114)

Sympathy for Vere is here undiminished. We who would condemn Vere are those noncombatants who perhaps simplify the moral problem as Vere does not. The narrator never loses his faith in Vere: the whole of chapter 22 is based on the assumption that Vere and Billy are “noble” in nature. And it is crucial that “Billy's agony” is finally seen as “proceeding from a generous young heart's virgin experience of the diabolical incarnate and effective in some men” (p. 119). The reference is to Claggart, perhaps in part to that satanic “card” which Billy has carried (p. 53). Only the perverse would claim that Vere is the referent. Yet it should be so if Vere is really guilty of Billy's death.

A final point sometimes made against Vere derives from the chapter in which his death is reported. It is argued that Lord Nelson is presented, in chapter 4 and in chapter 28, as a contrast to Vere. Where Nelson was boldly heroic, Vere is supposed to be damningly timid. But we have been assured that Vere is “intrepid to the verge of temerity” (p. 60); even his critical fellow officers observe that “‘'Spite the gazettes, Sir Horatio’ (meaning him who became Lord Nelson) ‘is at bottom scarce a better seaman or fighter’” (p. 63). Vere is killed “in the act of putting his ship alongside the enemy with a view of throwing his boarders across her bulwarks” (p. 129). True, we are told that “the spirit that ‘spite its philosophic austerity may yet have indulged in the most secret of all passions, ambition, never attained to the fulness of fame” (p. 129); but the very chapter in which Nelson is celebrated testifies to the narrator's admiration for such a “passion” (pp. 56–58). The scene of Vere's death does not reflect badly on him; it is included so that we might witness Vere's continuing anguish because of his decision on Billy. As he dies, Vere is heard to murmur, “‘Billy Budd, Billy Budd’” (p. 129). We are told that these words do not suggest remorse. Vere does not regret his decision; he knows that it was necessary. But he knows too that Budd is a tragic and pitiable victim. Like Vere, we are supposed to feel anguish but not remorse for Billy's fate.

This is not an easy thing for many of us to do. To feel as Vere does is somehow to support Vere's conviction that “with mankind … forms, measured forms, are everything” (p. 128). It is to sanction Vere's belief that man's institutions are his only protection against “innate depravity.” We have therefore felt the need to discredit Vere. Alas, I fear that we must discredit Melville as well, for he has left unmistakable evidence, in the very texture of his work, 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.


  1. The major readings of Billy Budd are summarized by James E. Miller, Jr., “Billy Budd: The Catastrophe of Innocence,” MLN, 73 (1958), 168, n. 1.

  2. Melville's Quarrel with God (Princeton, 1952), p. 359.

  3. “Melville's Final Stage, Irony: A Re-examination of Billy Budd Criticism,” AL, 22 (1950), 128.

  4. Quotations from Billy Budd are identified in the text by page references to Billy Budd, Sailor, ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago, 1962).

  5. “Melville's Testament of Acceptance,” NEQ, 6 (1933), 321.

  6. “The Hanging Scene in Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman,MLN, 66 (1951), 379.

  7. See note 1.

  8. See Phil Withim, “Billy Budd: Testament of Resistance,” MLQ, 20 (1959), 118.

Christopher W. Sten (essay date 1975)

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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 by suggesting what might have been Melville's purpose in creating that necessity. Billy Budd poses a typically Romantic question which every reader is left to answer for himself: Does the end—civilization—justify the inevitable sacrifice of the natural man?

The Captain's reasoning, while it seems to have had Melville's reluctant sympathy, cannot be said to have had his full support, for in his presentation of Vere's handling of the case Melville merely brought into focus the means-and-ends dilemma. Rather than an autocratically held end in itself, every one of Vere's applications of the “forms,” like each of his deviations from them, was a deliberately chosen means to the end of insuring the security of England and thence the salvation of “the Old World” (pp. 128, 54). Billy, like Christ, was sacrificed not by a “martinet” but by a benevolent despot who used inhuman means to effect ends at once tragic and potentially divine: the death of a blameless man and “the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind” (pp. 128, 63).4

Although the Christian parallel need not signal Melville's endorsement of Vere's decision, it may signal his larger intent. By focusing on the means-and-ends dilemma through this secularized version of the Crucifixion story, Melville makes us sensible of the price of civilization. And he reminds us that the responsibilities of the survivors, like the “agony” of authority and the passion of the victim, are features of our everyday lives, not antique curiosities (p. 115). Civilized beings bear a responsibility to the sacrificial victim who, as an “upright barbarian,” symbolizes the natural in every man; thus they bear a responsibility to themselves to make their civilized lives worthy of the ideal in whose name the sacrifice is made (p. 52). First Adamic, then Christ-like, this “child-man” whose life was taken in his twenty-first year is finally a type of us all (p. 86). His fate is the human fate. It is because Melville sought to awaken us to the common fate and its attendant responsibility that he could go no further in his defense of Vere; he had to stop where he did in order to prevent this work of imaginative literature from becoming the political treatise it is often taken to be.


Despite the many indictments, it is remarkable that those who condemn Vere's decision seldom offer more than ad hominem arguments based upon ironic readings of the text. Vere is viewed as a tyrant who blindly or weakly or insanely followed, rather than manfully defied, the “forms, measured forms” of the Mutiny Act which demanded death as the penalty for striking an officer. Thus he is supposed to have violated those “primitive instincts,” forming the basis of natural law, which demand mercy for one who was not only innocent of intent but, as even Vere felt sure, had also rid the world of an “Ananias” (pp. 109, 100). To condemn Vere on such grounds, however, is in itself to violate the principles of natural law. It is to look but to the “frontage,” as war and the Mutiny Act do, and to judge Vere by the consequence of his decision rather than by his intent, as Vere said the court must judge Billy (p. 112).

Yet Vere's decision invites condemnation, as surely as it was meant to. Melville knew it would because he knew from the experience of his cousin, Guert Gansevoort, that the comparable conduct of the Somers affair had been condemned.5 Moreover, the Bellipotent's surgeon, the court, and later “some officers” criticized Vere's handling of the case (p. 103). While Melville was concerned to demonstrate the need for compassion, for Vere no less than for Billy, he was equally concerned to demonstrate that compassion will suffice for neither of these tragic figures. The power of compassion cannot exceed the power of historical circumstance to create the tragic necessity for inhuman action, and in this Melville could rely on the authority of the Father of the crucified Christ. Sympathetic understanding of Vere's rationale is warrantable, but so is indignation at the necessity of Billy's death. One must feel both pity and fear in response to this tragedy.

Melville's intention to portray the grim necessity of Billy's execution is revealed by the fact that the narrative cards could hardly have been stacked more expertly to force Vere's hand. Indeed, that “the unhappy event” (Claggart's death at the hand of Billy) “could not have happened at a worse juncture was but too true.” If Melville's intention, as the ironists argue, was in fact to strike out at arbitrary authority, it seems reasonable to ask why he bothered to place the event at a juncture which included among its critical factors not only the recently “suppressed insurrections” at Spithead and the Nore but a tightly interlocked and painstakingly detailed arrangement of other circumstances: that there were some on board who had participated in those insurrections; that England's defense rested on her navy; that the enemy had been sighted just before Claggart's death; that the Bellipotent stood at the moment “almost at her furthest remove from the fleet”; and that the incident occurred “in the latter part of an afternoon watch,” when the cover of night, too conducive to the kind of intrigue earlier refused by Billy, was soon approaching (pp. 102, 90). Important as it is, the argument from the author's need for dramatic tension seems inadequate; for what on one level is dramatic tension becomes on another the source of the problem and the debate.

From the outset Vere was portrayed not as one imprisoned by forms or conventions but as one independent in mind and nonconformist in manner. In conversation, for example, the narrator remarked that the “honesty” of “natures constituted like Captain Vere's … prescribes to them directness, sometimes far-reaching like that of a migratory fowl that in its flight never heeds when it crosses a frontier” (p. 63). This simile, coming as it does at the end, emphasizes Vere's characterization throughout Chapters 6 and 7 as a man who did not fear to transgress the world's boundaries—its customs, its forms—in pursuit of a distant goal. More pertinently, neither was the Captain portrayed as a mechanical formalist in his attitude toward the crew or toward Billy. We are told that, “though a conscientious disciplinarian, he was no lover of authority for mere authority's sake,” and in his speech to the court (“‘I feel as you do for this unfortunate boy’”) and in his closeted interview with the foretopman we witness Vere's heartfelt desire to do Billy justice (pp. 104, 113). But Billy was the “man trap” Claggart claimed him to be, one which Vere knew he must avoid (p. 94). Unlike Ahab, Vere knew the cruel injustice of the fact that “whatever devotes itself to justice at the expense of reality,” in the memorable words of Frank Kermode, “is finally self-destructive.”6 But Vere knew, too, as his own subsequent death showed, that there is no cause more worthy of devotion. In the fight against the Atheist, he died for the same cause for which he sacrificed Billy—the defense of his nation and his view of what constitutes justice to mankind.

Unconcerned about self-destruction, Vere was unswervingly concerned about the destruction of the British community for which he spoke and acted. He was “prompted by duty and the law,” he said in formulating the case against Billy, and duty to that community demanded that he prevent a mutiny on his ship (p. 113). In this time of war, a mutiny would have endangered not simply the lives of those on board; as the spread of insurrection in the Great Mutiny had shown, it would have endangered also the very life of a fleet which was “the right arm of a Power then all but the sole free conservative one of the Old World.” Hence mutiny had the potential for becoming to “the British Empire … what a strike in the fire brigade would be to London threatened by general arson” (p. 54). Vere had to choose, therefore, either individual justice or communal justice; for in the fate of Billy Budd possibly rested the fate of an entire nation, perhaps even of “the Old World.”

Given this context, only two issues could have made Vere's decision debatable: the question whether the possibility of mutiny on the Bellipotent was real and present; and the danger of encountering the enemy before the case could be referred to the admiral. That Vere's fear of mutiny was not paranoiac is suggested by the narrator's assertion that “Discontent foreran the Two Mutinies, and more or less it lurkingly survived them. Hence it was not unreasonable to apprehend some return of trouble sporadic or general” (p. 59). What is even more pertinent, Vere knew that the Bellipotent was at the time “mustering some who … had taken a guilty part in the late serious troubles” and “others also” who had been impressed into her duty (p. 92). The impressed men, too, were not trustworthy: “sometimes,” particularly before twilight, they were “apt to fall into a saddish mood which in some partook of sullenness” at the thought of their families at home (pp. 49–50). While “very little in the manner of the men … would have suggested to an ordinary observer that the Great Mutiny was a recent event,” some grounds arose to substantiate Vere's sense of the potential mood of his men (pp. 59–60). At least they were not docilely responsive to his every word, as seen on three occasions—the announcement of Billy's execution, the execution itself, and Billy's sea interment—when order had to be restored by a “strategic command” for an uncustomary use of the forms. On the first occasion there went up from the crew a “confused,” on the second an “inarticulate,” and on the third a “strange human” murmur, the last followed by an “uncertain movement … in which some encroachment was made” (pp. 117, 126–127). That Vere's judgment against Billy provoked these disturbances is beyond question. But it is also true that the potential for mutiny was shown to exist among the men both before and after the judgment was announced.

According to Ralph W. Willett, Vere's “fear of mutiny serves to rationalize” his “hasty” judgment that Billy must hang; for, Willett hedgingly asserts, Melville “points out” that the possibility of mutiny “is in no way suggested by the behavior of the Bellipotent's crew.” Attributing Vere's prejudgment to the temporary impairment of his “powers of cerebration,” Willett argues that “The most clearly ironic example” of his “rashness” “begins with Vere's attempt to forestall mutiny by making an example of Billy Budd; this only serves to stimulate discontent among the crew and to make Billy a martyr.”7 There is irony here, to be sure, but “the might-have-been,” as the narrator observes, “is but boggy ground to build on” (p. 57). There was simply no way for Vere, as there is none for us, to be sure how the crew would have acted had Budd not been executed. Though there is no certainty that Billy's hanging prevented a mutiny, Willett begs the question when he concludes that its “only” effect is the ironic one. Furthermore, that Vere's fear of mutiny was not a rationalization but a fundamental concern can be seen as early as midway in Claggart's accusations, even before Billy had been named. Vere is said to have concluded that even “if in view of recent events prompt action should be taken at the first palpable sign of recurring insubordination … not judicious would it be … to keep the idea of lingering disaffection alive by undue forwardness in crediting an informer, even if his own subordinate and charged … with police surveillance of the crew” (p. 93). Thus, too, by reserving judgment about his master-at-arms's report, the Captain early revealed his willingness to deviate from the forms when his crew's steadiness was at issue.

Once again, Vere's fear of mutiny was not self-contained; it related to his more comprehensive desire to maintain full strength in the event of a confrontation with the enemy, which in turn related to his larger concerns for the defense of England and “the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.” Such a confrontation had almost occurred just before Claggart accused Billy, when an enemy frigate was sighted and the Bellipotent gave chase. The fact that this was a frigate is important, because it implies the proximity of a French squadron or fleet, frigates being sent out alone primarily as scouts; as Hayford and Sealts point out, they “formed no part of the line of battle.”8 Then, too, it was while on “a somewhat distant” expedition, the Bellipotent being “almost at her furthest remove from the fleet,” that she unexpectedly sighted the frigate; consequently, there was time in which to encounter enemy battleships before Billy's case could be brought to Vere's superior (p. 90). Neither fanciful nor fanatical, Vere's desire to insure full strength for an enemy engagement was vindicated by the subsequent clash with the Atheist. Indeed, Melville seems to have been doubly willing to vindicate the Captain in this matter by contriving the French line-of-battle ship's defeat. Though Vere lost his life in this fight, like Lord Nelson he had fulfilled his duty to maintain England's security.


Although the possibilities of a mutiny and of a meeting with the enemy were the two critical factors in Vere's decision, his detractors have tended to focus on the first of these and on subsidiary questions relating to his conduct of the trial. Besides his failure to place the case in the admiral's hands, these include Vere's demands for secrecy in the proceedings against Billy; his determination of the irregular make-up of the court; his demand for dispatch in its reaching a verdict; his briefs to the court and virtual usurpation of its role; and, running through each of the others, the question of his mental stability at the time. It is here that examination of Vere's use of the forms most clearly reveals his deliberateness; for in each of these matters except the last—and this turns upon his thinking in the others—Vere clandestinely deviated from the forms or manipulated them to his advantage. And he did so for the same reasons he espoused in adhering to the forms of the Mutiny Act in the final verdict; he had to insure the stability of his men and thence the safety of his nation.

Vere's demands for secrecy, like his other contrivances for assuring his command, commenced immediately after Claggart accused Billy, when the Captain showed “perplexity” chiefly about “how best to act in regard to the informer.” Although at first “he was naturally for summoning that substantiation of his allegations which Claggart said was at hand,” Vere realized that “such a proceedings would result in the matter at once getting abroad, which in the present stage of it, he thought, might undesirably affect the ship's company.” Thus deserting the customary course, which he felt free to do because his crew had as yet no precise expectations, Vere “would first practically test the accuser” by shifting the scene from the “broad quarter-deck” to his cabin and there scrutinizing “the mutually confronting visages” upon the reiteration of Claggart's charge. His fear of publicity even at this early stage seems appropriate, because “the interview's continuance already had attracted observation” from some of the sailors (pp. 96–98).

Vere's desire for secrecy following Claggart's death was consistent with that before it, and from then on he was even more cautious. “Here he may or may not have erred,” the narrator said equivocally; but still it is suggested that this and every subsequent decision had been thoroughly considered: “Until he could decide upon his course, and in each detail; and not only so, but until the concluding measure was upon the point of being enacted, he deemed it advisable, in view of all the circumstances, to guard as much as possible against publicity” (p. 103). Thus, having earlier used Albert, in whose “discretion and fidelity” he had “much confidence,” to retrieve Billy, Vere was so careful as to hide Claggart's body from the hammock-boy's view when he was summoned to send for the surgeon (p. 97). Though Vere's wariness was called into question by the surgeon, it was later seen to have been warranted by the crew's continued curiosity in the affair. For, while “less than an hour and a half had elapsed” between Claggart's disappearance and the announcement of Billy's execution, it “was an interval long enough … to awaken speculations among no few of the ship's company as to what it was that could be detaining in the cabin the master-at-arms and the sailor” (p. 116). Though Vere, also in the cabin during this period, did not witness their curiosity, he was a commander “long versed in everything pertaining to the complicated gun-deck life, which like every other form of life has its secret mines and dubious side, the side popularly disclaimed” (p. 93). While it can be said that there would have been no cause for rumors had Vere proceeded aboveboard throughout, as was customary in capital cases, it cannot be known whether in that event there might not have been cause for mutiny.9

Why Vere hastened to call a drumhead court, like the question of why he demanded dispatch in its reaching a verdict, is answered by his remark near the end of the trial: “‘while thus strangely we prolong proceedings that should be summary—the enemy may be sighted and an engagement result’” (p. 112). Thus keeping his eye on larger responsibilities, Vere deviated from usage; for the surgeon and the court agreed that it would be best to confine Billy, “and in a way dictated by usage,” and wait until the matter could be referred to the admiral (p. 101). In fact, the “case indeed was such that fain would the Bellipotent's captain have deferred taking any [final] action whatever respecting it.” But with the “self-abnegation” of a monk he chose to keep “his vows of allegiance to martial duty.” This statement, suspect in isolation, is translated to mean not that Vere weakly subordinated the claims of his conscience but that he steadfastly attempted to maintain his crew's stability: “Feeling that unless quick action was taken on it, the deed of the foretopman, so soon as it should be known on the gun decks, would tend to awaken any slumbering embers of the Nore among the crew, a sense of the urgency of the case overruled in Captain Vere every other consideration” (p. 104).

There has been less dispute about Vere's determination of the court's irregular make-up, although in selecting the officer of marines to sit with the sea lieutenant and the sailing master he again “perhaps deviated from general custom.” He did so because “he took that soldier to be a judicious person, thoughtful, and not altogether incapable of grappling with a difficult case unprecedented in his prior experience.” Yet even as to him Vere had “some latent misgiving” about the reliability of his “extremely good-natured” character in “a moral dilemma involving aught of the tragic.” Nonetheless, the marine captain seemed to be more suitable as a judge than the other two “honest natures,” for “their intelligence was mostly confined to the matter of active seamanship and the fighting demands of their profession” (pp. 104–105). While they were hardly ideal jurists (Vere regarded them as “well-meaning men not intellectually mature”), in light of their demurrers during the trial—particularly those voiced by the soldier, “the most reluctant to condemn of the members”—it cannot be claimed that Vere had unfairly stacked the court in this departure from custom (pp. 109, 129).

Once the court had been convened, Captain Vere interfered in its role and deliberations in at least four ways. First, though “temporarily sinking his rank” because he was the only witness in the case, he was cautious enough to maintain it “in a matter apparently trivial” by testifying from the ship's elevated side (p. 105). Second, he instructed the court to confine its attention to the blow's consequence, not its provocation or intent. Third, he assumed the role of “coadjutor,” arguing against allegiance to Nature and in behalf of allegiance to the King (p. 110). And, last, he warned against mitigating the sentence. While each interference entailed a violation of due process or a departure from custom, Vere's rationale in each instance, as seen in his reply to the marine captain's inquiry about leniency, returned to his persistent fear of mutiny: “‘consider the consequences of such clemency,’” he said. “‘The people’ (meaning the ship's company) ‘have native sense; most of them are familiar with our naval usage and tradition. … [T]o the people the foretopman's deed … will be plain homicide committed in a flagrant act of mutiny.’” If the well-known penalty does not follow, “‘Will they not revert to the recent outbreak at the Nore?’” (p. 112).

These interferences, together with the concluding warning against clemency, make it obvious that Vere's primary interest was to bring the secret court's verdict into line with public expectations. That this verdict was demanded by “the law of the Mutiny Act” (or so Melville thought) was important to Vere because the law corresponded with and defined his crew's expectations (p. 111). If, having already decided against Billy, the Captain then railroaded his judgment through the court, why did he bother to convene it? One implicit explanation is that, because Vere could not know beforehand how the court would decide, its concurrence was an even wager. More importantly, Vere was “very far” from wishing to monopolize to himself “the perils of moral responsibility.” Hence his motivation for not varying from “usage” in turning “the matter over to a summary court of his own officers” was not self-serving.10 It stemmed from his awareness of the limited “moral” capacity of one man to decide such an issue. Vere knew he was not God. Yet he also knew that he had sole responsibility for any of the crew's actions which might result from a lenient verdict by the court. Thus he reserved “to himself, as the one on whom the ultimate accountability would rest, the right of maintaining a supervision of it, or formally or informally interposing at need” (p. 104). Even Vere's subsequent interferences, then, had been anticipated. He was a deliberate, even a prescient, man. While his calculations, like his justifications, might still be judged “insane,” it cannot be argued that he had lost self-control (p. 102). It is as true of Vere as of Nelson that “in foresight as to the larger issue of an encounter, and anxious preparations for it … few commanders have been so painstakingly circumspect as this same reckless declarer of his person in fight” (pp. 57–58).

Because all proceedings after the announcement of Billy's hanging were necessarily public, Vere felt an even greater need to be circumspect. Accordingly, once Billy had been transferred from the Captain's quarters “without unusual precautions—at least no visible ones,” then “certain unobtrusive measures were taken absolutely to insure” that no one but the chaplain had communication with him. Contrary to the narrator's assertion, however, Vere did not observe “strict adherence to usage” in every public proceeding “growing out of the tragedy,” despite the fact that in no point could usage be deviated from “without begetting undesirable speculations in the ship's company” (pp. 117–118). When Vere ordered the drummer to beat to quarters “at an hour prior to the customary one” in response to the crew's “encroachment” following Billy's burial, the narrator remarks: “That such variance from usage was authorized by an officer like Captain Vere … was evidence of the necessity for unusual action implied in what he deemed to be temporarily the mood of his men” (pp. 127–128). Though Vere risked the consequences of manipulating the forms in public only under the most pressing circumstances, this stratagem shows the power of the forms to have been such that their use was imperative in all dealings with the crew.

“‘With mankind,’” Vere 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” (p. 128).11 It was a mechanically inhuman, unredeemed society which Vere saw, but it was the reality he could not ignore despite his desire to do Billy justice. Vere's statement was an insight of tragic dimension and a lament for the inexorable state of things as they are, not a declaration of personal philosophy. It was not with Vere but with “mankind,” and in particular these men-of-war's men who were “of all men the greatest sticklers for usage,” that the forms were sacrosanct (p. 117). Almost at the moment Claggart fell, Vere, who was “in general a man of rapid decision,” spoke his full comprehension of the paradoxical situation before him: “‘Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!’” (pp. 103, 101). He knew, therefore, that the lyre's forms do indeed “lie.” But he knew, too, that only the forms could “spell-bind” his crew. Unlike Billy and the Bellipotent's other prelapsarian sailors, Vere had partaken of the “questionable apple of knowledge” (p. 52). With him the forms were not “everything.” There were also the otherwise “wild denizens” of the man-of-war world and the inhuman “consequences” of the “disruption of forms going on across the Channel”—the “wars which like a flight of harpies rose shrieking from the din and dust of the fallen Bastille” and the attendant chaos responsible for both the abrogation of the Rights of Man in Billy's impressment and the destruction of Starry Vere (p. 66).

Yet Vere's tragedy was not that he died in service to mankind. His tragedy was that he had to use the inhuman forms of the Mutiny Act in order to attempt to secure more human forms, and not merely in order to conserve the stability of the larger community. A “bachelor,” without wife and child at home to protect, Vere “disinterestedly opposed” the theories of the revolutionary innovators “not alone because they seemed to him insusceptible of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind” (pp. 60, 62–63). Certainly the objective of “world peace” has been invoked to embolden the schemes of tyrant and madman; but, for that very reason, it is not an objective we can afford to live without. Everyone with an objective—whether Claggart, Billy, or Vere; whether Satan, Christ, or God—must use the imperfect means of the world to achieve his end. And this is, I think, the legacy of Melville's tragic, anti-Transcendentalist vision. His portrayal of Vere's dilemma presents the means-and-ends riddle with a vengeance, and our recognition of the riddle in Billy Budd makes it impossible to read this work as Melville's “testament of acceptance.”12 The arbitrary fate of Captain Vere makes us feel the human need for the forms, but the unjust fate of Billy Budd makes us, like Vere, feel the need to change the state of things as they are and so to make more human forms possible.

Following Billy's early morning sea burial, “the circumambient air in the clearness of its serenity was like smooth white marble in the polished block not yet removed from the marble-dealer's yard.” These are the last words of Melville's narrative, save the “three brief chapters” of its “sequel,” and they suggest not an end but the possibility of a new beginning. The day is pure potentiality for those who witness the common fate; the world has begun anew, as it had for the survivors of an earlier Gethsemane. But it can truly begin anew only if the sacrifice of the natural “child-man” awakens us to the recognition that our potential salvation has its price—our debt to the victim and our responsibility to create a world worthy of his sacrifice. The world as it stands, like the book which mirrors it, lacks the “symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction”; it, too, is “less finished than an architectural finial” (p. 128). Most important, it has not been, nor is it meant to be, “accepted” as it is. The marble still lies in waiting; civilized, human form has yet to be realized.


In his travels, Melville had seen people in all corners cutting themselves off from Nature or ruthlessly being cut off from her by civilized man. And what he found in civilization was not sufficiently redeeming to justify the loss without perturbation. This was especially true because civilized man had blithely forgotten the loss in his pursuit of “that manufacturable thing known as respectability.” The “doctrine of man's Fall,” according to the narrator, was “a doctrine now popularly ignored,” even though it implies the death of the Budd in every civilized man. For he observes that “where certain virtues pristine and unadulterate peculiarly characterize anybody in the external uniform of civilization, they will upon scrutiny seem not to be derived from custom or convention, but rather to be out of keeping with these, as if indeed exceptionally transmitted from a period prior to Cain's city and citified man” (pp. 52–53). Still, Melville seems not to be proposing a Rousseauist rejection of civilization. Having made the discovery more than forty years earlier when he wrote Typee, Melville still knew that once a man had bitten of “the questionable apple of knowledge” he could not return to Nature and the time before Cain. Billy Budd suggests that the Fall is a rite of passage as irreversible as it is perilous.

The inadequacy of the chaplain's Christian “consolation,” which he extended to the still prelapsarian Billy awaiting death, seems to imply that in his last years Melville himself could not find consolation in institutionalized Christianity (p. 120). But in a work in which he more than once voiced the expectation that his readers would find the novel's “savor of Holy Writ” disagreeable, it is fitting that Melville's retelling of the Crucifixion story on the historical plane should reveal his support of the essential truth of the complexly tragic and triumphant Christian story as human drama (p. 76). Like Christ, Billy was forced to play his role by the necessities of time and by his awful responsibility to a community which failed to understand, yet unknowingly benefited from, his sacrifice. Melville's “inside narrative” strikes that uneven balance and recalls to us what we were and are, though it foretells nothing about what we shall become. Prophecy is not the function of tragedy. But, having gained the burdensome knowledge of duty, we thus are free to change ourselves and our world. Like all great literature, Billy Budd ends not so much with an answer and an ideological stand as with a question and a challenge to remake the world in a more benevolent image. Unless Billy's sacrifice “vitalizes into acts” the heroic potential of those in whose name the sacrifice is made, as it vitalized Vere's in his fight against the Atheist, then such sacrifice is indeed “vainglory,” as the Benthamites claimed of the death of Nelson; then, too, “affectation and fustian in each more heroic line” of Billy Budd, and our investigations into its meaning are little more than antiquarianism (pp. 57–58).


  1. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., eds., Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) (Chicago, 1962). References are to this edition and appear in the text. Besides Schiffman, “Melville's Final Stage, Irony: A Re-examination of Billy Budd Criticism,” American Literature, XXII (May, 1950), 128–136, see Hayford-Sealts, pp. 26–27 and 203–212, for the other pre-1962 ironist critics; and W. G. Kilbourne, Jr., “Montaigne and Captain Vere,” American Literature, XXXIII (Jan., 1962), 514–517; Ray B. Browne, “Billy Budd: Gospel of Democracy,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, XVII (March, 1963), 321–337; Ralph W. Willett, “Nelson and Vere: Hero and Victim in Billy Budd, Sailor,PMLA, LXXXII (Oct., 1967), 370–376; and Bernard Rosenthal, “Elegy for Jack Chase,” Studies in Romanticism, X (Summer, 1971), 213–229.

  2. Rosenberry, a non-ironist, examines the novel's tone and “ethical logic,” in “The Problem of Billy Budd,PMLA, LXXX (Dec., 1965), 489–498, while Brodtkorb, in “The Definitive Billy Budd: ‘But aren't it all sham?’” PMLA, LXXXII (Dec., 1967), 602–612, argues that virtually “everything is demonstrable,” because the novel is “unfinished.” Rosenthal; Reid, “Old Melville's Fable,” Massachusetts Review, IX (Summer, 1968), 529–546.

  3. Hayford-Sealts, p. 38.

  4. For an earlier treatment of the means-and-ends problem, see Wendell Glick, “Expediency and Absolute Morality in Billy Budd,PMLA, LXVIII (March, 1953), 103–110.

  5. See Hayford-Sealts, pp. 26–30, 181–183.

  6. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York, 1967), p. 105.

  7. Willett, pp. 370–371.

  8. Hayford-Sealts, p. 144.

  9. See C. B. Ives, “Billy Budd and the Articles of War,” American Literature, XXXIV (March, 1962), 36.

  10. In fact, Vere's argument from “usage” in this regard is tenuous. See Hayford-Sealts, pp. 175–176, and Ives, pp. 32–36. Apparently this was Melville's error, as he made a related mistake earlier, when it was said that Vere had been a member of “a court-martial ashore … when a lieutenant” (p. 94). “According to statute,” the editors say, “regular naval courts-martial consisted of commanders and captains” (p. 178). See also pp. 181–182.

  11. A more precise parallel between Vere and Orpheus is suggested by the fact that the mythical poet is known for resolving “a quarrel among the Argonauts (on whose voyage he sailed) that enabled them to reach Colchis strand and the Golden Fleece,” though, unlike Vere, Orpheus achieved control over the ship's company by the eloquence of his poetry. See Thomas H. Cain, “Spenser and the Renaissance Orpheus,” University of Toronto Quarterly, XLI (Fall, 1971), 25. Note also that, according to one of Spenser's sources, civilization originated with Orpheus (p. 27).

  12. E. L. Grant Watson coined this controversial term, in “Melville's Testament of Acceptance,” New England Quarterly, VI (June, 1933), 319–327. See also William Braswell, “Melville's Billy Budd as ‘An Inside Narrative,’” American Literature, XXIX (May, 1957), 133–146; Richard Harter Fogle, “Billy Budd: The Order of the Fall,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, XV (Dec., 1960), 189–205; Brodtkorb; and Reid.

Nathaniel M. Floyd (essay date 1977)

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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 for “a world not without some mantraps?” (p. 70). If we are honest, we may admit that here is a matrix of ambiguous motive and intent, which in the father's absence invites our enlightenment, our shaping, our love. The psychologist shares these fantasies no less than most men. But being something of a voyeur, gratuitous interloper in the bedrooms of biography, history, politics, he comes to this little book as to a keyhole, his heart warmed to the task, his head cocked with a professional bias. But this bias he is likely to announce in advance, as well as a touch of jealousy, not often acknowledged by critics generally, that would claim title to both house and lot—in short that he alone knows the meaning, what was on the muse's mind.

It is this kind of coveting—what R. P. Blackmur called seizing on “separable content” or “tendentiousness”2—that comes through a good deal of the early Billy Budd criticism. Moreover, the temptation to feel at home in the novel is hard to resist. It accommodates all visitors, all turns of mind. Jealous, moralistic, sentimental, as well as erudite and creative, the critic writes his own signature as much as he reads us Melville's hand. Why then do we find a psychologist at the good man's door in Bristol? Simply this: Because a young man has died violently under suspicious circumstances, and the vision of his brief life lies in the morgue of our discontent and asks mutely for an opinion as to the cause of death. Akin to the coroner, or perhaps the pathologist, who, paid by the state nevertheless has his own reasons for following the trade, we do not grasp at once why Budd is dead. The need to know “how it fared with the Handsome Sailor during the year of the Great Mutiny” (p. 128) is compelling, the curiosity being not morbid but redeeming. And so the psychological autopsy.


The post-mortem approach to the study of personality takes as its point of departure the assumption that death is not merely biological cessation but a psychosocial event. The psychological autopsy seeks to establish intentionality in victims, focusing on the extent of the deceased's responsibility or participation in the fact of his own end.3 The present inquest issues from this tradition. Yet it goes a step further to take into account the repertoire of the organism's interactions with his environment. In this sense, the study of any death is properly an inquiry into how life was lived. To this we add an overriding interest in the extent to which circumstance may have conspired with motive to extinguish life short of its full complement of years.

As for its techniques, the psychological autopsy relies heavily if not utterly on the survivors. Its accuracy is to a large extent a function of the credibility of its sources. It calls upon memory to yield up its perishable store, the eyewitness to thresh his germinal fact from fancy and personal opinion. Our recourse for the facts in this study has been overwhelmingly to a single respectable if not unimpeachable source—Herman Melville—who has provided us with “An inside narrative,” the closest thing to an eyewitness account as we have. The facts, then, such as are available to the present inquest, are informed principally by a modified psychoanalytic theory of personality. The use of this theory, focusing to a large extent on intrapsychic determinants of personality, is here liberally supplemented with references to the quality of interpersonal behavior and the effect of significant environmental events.


From the available evidence, a composite profile has been assembled, which approximates the way Billy Budd appeared in the days leading up to his death. A young Englishman of 21, Budd was tall, muscular and lithe, blonde, blue-eyed, and heavily tanned from his life as a sailor. He smiled readily, perhaps a little too eagerly, creating a “dimple in his dyed cheek” (p. 78), and he generally wore an expression of cheerfulness, even in situations not seeming to completely warrant good spirits. But he was far from looking like an ordinary sailor. In the memory of the man who knew him best, Budd summoned up images of the “heroic strong man Hercules” (p. 51) or the “young Achilles” (p. 71). To the more intelligent gentlemen of the quarterdeck, the officers on his last voyage, he often appeared as one exceptionally endowed, a superior personage like the biblical “David” (p. 78) or someone “who might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall” (p. 94). The appearance of strength may well have been the decisive impression if it were not for his striking physical attractiveness. Coupled with “his significant personal beauty” (p. 77) was sometimes the “humane look of reposeful good nature” (p. 51). “Comeliness and power, always attractive in masculine conjunction,” (p. 44) were his overriding observable attributes.

Such an appearance, however pronounced, managed to coexist with conflicting impressions equally strong. His good looks were not so much imposing as “unpretentious” (p. 49), and a “lingering adolescent expression” made him look “even younger than he really was” (p. 50), earning him the nickname “Baby Budd” (p. 44). Complicating his appearance further, Billy struck more than one observer as effeminate. Beneath a seamans's tan and the orange-tawny of the tarbucket, Budd showed both the purity of the lily and flush of the rose (p. 50). “The ear, small and shapely, the arch of the foot, the curve of the mouth and nostril,” were highly “suggestive of a mother eminently favored by Love and the Graces” (p. 51). If at one moment he evoked the image of a nearly supernatural “Apollo with his portmanteau” (p. 48), he evinced at other times qualities unmistakably womanly, like “Fra Angelico's seraphs” with “the faint rosebud complexion of the more beautiful English girls” (p. 121). His fine sculpted features and “smooth face all but feminine in purity of natural complexion” (p. 50) were so radiant that our primary informant was reminded of “a rustic beauty transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the highborn dames of the Court” (p. 50). On still other occasions, more intimately connected with his death, Budd appeared to resemble “the beautiful woman in one of Hawthorne's minor tales” (p. 53; Georgianna in “The Birthmark”), and a “vestal priestess” (p. 99) at the moment of sacrifice.


The implications of such an appearance are rich in ambiguity and uneasy contradiction. The coincidence of childlike, heroic, and effeminate qualities in the same individual resists facile understanding and can be expected to complicate interpersonal relationships. Billy's appearance seems certain to generate ambivalent communications. There are suggestions of a disturbed self-concept and little awareness of how he was perceived by others. If the Handsome Sailor gave out signals of frank physical virility, a vague vulnerability or preciousness was at the same time implicit in the aspect of the man sometimes called “Baby” (p. 70). In all but the most enlightened company, intimations of effeminacy are certain to confuse if not offend. At the outset, then, there are indications of a man whose maturity and sexual identity were far from explicit and whose unconventionality might give rise to alarm in those concerned with order and decorum in a military context.


Billy's past is almost totally unknown. The uncertainty of his parentage, childhood, family and permanent residence shows him to have been ominously exposed, rootless, vulnerable. Of his beginnings he recalled only that he may have been “found in a pretty silk-lined basket” (p. 51) on a doorstep in Bristol. With no known relatives, “his entire family was practically invested in himself” (p. 50). Born a foundling outside the law, his life style “seemed not to be derived from custom or convention, but rather to be … exceptionally transmitted from a period prior to Cain's city and citified man” (p. 53). As an orphan in a city undergoing the pains of industrialization, Billy's caretaking experiences may have been unsatisfactory; early identifications may well have been fleeting, inconsistent, unreliable. The impression is strong that he remembered almost nothing about his early life. At 21, awareness of his past was strangely truncated, foreshortened, suggesting the existence of conflicts requiring massive repression. Past and present were seriously dissociated, incongruent. Although impressed into military service with “groundlings” and drafts of criminals often “culled direct from the jails” (p. 66), “noble descent was as evident in him as in a blood horse” (p. 52). His striking Saxon features, with no foreign admixture, “indicated a lineage in direct contradiction to his lot” (p. 51). The effect of this biographical and developmental discontinuity may well have been to exacerbate the ambiguities involving his appearance and to leave him without the ballast of solid internal object representations in times of stress or emotional uncertainty.


Indications are strong that Budd functioned competently—even creatively—at his sailor's assignments. Rated “able seaman” (p. 49) from the start of his tour of duty, he was more than adequate at his tasks. If his developmental history was obscure, he issued nevertheless from a tradition of athletic and physical prowess, both virile and exquisite in the execution. Like the Handsome Sailor of an earlier day, “close-reefing topsails in a gale … foot in the Flemish horse as stirrup … tugging at the earring as at a bridle,” he resembled nothing so much as “Alexander curbing the fiery Bucephalus” (p. 44). So successful was he at mastering a foretopman's duties that Vere was prompted to think of putting his name in candidacy for captain of the mizzentop. Budd was also capable of settling a score with his fists, as he proved in the terrible drubbing he gave Red Whiskers aboard the Rights-of-Man. But under ordinary circumstances, Billy's pervasive modesty and his “genial happy-go-lucky air” (p. 49) made him popular among the crew. There was “no merrier man in his mess” aboard the man-o-war, and he was “soon at home in the service,” unlike other members of the impressed crew (p. 49). Chief among his virtues was an “irresistible good nature, indicating no mental superiority tending to excite an invidious feeling” (p. 89) in others. With significant exceptions his interpersonal relations were to some extent satisfying. He appears to have participated in a certain camaraderie among the other seamen. Even at dangerous work high above the ship's deck, he was noticeably sociable, participating in an “aerial club” aloft, “lounging at ease against the smaller stun'sails rolled up into cushions, spinning yarns like the lazy gods …” (p. 68). Like other sailors of his kind, he was illiterate but “like the illiterate nightingale was sometimes the composer of his own song” (p. 52). These qualities suggest both an element of spontaneity as well as a certain capacity for sublimated activity.


However, all was not well with the Handsome Sailor. “Though in the hour of elemental uproar or peril he was everything a sailor should be,” Budd was nevertheless subject to “an occasional liability” in the form of an incapacitating stutter (p. 53). This disorder occupies a central place in the present inquiry because it occurs dramatically in the primary organs mediating communication between people. Moreover, this inquiry has no evidence to support the chief informant's opinion that “there was just one thing amiss” (p. 53) in Billy. Billy's vocal hesitancy stood out large and significant as a symbolization of conflicts bearing on larger issues. The role of Budd's stuttering in the events leading up to his death, which will be taken up later, should not distract us here from looking into a more pervasive disturbance contaminating interpersonal relations.

No evidence is at hand to warrant suspecting that Budd's intelligence was not sufficient for the requirements of his station in life. Nonetheless, his capacity for solving problems has been viewed from different perspectives as akin to the “prelapsarian Adam” (unworldly), “an upright barbarian” (untutored), and “a dog of St. Bernard's breed” (unself-conscious) (p. 52). These “innocent” shortcomings, ordinarily amenable to the lessons of experience, continued in Billy unmodified. But if in the ordinary population “innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes … in Billy Budd intelligence, such as it was, had advanced while yet his simplemindedness remained for the most part unaffected” (p. 86). “Endowed with little or no sharpness of faculty” (p. 52) for understanding other people, Budd's “simple courage lacking experience and address, and without any touch of defensive ugliness” (p. 70), left him woefully inadequate to certain subtle situations.

Clearly these emotional and cognitive deficits were a serious handicap in understanding the motives of an individual such as the warship's master-at-arms, Claggart, the man in charge of policing the lower gun decks and ferreting out infractions of naval discipline. What we need to see is that Budd's comprehension of others' behavior was largely uninstructed by his own experience or like motivation in himself. For Billy, Claggart's ambiguous disposition remained impenetrable. When the master-at-arms called him “the sweet and pleasant young fellow” (pp. 71, 73) or provocatively tapped him from behind with his rattan” saying, “Handsome is as handsome did it, too” (p. 72), no inkling of Claggart's dangerous ambivalence registered with Budd: “To deal in double meanings and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to his nature” (p. 49).

Moreover, even after Dansker's oracular pronouncements—“Jemmy Leggs is down on you” (pp. 71, 85)—Billy could not be budged from the naive expectation that Claggart looked fondly on him. He thought of himself as “giving no cause of offense to anybody,” “always alert” (p. 68) and assiduous—in short, a model seaman. But he failed to read the significance of the corporal's “little traps” and “petty persecutions” (p. 79) involving his bag and hammock, an attempted bribery by an afterguardsman in the lee forechains, other equivocal events issuing from the master-at-arms, and a second warning from Dansker. Billy's response to such threats was partially adaptive: he redoubled his attention to details, such as his bag and hammock. But in so doing he shut out of awareness the larger and more ominous threat—the growing antipathy of the master-at-arms. Mechanisms of repression and denial played a large role in his defensive repertoire. His “ineffectual speculations” regarding the source of mischief were “so disturbingly alien to him that he did his best to smother them” (p. 85). Faced with difficulties Billy tended to withdraw: “It never entered his mind that here was a matter (the bribery attempt) which, from its extreme questionableness, it was his duty as a loyal bluejacket to report in the proper quarter” (p. 85). He failed to assert himself in the matter because he suffered from an “organic hesitancy” (p. 53), so called, not limited to the act of speaking but involving a marked inhibition in putting himself forward in moments of consequence. Reporting his experience in the forechains was an act of self-assertion from which Billy shrank. With the help of small rationalizations, a decisive step could be avoided: “And, probably, had such a step been suggested to him, he would have been deterred from taking it by the thought, one of novice magnanimity, that it would savor overmuch of the dirty work of a telltale. He kept the thing to himself” (p. 85). This inaction at so critical a time suggests a disclaimer of anger and a tendency to shunt aside hostile feelings in the interests of maintaining his role as “the sweet and pleasant young fellow.”

Evidence is abundant that Billy controlled disturbing feelings, such as anger and sexuality, by maintaining an accommodating attitude toward those around him, especially those in some authority. Cut off from important impulses in himself, he could not see their counterparts in others. In his exuberance the “cheerful sea Hyperion” neglected to notice Claggart's “meditative and melancholy expression” suffused with a “soft yearning” suddenly darken with malevolent intent: “He thought the master-at-arms acted in a matter rather queer at times. That was all” (p. 58). Billy was likewise oblivious to the growing ill will of two minor officers—the armourer and captain of the hold. “Never did it occur to Billy a thing to be noted or a thing suspicious, though he well knew” (p. 89) these men were close confidants of the master-at-arms. Once in the throes of the summary drumhead proceedings, what initiative Billy might have been capable of taking in his own defense deserted him, and he was overcome with the “dumb expressiveness” of a “dog of generous breed” making a mute appeal to an unresponsive master (p. 108). Oblivious again that Vere alone was carrying the thrust of the case against him, he still looked wistfully toward the captain for direction, assistance, reassurance. Budd's naivete here and elsewhere in the presence of older men indicates a measure of immaturity and passivity that warrants a closer look.


For the cause of Budd's inhibition, bearing so intimately on his own self-interest, we would ordinarily look to fantasies and dreams for underlying motivation. We are dismayed at the outset by the unavailability of explicit fantasy material. What fantasies Billy might have had can only be surmised—guardedly and in the most general way—from what he said and did. As an orphan, Billy may well have experienced normal feelings of anger and resentment at events arising out of his bastardhood and abandonment by both mother and father. It may be useful to consider that Billy's attractiveness was instrumental in securing something resembling the experience of mothering and attachment—perhaps at an orphanage. Billy's qualities that verge on effeminacy suggest a measure of identification with a surrogate mother and the subsequent internalization of certain womanly qualities. But whatever identification with traditional male figures might have been possible, it was apparently inadequate. The missing father remained a fugitive. Unavailing, unresponsive, and wholly unreal, he became a fantasy figure charged with superior wisdom and strength that could withstand an orphan's disappointment and rage. On the basis of Billy's social behavior, we are on good grounds in suspecting considerable fantasy production with a strong compensatory function. Under the transforming power of reaction formation—an important defense for Budd—energy trapped in unexpressed anger was released in a generalized idealization of older men. There can be little doubt that symbolization of the need for fatherly affection took the form of heightened and indiscriminate overvaluation of senior male figures. In this symbolic paradigm, Budd conceived of himself as the good son, providentially blessed, deservedly chosen for a position of personal prominence. The figures of Dansker, Vere, Claggart, and other officials—even minor ones—were treated with an enshrining deference and respect, obliterating crucial distinctions. Billy speculated that he was found at “a good man's door in Bristol” (p. 51), and it is this seminal fantasy of the good man that came to overlay the persons of the Captain and the master-at-arms, so that their real disposition was obscured. His “uncomplaining acquiescence, all but cheerful” (p. 45) at his impressment, hints at a secret satisfaction at being selected for special attention, by any invested authority, with no apparent appreciation of the dangers of military life. “Practically a fatalist” (p. 49), he yielded himself unto secular authority as into the hands of a superior being, with equal compliance. Asked about his beginnings, he could only reply, “God knows, Sir” (p. 51), exercising no responsibility for explaining himself further. When he was called by Albert, the cabin boy, to the Captain's quarters, he went as one girded with expectations of special dispensation: “Wonder if [the Captain] is going to make me his coxswain. I should like that. And may be now he is going to ask the master-at-arms about me” (p. 98). Billy's indiscriminate overvaluation of senior men makes him ignorant that at least five men aboard ship bear him ill will. His heightened respect for Claggart—never appreciated before the final leveling confrontation—needs no elaboration. He is completely unaware of “ambiguous smiles in one or two harder faces among the bluejackets” (p. 51). An overriding fantasy of the older man as protector makes him insensitive to the sentiments of the armourer and captain of the hold, as well as to the unabashed hostility of the pettiest of shipboard authorities, the corporals.

The figure of Dansker was suffused with similar fantasy elaborations. While Dansker's “eccentricities, sometimes bordering on the ursine” (p. 70), were repellent to other seamen, Billy endowed the old Merlin with an aura of spiritual authority. Confusing age with wisdom and charity, he revered the “old salt hero” (p. 70) as a patriarch. Even at the end, Billy's last words—“God bless Captain Vere!” (p. 123)—reflect an unquestioning obedience and deference before an authority wrapped in the mantle of paternal benevolence. Insofar as he saw all such men as the same, as Everyman, it indicates that fantasy mechanisms had abstracted the element common to all men—their manhood or fatherhood—and to this extent they stood for the father, in this case the fugitive father. Finally it is interesting to speculate that the apparent durability of Budd's effeminacy (he had been a sailor since boyhood) in an environment so manifestly inhospitable to it suggests its usefulness in male seduction, that is to secure the father's affections. At the same time Billy's acquiescence may have functioned to stave off a fantasied punishment for his sexuality and repressed anger. It may be useful to understand both effeminacy and passivity as modes of self-punishment that function to control anxiety by pre-empting the anticipated punishment of a significant authority.


We might expect that secret fantasy needs would surface in the quality of moods and emotions. For Budd, these fantasies often allow the flowering of considerable affect. On many occasions Billy's disposition was given over to good spirits, a natural gaiety, and pervasive optimism. A central core of generous good feeling buoyed him along from one day to another. This uncomplaining disposition coincided, however, with emotions less spontaneous and natural, which are not easy to reconcile. A clue to understanding them may lie in his trusting, uncritical cheerfulness that more than once seemed inappropriate to the actual circumstances. There was a mood of childlike compliance toward his impressment, his summary arraignment and trial, and the events leading up to his execution. At the same time, a vulnerability or sensitivity was inherent in this attitude which made him inordinately suggestible, amenable, pliable. He was excessively and uncritically responsive to directions, implied or explicit, demonstrating a marked “incapacity of plumply saying no to an abrupt proposition … not obviously absurd on the face of it, nor obviously unfriendly” (p. 81). Couched in this exaggerated susceptibility to other people's needs and feelings was a tacit acknowledgement of humility in their presence. Billy demonstrated—at the drum-head trial, during his detention in the gun bay before the Captain and the chaplain, and at the moment of execution—an unprotesting passivity lightened by the glow of religious resignation. In this sense, full emotional florescence remained in the bud, immature and uninformed by experience or intellect. Socially and sexually naive, he tended to abdicate responsibility for knowing about motive or impulse in others. Anger was latent and submerged, surfacing only spasmodically and violently in physical confrontations with Red Whiskers and Claggart. With the expression of anger so isolated, there was no ballast of contrary emotion to moderate his airy lightheartedness, no acknowledged pain to awaken the deeper passions. Billy's actions were embued with a shallowness of feeling, rendering him incapable of significant involvement or affection with another person. His overtures to Dansker, motivated by adolescent needs, were for the most part unreciprocated. He passed his life aboard the man-o-war substantially unaffiliated. Awaiting death “in the darbies,” Billy listened to the chaplain “less out of awe or reverence, perhaps, than from a certain natural politeness” (p. 121). If he received the Captain's confession in the gun bay with “a sort of joy” (p. 115), this was not the joy of life lived to the utmost, but the overwrought, highly strung intensity of a martyr on the verge of success. On the basis of this evidence the opinion is here put forward that Billy's gaiety was purchased in part by a renunciation of more disturbing feelings of anger, disappointment, and frustrated desire. Consequently the expression of strong feeling—when it came—was given over to a sudden impulsivity, as in the drubbing of Red Whiskers, jumping up in the launch to bid the Rights-of-Man good-bye, or his precipitous assault on the master-at-arms. The bloom of Billy's cheerfulness, then, may be seen to lie at the converging point of a number of emotional tendencies, including immaturity, suggestibility, superficiality, and impulsiveness.


If affective expression often appeared immature, there may be reason for suspecting inhospitable conditions. There is evidence for hypothesizing in Budd the strenuous operation of taboos against self-assertion, aggression, and sexual impulse. Billy's emotional and sexual naivete indicates areas dominated by repression. Let the structural organization be as a light to the psychodynamic forces. If sexuality issued from the “cavernous sphere” (p. 91) of the lower gun decks where Claggart was king, then superego function was in the ascendant with our aerial foretopman. Impulse renunciation went hand-in-hand with a crippled capacity for sublimated activity. Values and ideals were not the motive power so much as rule and fear. While an appreciation of rules and respect for authority were clearly present, there was a rigidity in the application that reveals a conscience rule-bound, conventional, and inflexible. Thus Billy showed a “heightened alacrity” and “punctiliousness in duty” (p. 68) about infractions of small rules laughable to his shipmates. His loyalty to the Crown was largely a reflex reaction, a simplistic faith uncomplicated by an awareness that the Crown committed clear wrongs, like impressment, in the course of defending the public welfare.

The same concretized operation of superego function was also evident in his inability to refuse the suspicious proposition by the afterguardsman to meet him in the forechains. Inhibited in the major instinctual demands, he was impotent in resisting the little requests and solicitations of people around him. The sway of the superego over the life of the instincts was severe, mitigated only by compensatory interpersonal indulgences. Insofar as the nocturnal proposition in the “oratory” (p. 82) of the lee forechains resembles a displaced sexual transaction, it suggests that Budd's compliance substituted for denied erogenous feelings. He never passed by “the old Agamemnon man without a salutation marked by … respect,” negotiating his way for the most part by deference and accommodation. An overrigid and totally inappropriate fear of being “a telltale” about the bribe episode—that is, having a loose tongue—suggests Billy bowed to a more childlike, literal loyalty rather than to his more abstract duty under martial code. This “erring sense of uninstructed honor” (p. 106) blocked his view of larger issues and the larger, more ominous threat. Lying in irons and condemned to death, he nevertheless received the ministrations of the chaplain in the spirit of “politeness” and was more concerned about Vere's troubled expression than his own impending execution (p. 115). The exercise of conscience was so concrete, so literal, that nothing less than becoming a sacrificial victim—like Isaac—would apparently satisfy “the exacting behest” (p. 115). Conscience in Budd lived in the shadow of an Old Testament god, stunted, conventional, unenlightened.


While conflicts in Billy Budd can be shown to arise out of such psychodynamic and interpersonal sources, we shall have neglected the context of these conflicts if we fail to see that Billy was buffeted by events largely beyond his control. If his difficulties with the master-at-arms had a psychogenic component, significant external contingencies had a precipitating, if not determining, role. Circumstances aboard the man-o-war constituted, in the words of Dansker, “a world not without some mantraps” (p. 70). These circumstances were for Billy perilous, perplexing, unlucky—in short, “a moral emergency,” against which “simple courage lacking experience and address” was for the most part unavailing (p. 70). Beginning with his impressment out of the Right-of-Man, Budd in many ways ceased to be the agent of events and became the victim of circumstance. Aboard the merchant ship he was the “peacemaker” (p. 47), the Captain's favorite hand, “a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy” (p. 47); once aboard the man-o-war he became a “goldfinch popped into a cage” (p. 45), “a good rustic out of his latitude” (p. 53). Coming under the jurisdiction of naval exigencies, he surrendered the essential element of control. Further, the capacity of Billy to invoke love among the merchantman's crew became a crucial liability in the different martial context presided over by the disturbed, unhappy master-at-arms.

The unlucky coincidence of Billy and “the man of sorrows” (p. 88) in the same vessel was made even more aggravated by still another environmental contingency—the unmitigated intimacy of “a great warship fully manned and at sea” (p. 74) on an extended voyage. “There every day … every man comes into contact with almost every other man … [where] to avoid even the sight of an aggravating object one must needs give it Jonah's toss or jump overboard himself” (p. 74). It was this unavoidable proximity, heavy with emotional and fantasy connotations, that drove Claggart to distraction and precipitated the final deadly confrontation. At the same time it cannot be ignored that this intimacy was unusually protracted due to the warship's isolation from the rest of the fleet on a solitary expedition. It was just after the abortive chase of an enemy ship—in the quiet aftermath of pursuit—that hostile intent, temporarily distracted, came to bear on Budd (pp. 90–91). In addition, the circumstance of the ship's isolation was cited by Vere as justification for proceeding with an immediate trial of Budd instead of referring the case to the Admiralty. Finally, Billy's difficulties were greatly exacerbated because of the broader context in which they occurred, the year of “the Great Mutiny” (p. 54), when “on more than one quarter-deck anxiety did exist” and “precautionary vigilance” aboard the warship may have reached alarmist proportions (p. 59). It is within this context of events and personalities that the genesis of circumstances culminating in Billy's death must be understood.


It is now incumbent upon the present inquiry to ask what aspects of personality—impulses, motives, attitudes—may have complied with circumstance to usher in the final paroxysm. The apparently isolated symptomatology dominating Billy's intrapsychic conflicts is “an occasional liability to a vocal defect,” “an organic hesitancy … more or less of a stutter or even worse” (p. 53). This investigation must break with the chief informant on the use of the word organic insofar as the disorder was not structural or inborn but rather occasional; and not randomly occasional but occurring specifically on the occasion of “sudden provocation of strong heart-feeling” (p. 53). This association between the appearance of the disorder and intense moments of arousal places the symptom, in our opinion, among the psychosomatic disorders having emotional or ideational antecedents.

An analysis of the derivation of Billy's stammer discloses, as in slips of the tongue, a dynamic system mediated by conflicting intentions. Between the need for approval and impulses of anger and sexuality seeking expression Billy was caught, “nipped in the vice of fate” (p. 119). Since the expression of aggressive impulses threatened Budd's fantasy paradigm, they had undergone repression. Once provoked by Claggart, they generated enough momentum to appear at the surface as a hybrid florescence—a compromise formation between the need to be silent (and avoid “giving offense”) and the aroused disposition to ventilate long-renounced grievances. As with Freud's early patient, Frau Emmy Von O., Billy seemed caught between the need to cry out and the categorical injunction, “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.”4 The crossed impulses gave rise to a “strange dumb gesturing and gurgling” (p. 98), characteristic perhaps of a regressed preverbal helplessness. A system stabilized in relative equilibrium was, with Claggart's accusation, thrown into precarious imbalance. The resulting rage burst all constraints with a blow to Claggart's head, “quick as a flame from a discharged cannon at night” (p. 99).


Close attention to the evidence reveals no fewer than thirty-five references to the heart as an organ of unusual sensibility between men. In the body it vitalizes all the other functions; in the mind it communicates the deeper passions in the warship's world, which might culminate, despite the general taboo, in the secret expression of intense feeling. So it is that Budd is described as having “a free heart” (p. 49), and “strong heart-feeling” (p. 53) brings on his stammer. Claggart is also a creature of the heart, and thus “in heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption” from the law of reason (p. 76). But Claggart denies his feelings and so is given to utterances that usurp “the face from the heart” (p. 73). “At heart … and secretly,” Jemmy Leggs is “down” on Billy Budd (p. 73). Accusing Billy, Claggart again touches the secret spot: “At heart he resents his impressment,” and “a mantrap may be under the ruddy-tipped daisies” (p. 94). The heart is open and expressive in Lord Denton, Vere's cousin, a “free-hearted fellow” (p. 61) who embraced Vere. In a rare gesture of emotion, Vere “may in end have caught Billy to his heart” (p. 115) when the sailor is lying in the gun bay; and the chaplain, who possesses “the good sense of a good heart” (p. 121), kissed Billy on the cheek. The heart is so liable to spur men to irrational acts that Vere, the disciplinarian, decrees at Billy's trial that “the heart … sometimes the feminine in man … must here be ruled out” (p. 111). The heart, largely suppressed “below decks” in this exclusively male setting, nevertheless beats insistently and swells with cumulative value in the confining intimacy of ship's quarters. When Vere, attempting to reassure Billy in a “fatherly” way, touched “Billy's heart to the quick” (p. 99), he thereby touched the secret, internal “feminine” organ in man and fired the flames of male intimacy. These and other references to the heart, following a similar pattern, resonate and reverberate in the account until the image has become the displaced locus of heightened passion—especially the forbidden passion of homosexuality.

It is useful to see at this point what Blackmur has identified as the dramatic effect attainable by reiteration.5 By means of repetition and rehearsal in different contexts, the heart as a familiar figurative image gathers meanings and momentum until it is loosed with a life of its own and launched in the narrative as symbol, in this case a symbol of denied feminine sensibility. Permissible, perhaps, aboard the more egalitarian Rights-of-Man, it perceived in the warship's world as a grave threat. Insofar as Billy is a creature of the heart and arouses its passions, he touches the secret internal source, poses a threat to order and decorum, and must be executed.


Expressions of the heart and prohibitions of the head were thus in serious conflict in the Handsome Sailor. The fantasy components, issuing from denied feeling and figuring in Budd's conflicted speech, are properly considered here only in the spirit of speculation. However, there are good grounds for postulating a disturbance in the area of oral dependency. The manifestations of this dependency assumed a number of oral configurations. The mouth and throat as the locus of conflict in Budd are crucial: the organs used for speaking are the same for feeding.

Three events foreran the stateroom encounter and in specific ways anticipate the motives that will determine what happened there. All are noteworthy in the informant's memory for imagery bearing strong oral connotations. First, aboard the Rights-of-Man the sailors took to Billy “like hornets to treacle,” and “a virtue went out from him, sugaring the sour ones” (p. 47). Red Whiskers alone resented Billy, calling him the “sweet and pleasant fellow” like Claggart did, and “under pretense of showing Billy just where a sirloin steak was cut … insultingly gave him a dig under the ribs” (p. 47). Second, Billy's frustration in the area of oral dependency is illustrated by the abortive dinner in the mess when a sudden lurch spilled the contents of his soup pan across Claggart's path. Under the powerful attraction of these two figures, a routine meal became the occasion for sexual provocation. The “streaming soup” aroused the master-at-arms, who was “about to ejaculate something hasty,” but Billy was “tickled” by Claggart's attention and accepted his equivocal flattery naively, hungrily: “Handsomely done my lad!” (p. 72). Finally, the sham bribery episode in the middle of the night, smacking of a sexual proposition, ironically took place in the “oratory” of the lee forechains. All the elements of the stateroom showdown—compliance, intimacy, provocation, anger, the stammer, and violence—were prefigured in this cozy “balcony … overhanging the sea,” used by another “Nonconformist” for the uttering of private devotions (p. 82).

A constellation of characteristics, therefore, involving anger, homosexual love, and libidinal pleasure displaced to the mouth were in the ascendant when Billy was called to the Captain's stateroom. The general intimacy of ship life is here dramatically telescoped in the stateroom encounter, and the final confrontation between Budd and Claggart bears the stamp of a violent sexual encounter. Billy entered Vere's chambers expectant only of favors from the captain and a good word from the master-at-arms. At Claggart's accusation, the fantasy of love between men was undone, ushering in a paroxysm of homosexual panic. Fear was in the saddle. In a phantasmagoria of rape imagery, Billy “stood like one impaled and gagged,” while Claggart's eyes performed a mummery of male assault, “gelidly protruding like the alien eyes of certain uncatalogued creatures of the deep” (p. 98). As the assailant moved in with a “serpent fascination” and “the paralyzing lurch of the torpedo fish” (p. 98), Billy was transfixed like a sacrificial virgin “in the first struggle against suffocation” (p. 99). Impaired breathing in the context of Billy's acquiescence strongly suggests that the mouth and throat had succumbed as target organs in a somatic reaction. Finally it is useful to see that Budd's symptomatic stuttering, “on the occasion of strong heart-feeling,” reenacts a fantasy of forcible fellatio at the locus of oral dependency. In an “agony of ineffectual eagerness,” the fiction of love was poisoned, the fantasy of closeness was suffocating. Let Billy's expression carry the sense of it—“an expression … like that of a condemned vestal priestess in the moment of being buried alive” (p. 99).


We are on firm ground in believing that Budd's assault on Claggart was an overreaction for which no rational justification can be found. Certainly Claggart's denunciation was untrue, but why should such an unsubstantiated falsehood threaten Billy to the quick? The answer lies in the seriousness of Claggart's charge—the symbolic meaning of mutiny for Budd. Not literal muting, but mutiny in the sense of a revolt or disturbance below decks that threatened to reveal the extent of repressions: disaffection, hidden sexuality, long-silenced impulses.

In Vere's stateroom, Budd was thus confronted with the threat of disclosures totally incompatible with his own self-image: to whit, that within Billy there were “unspeakable” impulses horribly at variance with the concept of “the sweet and pleasant fellow” he sustained about himself. This inquiry cannot speculate with any precision on the unspeakable in Budd, except for the following. It is wholly reasonable to believe that Budd's anguish and rage were mobilized to the point of manslaughter for the purpose of repelling the denied shadow figure of himself, insofar as this was embodied in Claggart. Moreover, the seriousness of Claggart's threat can be found in what Claggart unconsciously represented for Budd: the fantasy of fatherly affection and the secret of homosexual love. In this sense Claggart represented for Billy the repressed, twisted side of his own personality. Their kinship was profound. Both drew heat if not light from a secret interior flame that neither could acknowledge. If Billy's “face was without the intellectual look of pallid Claggart's, not the less was it lit, like his, from within. … The bonfire in his heart made luminous the rose-tan in his cheek” (p. 77). Both able seaman and petty officer participated in the shared curse of denied homosexuality. In Claggart, this thwarted passion, “like a subterranean fire, was eating its way deeper and deeper in him” (p. 90). In Budd's “fervid heart,” the same kind of passionate “experiences devour … human tissue as secret fire in a ship's hold consumes cotton in the bale” (p. 119). Thus in the “jugglery of circumstances” surrounding the death of Claggart, “innocence and guilt personified in Claggart and Budd in effect changed places” (p. 103). They were closeted in opposing yet identical staterooms, one “a dead-house” and the other death row (p. 105), “each radically sharing in the rarer qualities of our nature” (p. 114). Finally, the fallacious “News from the Mediterranean” (p. 130), in reversing their true roles, confirms their interchangeability with respect to the fatal motivating passions. It is in trying to prevent the disclosure of this passion that Billy's “lurking defect” (p. 98) was triggered.


Symptomatology in Budd has been revealed in the dramatic paroxysm of stuttering, impulsivity, suggestibility, dissociation of early memories, lack of awareness of his own sexually provocative behavior, and a generalized attitude of dependency toward senior men. Although a competent personality core continued to function, regulation of aggressive and sexual urges appeared to be contingent upon securing attention and approval from significant older persons. The hypothesis put forward by this investigation is that these symptoms substantially fulfill the requirements of hysterical neurosis. The typical components of hysteria—somatic symptom or paralysis, amnesia, denial of sexuality, and disorder in the interpersonal expression of emotion—may be inferred, as we have done, from the available evidence. It may be useful to characterize the paralyzed tongue-tie as a sporadic conversion reaction in which anxiety was focused and the locus of displaced impulses came to reside in the primary organs of oral dependency. This symptom—like the constellation of behaviors that make up his passivity—had its origin in conflicting feelings about the permissibility of expressing anger and the regression of sexual impulses to the stage of development dominated by feeding.


The following remarks are added on the threshold of closing, as an afterthought that perhaps should have lighted our way from the start. The impertinence of this inquiry into the death of Billy Budd, as lyrical in the dying as in the living, may only be excused by the need for facts that might enlighten us as to what actually befell our young foretopman in the year of the Great Mutiny. The need for this understanding is great, lest our fate be Pip's, the castaway in Moby Dick, “who saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.”6 Without such an understanding, our hearts would surely catch in our throats, rendering us all but mute, and our reader would be justified in joining Melville in his injunction to an unwelcome kibitzer: “Peace, peace, thou ass of a commentator!”7 But it is only the victim in ourselves that resists the attempt to give form, some measure of form, to the complicity of events, motives, and personalities that brought on the end prematurely for Billy—as well as for Claggart and Vere, all subject to “the lasting tongue-tie” (p. 108) at the tether's end. The whale has run to the end of our line; the time to cut is now, leaving the last words to a poet, these from “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” by W. H. Auden:

One … voice is dumb; over a grave
The household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Sad is Eros, builder of cities,
                                                                                                                                                                          And weeping anarchic Aphrodite.(8)


  1. Herman Melville: Billy Budd, Sailor, eds. Harrison Hayford & Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 51. Future references to this edition will be included parenthetically in the text.

  2. Richard P. Blackmur: “A Critic's Job of Work” in Literary Opinion in America, II, ed. Morton D. Zabel (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 779, 780.

  3. A. D. Weisman & R. Kastenbaum: The Psychological Autopsy, Community Mental Health Journal, Monograph No. 4 (New York: Behavior Publications, Inc., 1973), p. 5.

  4. Sigmund Freud: “Studies in Hysteria” in St. Ed. II, pp. 56–58.

  5. Richard P. Blackmur: Language as Gesture (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1952), pp. 13–16.

  6. Herman Melville: Moby Dick (New York: Random House, 1950), p. 413.

  7. Melville's handwritten comment in the margin of an editor's footnote to Shakespeare, quoted in Hayford and Sealts, p. 133.

  8. W. H. Auden: “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” in Selected Poetry of W. H. Auden (New York: Random House, 1958), p. 58.

Walter L. Reed (essay date 1977)

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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 Mutiny Act, which have brought about the death of Billy Budd?2 Is this not an example of Vere's uncompassionate learning, the pedantic severity indicated by his epithet “Starry Vere”? Indeed, the epithet itself, derived from Marvell's “Upon Appleton House,” seems another example of poetic material misappropriated by the military. And in the last two chapters of the book, the military and the poetic are again juxtaposed, the highly inaccurate account of the killing of Claggart from the naval chronicle, followed by the popular ballad “Billy in the Darbies,” not exactly an accurate picture of Billy as we have come to know him but a less offensive distortion of the facts.

There is, in fact, quite a pervasive parallelism in Billy Budd between the forms of art and the forms of military law. Our initial reaction, that the former are to be preferred to the latter, is certainly reasonable on moral grounds. “Law, as the creation of man, needs the imagination and insight of art so that it is not drawn in such a way as to imprison the human spirit. Law and society need the help of the artist, to the end that we do not forget man's natural humanity.” This is the conclusion Charles Reich draws in his persuasive interpretation of Billy Budd from a legal point of view.3 But on aesthetic grounds this reaction may not be completely satisfactory. By what authority does Vere impose the rigid judgment on Billy, we may ask, and by what authority does the author himself pretend to judge his characters who are purported to have an historically independent existence? In a story so concerned with the problematic nature of the human self, what guarantee is there that the artist's own forms are adequate to represent the mysteries and complexities of Billy's case? Vere may have judged the case preemptorily (“Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang” [p. 101]), but is the author any less prejudiced in the way he presents his hero “The moral nature was seldom out of keeping with the physical make-up” (p. 44)—or his villain, whose iniquity may be mysterious in origin but is as stereotyped as that of a “Radcliffian romance” (p. 74)?

The question of the adequacy of literary form to the elusive nature of “truth” was one that occupied Melville throughout his literary career, and it is not one which can be easily dismissed, our humanitarian impulses notwithstanding. As his famous remarks on Shakespeare show, Melville regarded the artist as a seeker after absolute knowledge and considered the formal work of art less significant than the visionary insight that lay behind it: “In Shakespeare's tomb lies infinitely more than Shakespeare ever wrote.”4 In Billy Budd the “Author”—Melville playing the role of the conventional omniscient author—shows an ambivalence toward the formality of his narrative. “The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact. Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial” (p. 128), the Author admonishes soon after Captain Vere's invocation of Orpheus. Again, a critique of formalism, but a critique which is surely disingenuous in a story where good and evil are so schematically divided between two characters, where important scenes like the scene of the judgment in Captain Vere's cabin are so symmetrically conceived and described.5 In fact, what could be a better “finial” to the story than the last three chapters, giving the three different testimonials to the hero, Captain Vere's enigmatic “Billy Budd, Billy Budd,” followed by the military and then the poetic report? Finally, one notices that even in the Author's pronouncement there is an equivocation: “a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact.”

Thus we find a parallel drawn between two different kinds of form in Billy Budd, and we find that the parallel is not simply a contrast designed to elicit judgment against Captain Vere. The forms of art are clearly better than the forms of military law in many respects, but the difference is not insisted upon—rather the reverse. The thought then arises that Melville may be presenting the parallelism as an equation: the forms of art are no better than the forms of law, there is nothing to choose between them. Kingsley Widmer comes close to this conclusion in his analysis of the numerous “myths” of Billy Budd. “Melville suggests no alternative to his mocking of mythicizing,” he writes, “Myths, heroic, public, or poetic, neither last nor tell the truth. … Melville's multiple sequels of cancelling interpretations but confirm the pessimism.”6 Some support for this position can be gained from considering Melville's earlier career as a novelist.

The problem of finding fictional forms to express the “truth,” metaphysical and moral, was one which had troubled Melville at least from Mardi onward. In Mardi his burgeoning visionary ambitions for the most part outstripped his powers of formal organization. A chapter added late in his voluminous revisions refers ironically to a literary masterpiece which “lacks all cohesion; it is wild, unconnected, all episode,” to which the only reply is, such is the nature of the world.7Redburn and White-Jacket, like Typee and Omoo, were much more modest in scope and relied heavily on the realistic framework of the nautical adventure story, but in Moby-Dick the metaphysical burden of the Romantic artist was again assumed—much more successfully, as all readers have agreed. There is an exuberant plurality of form in Moby-Dick, however—novelistic, dramatic, comic, tragic, forms of realism, of romance, of the tall tale. The encyclopedic diversity of the way the story is told is an index of its epic ambitions. No single mode can capture “the ungraspable phantom of life,” as Ishmael calls it, but every conceivable mode is enlisted in this aim.8 The lack of any symmetry or measured form is a notable feature of the book.

In Pierre, which followed hard on the heels of Moby-Dick, one can see a much greater symmetry and regularity in the way the mysteries of the universe are parcelled out. The twenty-six books of the novel are equally divided, thirteen for Pierre in the country, thirteen for Pierre in the city, and the tone of the novel makes a rather sudden shift from sentimental to satiric exactly halfway through. “The Ambiguities” announced in the subtitle are formally personified in the contrast between the two girls, Lucy and Isabel. There is also a sense in Pierre of Melville using fewer literary models for his narrative than in Moby-Dick; the novel is more easily classified as a combination of Gothic romance and Bildungsroman. After the lesser achievement of the tales of the 1850's and of Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man emerges as a novel still more conventional, in a purely formal sense, and still more symmetrical as well. Here we find Melville quite openly imitating Fielding, particularly Joseph Andrews, and through Fielding, Cervantes and Don Quixote.9 Thus this most bewildering of Melville's major novels is the most formally traditional. It is also the most highly ordered in its symmetries. The first twenty-two chapters present the negative, Old Testament avatars of the Confidence-Man, the last twenty-two present his positive, New Testament incarnation; these are divided, like the Bible picked up by the Apocrypha at the end of the story, by the apocryphal Chapter 23. The elaborately structured Biblical form is a parody of sacred text.

As the formal symmetries of Melville's fiction become more pronounced and ally themselves more closely with literary tradition, the forms themselves lose touch with and despair of the metaphysical truth beyond. In fact, Melville abandoned the art of the novel after The Confidence-Man, not simply out of economic need but out of a crisis in his novelistic imagination, a crisis in which literary form seemed to have no validity in the realm of truth. The Confidence-Man is at once the most tightly structured and the most metaphysically empty of the novels Melville wrote. He seems to have turned from the novel to poetry, as Thomas Hardy was to do later, out of a complete disillusionment with the measured forms of fiction, with their lack of authority in measuring the world beyond.

One might argue that this disillusionment with the forms of fiction is a characteristic feature of the novel, from Don Quixote, with its critique of the chivalric romances, onward. In their customary concern with “the new,” novelists have always distrusted the authority of previous literature and in the venerable tradition of the anti-novel have made this distrust an explicit theme of their works. But where novelists like Fielding, Sterne, and Thackeray could oppose the insubstantial, outmoded conventions of literature to the more substantive conventions of contemporary social life, Melville was much less secure in his sense of the countervailing realities.

Melville's dilemma, in fact, was similar to that of many American authors before and since. As Henry James put it in his study of Hawthorne, the American writer is impoverished in his formal heritage, in the structures of society and culture upon which his imagination can draw.

One might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed, barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches: no great universities nor public schools no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class no Epsom, nor Ascot!10

Of course one can easily argue that James is merely looking at American civilization through European eyes and is deliberately blind to the native forms that do exist. But both Hawthorne and Melville shared something of this sense of cultural inferiority: the forms of civilization, the novel included, were properly European and had been scarcely realized on American soil. It is interesting to consider in this light Melville's characteristic use of the shipboard setting, a social structure more rigid and hierarchical than the democratic vistas of life ashore, as a means of lending formal support to his literary imagination. But Melville was never much interested in society per se. His vision was a Romantic one of nature and the supernatural, and it was these realms primarily that his fictional forms sought to capture, contain, and express. The problem was not simply one of fitting form to content but the discovery beyond art of a structure of reality upon which literary structure could found itself. Since the breakdown of traditional notions of genre at the beginning of the Romantic era, the transcendence of its own conventional limits is what much literature, realistic or symbolistic, has sought.

For earlier Romantics from other national traditions, there was more hope of establishing literature on such externally valid foundations. Goethe's belief in a morphology common to the natural universe and the productions of the human spirit is one example of an ontological basis for form—one which Melville was familiar with but could not accept.11 Wordsworth's more tentative “natural supernaturalism” also envisioned a substantiality and structure in the natural world. For Melville nature was fluid and formless and hostile to man. As far as the supernatural realm was concerned, the obvious source of authoritative form was the typology of the Old and New Testaments. But this, too, was finally inaccessible to Melville, who as Hawthorne said, could neither believe nor be happy in his unbelief. Both the forms of Romantic nature and the forms of Biblical revelation are attacked and undermined in The Confidence-Man, where the bleak conclusion is that one can only have confidence in confidence itself.

A consideration of the ambiguous formalism of Billy Budd in the light of Melville's previous experience as a novelist, and his position as an American author, does suggest that he may be insinuating a reductive equation between the forms of literature and the forms of naval discipline. In The Confidence-Man, indeed, he equates the art of fiction, for the most part, with the confidence man's tricks. But Billy Budd was written long after Melville had abandoned the writing of prose fiction. His refusal to write novels was much longer than his active career as a novelist, and the gradual process by which this last piece of fiction was composed suggests a careful, or cautious, attempt to reconstitute his art. As Hayford and Sealts have shown in their study of the manuscripts, Billy Budd grew from a short poem, a dramatic monologue with a prose headnote, through a series of expanding prose versions in which more and more characters and viewpoints were introduced. “All along, Melville's dramatization had the effect, among others, of dissociating the narrator from commitments he had made or positions that Melville might wish to insinuate without endorsing.”12 Working from the poetic kernel, now the concluding “Billy in the Darbies,” the final form in which the hero is cast, Melville built up a series of competing and often contradictory structures for comprehending the mystery of such a fate. And he took more time over this relatively short novella than he had over any of his longer novels, including Moby-Dick. It would be strange for an author to give so much thought simply to restating a desperate position he had reached some thirty years earlier.

The measuring forms of the Author and the measured forms of Captain Vere may be related in a third way, however. The parallelism may indicate neither strong contrast nor virtual equivalence but instead a symbolic substitution of one type of form for the other. In other words, the military forms adhered to by Captain Vere may be representing—standing in for—the literary forms being advanced by the putative Author of the work. In fact, this last possibility seems to me to be the case. In having to impose the rule of law on Billy Budd's spontaneous nature. Vere is facing problems similar to those Melville had faced in his earlier fiction and that, in the role of the Author of this newly attempted piece, he was facing again, now, because of Vere, at one remove. The burden of formalization is shifted from the Author to Captain Vere, and this shifting is not merely an event in the history of the story's composition but is dramatically enacted in the course of the story as it now exists. As the analysis which follows will show, the Author's attention moves from the relatively simple mystery of Billy's innocence to the deeper mystery of Claggart's villainy to the still more problematic uncertainty over Captain Vere. As his attention shifts the Author becomes increasingly less confident and less explicit in his own representation of the values and motives involved.

Billy is presented first not as an individual but as an example of a type, a stereotype even, “the Handsome Sailor.” The type is described at length before the individual is mentioned; the hero's character is thus prejudged by the form through which it is seen. Furthermore, this prejudgment is laid open to question by the apparent difference between the two examples of it that the Author adduces: first, a “common sailor so intensely black that he needs must have been a native African of the unadulterate blood of Ham—a symmetric figure much above the average height” (p. 43), and then the much less imposing figure of Billy Budd. The Author in fact undermines our faith in his typology even as he introduces Billy. He equivocates: “Such a cynosure, at least in aspect, and something such too in nature, though with important variations made apparent as the story proceeds, was welkin-eyed Billy Budd” (p. 44). The symmetric form of the Handsome Sailor is a questionable fit.

Melville's prose style here is reminiscent of the tortured, enigmatic syntax of The Confidence-Man, but its qualifications and uncertainties are less aggressively obtrusive. There is a lyricism in the style here as well, for example in the phrase “welkin-eyed” which stands in contrast to the abstract, intellectualized diction which precedes it. One can see here again the conflict between literary and legal form as the language moves back and forth between the archaic diction of poetry and romance and the cautious, convoluted expressions of a legal contract. There is a similar vacillation in the way Claggart, the next character to be considered in depth, is presented. On the one hand, the Author seems candidly unsure of Claggart's inner nature; “His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it” (p. 64) he begins, and later, “But for the adequate comprehending of Claggart by a normal nature these hints are insufficient. To pass from a normal nature to him one must cross ‘the deadly space between’” (p. 74). On the one hand he is confident of Claggart's villainy and presents it in the stereotypes of “Radcliffian romance” and the curiously tautological definition of “Natural Depravity: a depravity according to nature,” supposedly from Plato.13 The Author's indecision about Claggart is more pronounced than his indecision about Billy Budd, however. As his attention moves from the character of his hero to the character of his villain, there is an increasing sense of what one critic has called the “omniscient ambiguity” of the story.14

When we come to Captain Vere and his central role in the trial (he has been introduced earlier), the ambiguity and uncertainty of the Author's judgment are more pronounced still. In an earlier phase of the manuscript the only major characters were Billy and Claggart, and when Melville gave Vere the prominence he now enjoys in the story, he did so in a further declaration of the limits of art's measuring forms. Vere is initially introduced in Chapters 6 and 7, but he only becomes important in the action in Chapter 18, where he is more the agent than the object of inquiry, attempting, like the Author before him, to judge the characters of the seaman and the master-at-arms. The Author, in other words, moves his attention from the principals in the case to the judge of those principals and deals with the problem at one remove. After Vere has made his judgment and Billy has been “formally convicted” (p. 114), Vere's character becomes a problem in its own right. Has he acted with any kind of ethical integrity, or has he merely responded in a mechanical and inhuman way? In Chapter 22 the Author limits his formal knowledge to a remarkable extent, as he recounts, by means of conjecture alone, the scene of Vere's last interview with Billy:

Captain Vere in end may have developed the passion sometimes latent under an exterior stoical or indifferent. He was old enough to have been Billy's father. The austere devotee of military duty, letting himself melt back into what remains primeval in our formalized humanity, may in end have caught Billy to his heart, even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest.

(p. 115)

The passage is paradoxical in the way it evokes an intensity of emotion, but does so indirectly, by surmise. The Author imagines a reconciliation that goes beyond formalism—“letting himself melt back into what remains primeval in our formalized humanity”—but is careful not to use the declarative mood. The invocation of Abraham and Isaac, the Biblical type of sacrifice, is a similar case of a form clearly indicated but then held at a distance: “even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up.” Fictional uncertainty infiltrates Biblical authority; the phrase “on the brink of resolutely offering” embodies the tension between decisive judgment and holding back.

Thus the terrible formal judgment which Vere imposes on Billy frees the Author from the exigencies of Melville's earlier artistic ambition, the perhaps impossible desire to achieve a formal artistic “representation” of moral and religious “truth.” Billy Budd is a liberation from the desperate search for a metaphysical mimesis, as Melville dramatizes, in a crude and reduced fashion in Captain Vere, the conflict in his own imagination between a disinterested aesthetic will to form and a committed, ethical and religious will to judgment. One might compare Billy Budd in this respect with Moby-Dick, where Ahab's ethico-religious commitment emerges out of Ishmael's aesthetic disinterest well along in the narrative, but the differences should be noted as well. Where Ishmael's presence is frequently overwhelmed by Ahab's heroics, virtually disappearing from the last thirty chapters of the book, the Author of Billy Budd remains above and in control of Captain Vere. I would also compare Billy Budd with Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, whose extensive use of the Abraham and Isaac story Melville's allusion fleetingly recalls. Both books expose the difference between an author's point of view and a person's act. In Fear and Trembling the narrator's aesthetic view must gradually detach itself from the hero's religious passion and does so in a series of widening speculative circles around Abraham's example.15 But whereas in Kierkegaard the narrative strategy is defensive, the narrator putting his hero at a distance to preserve the mystery of the hero's sacrificial act, in Melville the narrative form is sacrificial itself. We are presented in Billy Budd with a double sacrifice: as Vere sacrifices the claims of nature in Billy, the Author sacrifices the claims of art in Vere.

The Author's sacrifice of literary form is tragic and not merely cynical because it acknowledges the value and dignity of that which is lost. The figure of Orpheus has been reduced, but the power of his spell is not denied or ridiculed. This is the sense we are left with as readers, I think: that Billy Budd is not simply a tragedy of innocence or justice per se but a tragedy of the formality of art, a formality in which content is sacrificed to form, reality to representation, signified to signifier. In his final acceptance of the inevitable fictionality of literature, of its inability to achieve the immanent presence of that which it evokes, Melville looks ahead to more recent critics of Romantic overreaching. “Perhaps all literature lies in this light anaphoric suspension,” Roland Barthes writes in another context, “which at one and the same time designates and keeps silent.”16 But like the other great nineteenth-century writers who explored the tragic rift between the aesthetic and the absolute—Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche— Melville could never be happy in his unbelief.


  1. Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative): Reading and Genetic Text, eds. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 128. All further references to Billy Budd give page numbers in parentheses from this edition.

  2. There is some precedent in Classical literature, however, for associating Orpheus' music with the idea of social order. Aeschylus' lost Bassarides apparently dramatized the conflict between Apollonian and Dionysian elements in the legends of Orpheus, between the idea of order in his music and the idea of ecstasy.

  3. “The Tragedy of Justice in Billy Budd,Yale Review, 56 (1967), 389.

  4. “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” in The Works of Herman Melville, ed. Raymond Weaver (London: Constable and Co., 1924), XIII, 131. The most stimulating discussion of the problematics of Melville's literary form is Edgar Dryden's Melville's Thematics of Form (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968). My understanding of Melville's “ontological heroics” (as Melville puts it) is rather different, as are my interpretations of Billy Budd, but some of Dryden's notions anticipate my own.

  5. See, for example, John Seelye's analysis of this scene in Melville: The Ironic Diagram (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970), pp. 167–168.

  6. “The Perplexed Myths of Melville: Billy Budd,Novel, 2 (1968–69), 35.

  7. See Mardi, eds. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970), p. 597, and Leon Howard's Herman Melville: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951), pp. 127–128.

  8. Moby-Dick, ed. Charles Feidelson, Jr. (New York: Bobs-Merrill, 1964), p. 26. In addition to Dryden's chapter in Melville's Thematics of Form, there is an excellent discussion of this polymorphic quality of Moby-Dick in Richard Brodhead's Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1976), pp. 9–25, 134–162.

  9. The Chapter headings, the role and tone of the “Author,” and the three chapters devoted to reflection on the art of the novel are the most obvious signs of this imitation.

  10. Hawthorne, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1956), p. 34.)

  11. Cf. Melville's letter to Hawthorne of 1 (?) June 1851 where he complains of Goethe's dictum “Live in the all,” in The Letters of Herman Melville, eds. Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1960), pp. 130–31.

  12. “Editors' Introduction,” Billy Budd, Sailor, p. 38. Milton R. Stern's re-editing of Hayford and Sealts' genetic text (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975) tries to give a fuller sense of the indeterminancy of Melville's revisions. But his suggested changes do not affect my reading.

  13. Paul Brodtkorb observes in “The Definitive Billy Budd: ‘But Aren't It All Sham?” PMLA, 82 (1967), 604 n., that this definition is the work of Christian commentators on Plato and that Melville actually heightens the absurdity of his source.

  14. Edward A. Kearns, “Omniscient Ambiguity: The Narrators of Moby-Dick and Billy Budd,Emerson Society Quarterly, 58 (1970), 117–120. Both Kearns and Brodtkorb stress, as I do, the epistemological uncertainty of Billy Budd, Brodtkorb putting the problem in terms of modern phenomenology.

  15. I describe this process at length in my book Meditations on The Hero: A Study of the Romantic Hero in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974), pp. 34–67.

  16. “Le Point Sur Robbe-Grillet?” Essais Critiques (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1964), p. 205 (my translation).

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

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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 (upon whom he may have projected his own failures), seeks justification for that son's suicide and for his own involvement in it, strives to make amends through some form of expiation (reminding us of Hawthorne's Reuben Bourne), and imaginatively reconciles himself with the son. As with O'Neill in Long Day's Journey into Night, Melville in Billy Budd seems “enabled … to face [his] dead at last and write … with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness” (including self-forgiveness).3

We realize that the biographical is only one of many layers of significance in Billy Budd, and do not wish to minimize interpretations of the novella such as those which see it as depicting the clash of innocence and beauty with a world that must either corrupt or kill those virtues. However, the universal often derives from the personal. When Melville tells us that his narration essentially has “less to do with fable than with fact,”4 he may well be hinting that the truth of this story has to do with facts of his own life, not just facts of life aboard a man-of-war or of the Somers case, in which Melville's cousin Guert Gansevoort had been involved. Hayford and Sealts have shown that the poem “Billy in the Darbies” on which Melville was working early in 1886 grew during the next two years to 150 pages by November of 1888 and to 351 manuscript pages by Melville's death in 1891.5 It seems highly plausible, as Robert Penn Warren and Edwin Haviland Miller propose, that the stimulus for reworking the poem and its headnote into a longer prose work could well have been the memories of Malcolm's death revived by Stanwix's death in February 1886; Melville's thoughts, they suggest, were on outliving both his sons, the first a suicide at eighteen, the second, an unaccomplished vagabond, dying of tuberculosis at age thirty-five.6

The first major revision Melville made was to introduce Claggart as diabolus ex machina and to reduce Billy's age to twenty-one, close to Malcolm's, while conversely increasing Billy's innocence. The ingenuous young sailor impressed into military service thus becomes somewhat like Malcolm, who joined the National Guard shortly before his death. At this stage, Billy Budd is essentially a two-character drama, with innocence striking down malignity and ironically being condemned by martial law. During 1888 the story grew another eighty manuscript pages, many of which were devoted to the development of Claggart's character and machinations, to the historical background of the period, and to some development of the Dansker. Here we see the dimensions of evil in a “man-of-war world” which tragically brought the death of young Malcolm. Melville's last changes came in the final year and a half of his life, with his sons dead, his three brothers dead, three of his four sisters dead, and his own health noticeably declining (he had already written his will in June of 1888).7 At this point he developed the crucial and ambiguous role of Captain Vere—thus drawing “the father-son theme into a story where it was not even hinted at in the original form with which he began to work.”8

Several critics have commented on the identification of Melville with Captain Vere. Fogle, for example, notices that “Vere resembles Melville himself, in his reading, in his respect for the lessons of the past, especially in the history of classical antiquity; perhaps in what ordinary men think of as his pedantry.”9 Surely Melville considered himself one of those “phenomenal men” with “a mind resolute to surmount difficulties” (109). Both Melville and Vere “loved books … treating of actual men and events no matter of what era—history, biography, and unconventional writers like Montaigne” (62). Indeed, Hayford and Sealts say that there are a half-dozen references to Montaigne in Melville's writing, and cite two articles dealing with the subject. Also like Vere, Melville abhorred the excesses of the French Revolution and believed that “forms, measured forms, are everything” (62–63, 128). There must be order, and there must be someone responsible for securing it. Again, like Vere, Melville was “allied to the higher nobility” (60), or at least to patricians, through his grandfathers Major Thomas Melville and General Peter Gansevoort, who served prominently in the Revolutionary War. Prevented from indulging “the most secret of all passions, ambition,” Melville, too, “never attained to the fulness of fame” (129) but rather was misunderstood by the public and ended his life as “a hermit, a recluse, in short an alien to his contemporaries.”10

If, as Kate Gansevoort said in a letter to her brother (16 Sept. 1867), “Cousin Herman is … a very strict parent,”11 then he shares that trait with his creation, Captain Vere, whom he describes as “never tolerating an infraction of discipline” and as “a conscientious disciplinarian” (60, 104). Are these perhaps self-reflexive comments of a stern father? F. O. Matthiessen describes Vere as “the wise Father, terribly severe but righteous.”12 Melville's Redburn discovers that “some sea-captains are fathers to their crew; … severe and chastising fathers, fathers whose sense of duty overcomes the sense of love, and who every day, in some sort, play the part of Brutus, who ordered his son away to execution.”13 So with Vere: he is described as using a fatherly tone to Billy (99) and “was old enough to have been Billy's father” (115).14 After Billy's fated blow, the father in Vere, “manifested toward Billy thus far in the scene, was replaced by the military disciplinarian” (100).

If father Melville was incorporated partially in father Vere, so son Malcolm seems part of Billy Budd. In addition to similarities in age, innocence, and recent induction into the military, both are of “noble descent” (52; Malcolm's name, supplied by Melville's sister Augusta, came from Scotch nobility in the family),15 both are genial (Mackie was “always obliging and affectionate”), and in the fathers' later years both sons are “mysteriously gone” (131). Further, it is not difficult to see that when Billy's right arm “shot out” hitting Claggart on the head in response to Vere's “fatherly” words, we have a figuring of Mackie's shot to his own head in response to his father.16 Finally, Billy at the arraignment is compared to a “vestal priestess” (99) who has a “virgin experience of the diabolical incarnate and effective in some men” (119) and who later manifests no spasm (implying sexual spasm as well) when hanged; likewise, Mackie after death is known by his parents to have “had no vices”17 (meaning, he was chaste).

At this point, the Melville/Vere-Malcolm/Billy Budd relationship becomes much more complex. Richard Chase argues that “in symbolic language, Billy Budd is seeking his own castration—seeking to yield up his vitality to an authoritative but kindly father, whom he finds in Captain Vere.”18 Billy's stuttering is at once an eagerness to prove his point and a blocking of communication “exacerbated by the presence of [a paternal figure] against whom the unconscious hostility is most intense.”19 A similar relationship seems to have existed between Melville and his oldest son. On the one hand, Melville's letter to Malcolm of 16 September 1860 indicates he expected obedience and honor from his son,20 and after Malcolm's death, Melville told a friend that Mackie never “in any way ever failed in filialness.”21 On the other hand, according to Henry Murray, the sick and mentally exhausted Melville was a terror to his children.22 Further, Murray says that around the year 1867 Melville had a real obsession about sexual expression before marriage; thus Malcolm's “staying out at night would be something Melville would be inclined to punish.”23 Edwin Shneidman and Alan Sandy conclude that “Malcolm Melville's suicide can be seen as a psychological mirror of his father's adult-life symbolic self-destruction and, further, that it was a guilt- and fear-laden response to his father's obsession with sexual purity; that Melville—if he did not unconsciously wish Malcolm dead—at least wished the sexual and errant part of Malcolm expunged.”24 This ambivalence is akin to that which Henry A. Murray attributes to both Pierre and Melville: “He discovers in due time a radical defect in every person who has appealed to him and begins hating what he has loved, though, unconsciously, he continues loving the object of his hate.”25

Precisely why Mackie shot himself—or under what mental conditions—is difficult to determine. “Suicide often seems to the outsider a supremely motiveless perversity, performed … for reasons which seem trivial or even imperceptible,” says A. Alvarez in his study of suicide. “The real motives which impel a man to take his own life are elsewhere; they belong to the internal world, devious, contradictory, labyrinthine, and mostly out of sight.”26 To observers the perversity may seem as motiveless as Claggart's irrational depravity. The National Guard pistol Mackie kept under his pillow at night may well have been “to defend himself against the punishing father”;27 turned on himself, it may have been both self-punishment and punishment of the father, stemming from “a rather overpowering terror of his father, coupled, not illogically, with a sense of impotent hostility toward him.”28

The father-son theme in Billy Budd is dealt with critically in ways that ostensibly seem opposite each other: Edwin Miller and Richard Chase see the Vere-Billy relationship as Oedipal or pre-Oedipal; Robert Penn Warren connects the father and son with the theme of reconciliation. Both of these aspects become operative when we approach the novel biographically. Melville the “strict parent,” who in childhood had been estranged from his father, understood the psychology of the stern disciplinarian and that of the acquiescent yet threatened son. But out of that understanding, coupled with the enormous guilt and trauma Melville must have felt about the self-destruction of his oldest son, undoubtedly came a great need for justification and reconciliation.

One form of justification Melville seems to have worked out in Billy Budd is an exoneration of Malcolm for his suicide. The narrator in Billy Budd questions whether Billy's death-dealing blow to Claggart's head was intentional or not (99). We are reminded of an earlier blow by Billy with effects more than he intended: “Quick as lightning Billy let fly his arm. I dare say he never meant to do quite as much as he did” (47). After Claggart's death, the officer of marines states, and Vere agrees: “But surely Budd purposed neither mutiny nor homicide” (111). In like manner, Melville undoubtedly wanted to believe Malcolm intended neither insubordination to his father (he “never gave me a disrespectful word,” Melville said)29 nor suicide. Regarding the latter, the initial verdict of the coroner's jury was suicide while “suffering from a temporary aberration of mind”; later, the jury was induced to say “that the death was caused by his own hand … but not that the act was by premeditation or consciously done.”30 An identification with simple Billy Budd, incapable of any plotting, reinforces this lack of premeditation. The repressed Malcolm seems to have cried out with Billy: “I had to say something, and I could only say it with a blow, God help me!” (106). As for the “temporary aberration” attributed to Malcolm, it may well have been like the condition of mind theorized for Vere in one of Melville's last revisions: “Whether Captain Vere … was really the sudden victim of any degree of aberration [in judging that Billy must die], every one must determine for himself by such light as this narrative may afford” (102). By extension, accurate public judgments of the culpability of Malcolm as well as of Herman Melville may depend on the light of the narrative of Billy Budd, Sailor. Newspaper notices of Malcolm's suicide were surely incomplete or misleading, and Melville undoubtedly wished there had been “the maintenance of secrecy in the matter, the confining all knowledge of it for a time to the place where the homicide occurred” (103). If projected as Billy, Malcolm is “a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so” (110); having killed a man, he nevertheless remains an “angel of God” (101) and will be acquitted “at the Last Assizes” (111). Through Billy Budd, Melville has no fear for Malcolm's future. (Although the chaplain could never convert Billy to a dogma, “nor for all that did he fear for his future” [121].) Melville can console himself that as with Billy, Mackie's was a merciful death (Billy's heart “abruptly stopped” [125]); the element killed—the object as well as a cause of death—was the Claggart within. The master-at-arms might well represent the evil inherent in any social system where one individual has life-or-death authority over another, or the inexplicable evil in the world from which Melville tried to shield his son (but which paradoxically he himself contained as well). Having been absolved of guilt (yet still required to die), “without movement, [Billy Budd] lay as in a trance, that adolescent expression previously noted as his taking on something akin to the look of a slumbering child in the cradle” (119). This somewhat ironic death-in-life is reminiscent of Melville's description of Malcolm's life-in-death: “I wish you could have seen him as he lay in his last attitude, the ease of a gentle nature.”31

As Billy-Mackie can be seen as justified in Billy Budd, so is Vere-Melville. Fogle's perception about Vere has application to Melville: “We can confidently exculpate Captain Vere from the guilt that inheres in the code he carries out because he so thoroughly understands its limitations, and so clearly distinguishes between its empirical measures and the absolute values of divine justice.”32 Both men were disciplinarians, but no lovers of authority for mere authority's sake (104); both suffered a “clash of military duty with moral scruple” (110), but were realistic about the practical man-of-war world they lived in; and both saw discipline of the son (actual or implied) as absolutely necessary, even though it was more painful to the father than to the son (115). “For that [martial] law and the rigor of it,” both seem to say, “we are not responsible. Our vowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may operate in any instances, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it” (110–11).

For those who would still attach blame hastily, Melville reminds us of the complexity of our problematical world. Vere and Melville “may or may not have erred” in the treatment of their sons—they are not faultless men—but unless one is privy to the “inside” relationship of the fathers and sons, the likelihood of misunderstanding is high. Indeed, the incorrect or even the opposite may be believed and placed “in human record” (131). Moreover, as Melville queried in 1891, who “can draw the line” between sanity and insanity? (102). Vere's mental disturbance was evident enough to the three officers, Melville's to his family and perhaps to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes;33 but to what degree were their actions “a matter of doom rather than of an easily defined culpable responsibility? … Both Billy and Vere, like Malcolm and Melville, were ‘trapped’ in ‘fate,’ and ‘jammed’ in the ‘strait’—were caught in the kind of dilemma that had always stirred Melville's imagination.”34 Or if fate and doom do not sufficiently exculpate Melville, his wrongdoing toward Malcolm may have stemmed from an innate and uncontrollable “mystery of iniquity.”

In the last chapters and concluding poem of Billy Budd, Melville focuses on Billy's acceptance of death (with some ironic counterpoint) and especially on the power of expiation. If Melville nearing death looked more and more into his past, surely he would have sought some form of reconciliation with his son Malcolm—and not only reconciliation, but forgiveness. As Vere has a “closeted interview” with Billy, so Melville seems to have a retrospective ghostly interview with Malcolm in which he finally communicates clearly with his son, “revealing his actuating motives,” and in which Malcolm in turn absolves his father. “It is not improbable that such a confession would have been received in much the same spirit that prompted it.” In the spirit of mutual reconciliation, “two of great Nature's nobler order embrace” even as “Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest” (115). For his part, Melville-Vere is confessional and penitential—producing “something healing” in the son (119); for his part, Malcolm-Billy is forgiving. He accepts that in this imperfect world, expedience and order (“measured forms”) sometimes dictate the sacrifice of an innocent Adam-Isaac-Christ figure. “God will bless you for that, your honor” (106), Billy had said earlier; and at death he reaffirms, “God bless Captain Vere!” (123). The profound depth of Melville's feelings toward his son seems to parallel the response of the sailors: “At that instant Billy alone must have been in their hearts, even as in their eyes” (123). Soon after this elegiac at-one-ment between Vere and Billy, the older man dies without remorse. (His last words, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd,” were “not the accents of remorse” [129].) By extension, Melville's narration in Billy Budd seems equally purposed to bring peace before death.

As readers, we sense Melville's enormous emotional commitment in Billy Budd, Sailor. Says Newton Arvin, “Everyone has felt it to be the work of a man on the last verge of mortal existence who wishes to take his departure with a word of acceptance and reconciliation on his lips.”35 Simon O. Lesser also finds that “at the deepest level” the novel is “a legend of reconciliation between an erring son and a stern but loving father-figure.”36 Surely the dimensions of this perception are increased if we infer that near death himself, Herman Melville with “a finer spiritual insight” (75) faced his son Malcolm at last.


  1. Billy Budd: The Order of the Fall,” NCF, 15 (1960), 189.

  2. Richard Chase, ed., Selected Tales and Poems by Herman Melville (New York: Holt, 1950), p. xiv.

  3. Eugene O'Neill, Long Day's Journey into Night (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1955), Dedication.

  4. Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 128. Subsequent page references to Billy Budd in our article refer to this edition and appear parenthetically in our text.

  5. Introduction to Billy Budd, Sailor, p. 2.

  6. Warren, Introduction to Selected Poems of Herman Melville (New York: Random House, 1970), pp. 60–61; Miller, Melville (New York: George Braziller, 1975), p. 358.

  7. Merton M. Sealts, Jr., The Early Lives of Melville (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1974), p. 262.

  8. Warren, p. 79. It should be noted that the Dansker also plays a father to Billy and also fails him.

  9. Fogle, p. 194.

  10. Sealts, Early Lives, p. 81. For a thorough discussion of Melville's various attitudes toward fame, see pp. 3–5 and 79–82. For example, Sealts notes that “in reading Schopenhauer during 1891 Melville came across and checked a remark by Tacitus that he may well have applied to himself: ‘The lust of fame is the last that a wise man shakes off’” (p. 80).

  11. Jay Leyda, The Melville Log, 2 vols. (New York: Gordian Press, 1969), II, 691.

  12. American Renaissance (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1941), p. 510.

  13. Redburn (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and the Newberry Library, 1969), p. 67.

  14. Richard Chase, Herman Melville: A Critical Study (New York: Macmillan, 1949), p. 262, speculates that Melville meant to suggest that Vere is Billy's biological father. More likely, though, is Warren's reading (Introd. to Poems, p. 60): “It is true that the blood relationship is not positively stated in the story. Thematically, however, it is not important that the relationship be biological. Spiritually and morally, it is there beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

  15. Raymond Weaver, Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic (New York: Pageant Book, 1960), pp. 272–73.

  16. This event and its background are detailed by Leyda, II, 687–71; Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1953), pp. 207–8; and Leon Howard, Herman Melville (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1951), p. 285: Malcolm had gone to work in a relative's insurance office when he was seventeen. His father at the time was unemployed and had published no prose for ten years, not since the disastrously received Confidence-Man in 1857. Too young to have taken part in the Civil War, Mackie joined the National Guard and took great pride in his uniform and side arm, to the extent that his sisters teased him constantly. He even kept his pistol under his pillow at night and was cautioned by his friends to be more careful with it. When Malcolm took to staying out late at night, Melville disciplined him by taking his key away and locking the house door at eleven. On the evening of 10 September 1867, Mackie stayed out until 3:00 a.m., and his mother, who waited up for him, let him in. The next morning, he answered his sisters' calls but did not come to breakfast. Melville, having finally found regular employment at the age of forty-seven as a Customs Inspector, told Elizabeth to let the boy stay in bed and face his employer and the consequences when he arose, then went to work. No one saw or heard of Mackie during the day, and Elizabeth was alarmed, but the door was locked. Melville on his return, forced it open and found Mackie dead, pistol in hand, bullet hole in his right temple.

  17. Leyda, II, 687, quotes a letter of 12 September 1867 from Samuel Shaw to his mother: Malcolm “has also been out late at night recently, so much so that his father took away his night key from him and both his parents have talked very seriously about it but they both say that they believe that there was nothing in his dissipation more than a fondness for social frolicking with his young friends, and acquaintances that he made down town. They know he had no vices.”

  18. Chase, Herman Melville, p. 269.

  19. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytical Theory of Neuroses (New York: W. W. Norton, 1945), pp. 312–13.

  20. The Letters of Herman Melville, ed. Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1960), p. 203: “I hope that you have been obedient to your mother, and helped her all you could, & saved her trouble. Now is the time to show what you are—whether you are a good, honorable boy, or a good-for nothing one.”

  21. Melville to John Chipman Hoadley, between 12 and 18 Sept. 1867, Letters, p. 228.

  22. Quoted by Edwin S. Shneidman, “Some Psychological Reflections on the Death of Malcolm Melville,” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 6 (1976), 237. As for Melville's being sick and mentally exhausted, Elizabeth Shaw Melville in her brief biography (Sealts, Early Lives, p. 169) recounts Melville's problems in the latter 1850's with rheumatism, sciatica, and “crick in the back”—so severe that “he never regained his former vigor & strength.” Joseph E. A. Smith, editor of the Berkshire County Eagle, tells of Melville's fall from his box wagon in 1862 which had something to do with Melville's leaving Pittsfield “and also with other changes in his life” (Early Lives, p. 136). Metcalf notes Melville's “state of mental exhaustion” in 1852 (p. 136), traces his other health problems, and says that in 1865 he was “a man in poor health, lacking a means of earning a livelihood, brooding on the sorrows of his divided country” (p. 203).

  23. Quoted by Edwin Shneidman and Alan Sandy, “A Psychological Autopsy of Malcolm Melville's Death,” an unpublished paper honoring Henry Murray and presented at the convention of the American Psychological Association, Montreal, Canada, 27 Aug. 1973, p. 9.

  24. Shneidman and Sandy, p. 8.

  25. Murray, Introduction to Pierre (New York: Hendricks House, 1949), p. xv.

  26. The Savage God (New York: Random House, 1972), pp. 88–89.

  27. Murray, quoted by Shneidman, p. 237 (see note 22 above).

  28. Shneidman, “Some Psychological Reflections on the Death of Malcolm Melville,” Extracts (Melville Society), No. 25 (Feb. 1976), p. 4.

  29. Letters, p. 228.

  30. Howard, p. 285.

  31. Letters, p. 228.

  32. Fogle, p. 199.

  33. See Merton M. Sealts, “Herman Melville's ‘I and My Chimney,’” American Literature, 13 (1941), 142–54. More recently, Walter D. Kring and Jonathan S. Carey have published “Two Discoveries Concerning Herman Melville” in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 87 (1975), 137–41: a letter from Samuel S. Shaw, Melville's brother-in-law, and one from Elizabeth Shaw Melville that indicate the serious condition of Melville's mind in May 1867. According to Shaw, Mrs. Melville was convinced “that her husband is insane” and seriously considered a separation from him; in her letter, Elizabeth Melville spoke of the trials and griefs associated with her marital situation.

  34. Warren, p. 61.

  35. Herman Melville (New York: William Sloan, 1950), p. 292.

  36. Fiction and the Unconscious (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p. 92.

Tyrus Hillway (essay date 1979)

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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 stress provides one of the proofs of his humanity. Claggart, evil as he is, possesses the necessary attributes of an earth creature; he rings true. Most carefully drawn of all the portraits in the book is that of Captain Vere. More thoughtful and high-minded than the usual commander of a warship, he typifies the well-educated English gentleman, worldly and brave—only perhaps a trifle thinner-blooded than most of his breed. Because of his known devotion to principle he receives from his brother officers the appelation of “Starry” Vere.

By making this noble captain the fulcrum upon which the plot is balanced, Melville proves that in Billy Budd he was concerned with far more than spinning a good yarn. The action hinges not upon the circumstances of Billy's crime nor upon his martyrdom, vital as these matters are. The factor of primary interest and moment—or, as noted, the climax of the plot (all other incidents and details occupy positions of secondary significance)—is Vere's decision in Billy's trial and his reasons for it. This revealing element in the structure of Billy Budd marks it as the work not of a purely emotional but of a thinking writer. Melville was less interested in the tragedy of Billy's hanging than in the principle behind it and its effect upon the participants—that is, all humanity. Vere makes his choice between the “chronological time” of absolute justice and the “horological time” of worldly necessity. He chooses the latter to achieve what he believes to be the larger good; yet he recognizes in Billy's condemnation a symbolical sacrifice: the victim suffers for and atones, Christ-like, for the sins of every man. Having presided at the ritual, Vere never fully recovers from the horror of having had such a decision forced upon him. He accepts, as Melville implies all human beings must, his responsibility as the agent of the sacrifice and as a partner in the definition of the crime, but he dies with Billy's name on his lips.

Billy Budd cannot justifiably be read as a document advocating direct social reform—in fact, except for its tragic view of the man-of-warishness of the world in general, it is not even a book against war. Some of Melville's earlier works contain arguments relating to specific social evils, but it would be a mistake to think of this aspect of his work as having major importance. Always more interested in metaphysics than in practical ethics or social theory, Melville probed the nature of individual man and his spiritual relationships—and not so much his relationships with other men as with the grand scheme of the universe. He examined internals rather than externals. True, he specifically condemned such abuses as naval flogging (at a time when many other voices were also being raised against it), but such matters were largely incidental to his main concerns. He rarely took a stand on political questions; but, like Emerson and Thoreau, he disavowed the patriotic fervor of “manifest destiny” that pushed the nation into the Mexican War and other similar acts of expansionism. In Mardi, although only in passing, he went so far as to caution his countrymen that the republican form of government requires careful judgment on the part of all citizens and that freedom wrongly employed can degenerate into mere license and mob rule. (To interpret his criticism of Jacksonian democracy and the thoughtless enthusiasm of the material-minded expansionists of his day as advocacy of socialism is, however, to ignore the total pattern of Melville's thought.) He abhorred slavery but was not an abolitionist. He preached brotherhood and yet found mankind in the mass wrongheaded, corrupt, and hardly worth saving.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Melville's most serious writings failed in their purpose when they were first published was his unwillingness to crusade for any cause but intellectual honesty. “Try to get a living by the Truth—and go to the Soup Societies. Heavens! Let any clergyman try to preach the Truth from its very stronghold, the pulpit, and they would ride him out of his church on his own pulpit bannister.”1 Like Hawthorne, to whom the remarks above were addressed, Melville distrusted the social and political movements that occupied (and still occupy) so large a place in American life; he believed that the seeds of good and evil are not inherent in a particular social organization or creed but lie harbored in the human heart.2

So far as the controversy between religion and science is concerned, although it raged publicly throughout Europe and America all during the nineteenth century, Melville took no strong stand on one side or the other in his published works. He was aware, of course, that numerous discoveries in geology, zoology, and the other new sciences of the time had thrown serious doubt upon the biblical story of creation and many other beliefs inherited from the past and cherished as part of religious tradition. While fundamentalist churchmen—firmly relying upon every statement in both the Old and the New Testament as literal truth—proclaimed the earth to be (according to Hebrew chronology) something like six thousand years old, busy scientists produced startling evidence of life on earth going back not merely thousands but millions of years into the past. Such evidence naturally raised questions regarding all religious teaching; for if a single part of a reputedly infallible authority proves to be wrong, how can anyone believe the rest?

The problem of biblical authenticity, of so little interest in the twentieth century, when religion and science have come to terms and coexist peacefully, roused a painful upheaval in the minds of thoughtful men a century ago. Most of them, like Evert Duyckinck, played safe by holding to what was conventional and generally ignoring the heresies of science. Others, like Hawthorne, escaped the agony of choice because they never fathomed the important role of science in modern thought. A few, like Melville's Margoth in Clarel, rudely thrust aside religion along with romanticism and set about fashioning with ruthless efficiency a scientific image of the world without God. To Melville this atheistic image looked like a cadaver, meticulously accurate in its details but wholly lacking warm breath and a pulsing heart. He could not help admiring science for its penetrating analysis and its practical accomplishments, but he sided with Carlyle in fearing it as a power that would mechanize human life and bewitch and entrap man with its computing skill just as the priesthood had bewitched and entrapped him with mystery.3

If Melville ever had any hope that science might one day supply the answers to the main spiritual questions of the universe, he ended by laying this hope aside. Science, he decided, dug with great skill into the complexities of life's outer mechanism, but it failed in its attempts to shed light on what makes the machinery run. For the solution of spiritual problems, thought must move on a spiritual plane. On the other hand, for Melville the religion of his time had abdicated its position of trust and was battling science for nothing more than the power to control men's mundane lives. The churches, camouflaged with false and useless dogma, doled out religion as a tranquilizer.

Melville's ultimate intellectual state may be described as a tentatively optimistic skepticism. He saw that man is capable of envisioning an ideal without achieving its realization. Though in a man-of-war society spiritual and ethical perfection remains unattainable, it is yet worthy of aspiration. Every thoughtful man's life constitutes a record of compromise between absolute good and worldly necessity. While resigned philosophically to the need for such a compromise, Melville could never admit, even in the mood of acceptance exhibited in Billy Budd, that the worldly “horologicals”—humanity's established standards of justice, truth, and virtue—are wholly right.


  1. Letters, p. 127.

  2. Note Melville's wholehearted praise of Hawthorne's fable, “Earth's Holocaust,” in the famous review entitled “Hawthorne and His Mosses.”

  3. See the chapter on “Symbols” (bk. 3, chap. 3) in Sartor Resartus.

Terence J. Matheson (essay date 1980)

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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 a reader cannot help but wonder if Melville has not tried to prevent us from seeing Claggart as personally responsible for the events which culminate in Billy's execution. We do know that Claggart is “secretly down on”4 Billy and has commissioned Squeak, “one of his more cunning corporals,” to lay “little traps for the worriment of the foretopman” (BB, 79). We are also informed that Squeak has lied to Claggart about Billy, the corporal having “made it his business, faithful understrapper that he was, to foment the ill blood by perverting to his chief certain innocent frolics of the good-natured foretopman, besides inventing for his mouth sundry contumelious epithets he claimed to have overheard him let fall.” Significantly, Claggart “never suspected the veracity of these reports … for he well knew how secretly unpopular may become a master-at-arms …” (BB, 79).

But beyond this there is little information which can be considered unambiguous. When Billy is bribed, much is made of his initial inability to recognize the mysterious “somebody” who rouses him. They meet in a “retired nook” on a night where “There was no moon as yet”; thus he “could not distinctly see the stranger's face.” Although we do learn Billy has taken him, “and correctly, for one of the afterguard” (BB, 82), we do not learn which of the afterguard he may be.5

The mysterious stranger is generally thought to be “the minion of Claggart”6 who, as a result of Claggart's threat or bribe, is attempting to bribe Billy in turn into joining a presumably non-existent mutiny plot. But we can cull nothing from the stranger's words proving this to be the case. The afterguardsman speaks only of their mutual impressment, observes there is “‘a gang’” of impressed men aboard the ship, and concludes with a vaguely worded appeal for “‘help—at a pinch.’” Billy has no idea what the man wishes of him, for he asks “‘What do you mean?’” The man then holds up “two small objects faintly twinkling in the nightlight.” He tells him “‘they are yours’” and is on the verge of stating what he wants in return, saying “‘if you'll only—,’” at which point Billy interrupts him and tells him to be off, still unaware of the man's true purpose. Billy again admits to ignorance, stating “‘I don't know what you are d-d-driving at, or what you mean, but you had better g-g-go where you belong!’” Little wonder the afterguardsman seems “confounded” or surprised by Billy's reply; he has said nothing as yet to provoke such a rebuke, and in fact leaves only when Billy threatens to “‘toss [him] back over the rail’” (BB, 82).

It does not take much effort to see the appeal made by the afterguardsman as something not necessarily involving evil at all. For that matter, there is information elsewhere which suggests he may well be sincere. Early in the book, Billy had witnessed the flogging of “a little fellow, young, a novice afterguardsman absent from his assigned post when the ship was being put about …” (BB, 68). Could the two be one and the same? Melville may be giving us information here which points in a direction other than that usually taken, to suggest Billy is not being framed at all. For all Billy knows (to say nothing of ourselves), the man could have been the victim of the flogging. But even if he were not, life as an afterguardsman was far from enviable. The Oxford Dictionary informs us that afterguardsmen were “generally composed of ordinary seamen and landsmen, constituting, with waisters, the largest part of the crew, on whom the principal drudgery of the ship devolved,” in short, the most likely of the ship's company to be treated brutally because they were often unskilled, impressed men and, one suspects, were accordingly regarded as expendable. Significantly, all the man asks Billy for is “help”; the precise nature of the aid requested is left unclear. He could easily (and understandably) be thinking of escape, or, of forming, with popular Billy as spokesman, a grievance committee. Writing of the Spithead mutiny, William James observes that it began as a grievance committee and comments that, as the “complaints of the Portsmouth [i.e., Spithead] mutineers” were “for the most part, founded on justice, the sympathy of the nation went with them. …”7 Melville's knowledge of this mutiny and his references to it in the novel suggest he did not regard all mutinies as unequivocal evils. This, combined with his many reminders of the sordid ship-board conditions of sailors generally, conditions with which he was well acquainted both personally and through his reading, indicates he might well be sympathetic with the position of the afterguardsman and does not mean us to conclude the man intends “evil of some sort,” as Billy infers.

The following afternoon, Billy thinks he recognizes the man who approached him. Notably, the sailor is friendly and cheerful with him, “the last man in the world, one would think, to be overburdened with thoughts, especially those perilous thoughts that must needs belong to a conspirator in any serious project, or even to the underling of such a conspirator” (BB, 84). Either the man is the most cunning of dissemblers, or he simply feels no guilt because he has neither been a part of, nor has even contemplated, an act he would consider morally wrong. Surely if the man had been attempting to frame Billy, he would seek to avoid him rather than go out of his way to be friendly.8

In spite of all this, critics persist in assuming Billy's mysterious encounter represents something underhanded, generally for the following reasons. First, since we know Claggart has laid little traps for Billy in the past, the above scene, it seems logically to follow, is simply an elaboration of his overall plan to destroy him. Secondly, we are told Billy “instinctively knew [the encounter] must involve evil of some sort” (BB, 84). Last is the Dansker's assessment of the situation, that “‘Jemmy Legs is down on’” Billy, the afterguardsman in question acting as Claggart's “‘cats-paw’” (BB, 85). But none of the above arguments holds up to close scrutiny. First, that Claggart hates Billy and has attempted to get him into petty trouble in the past does not necessarily prove he would attempt to implicate him in a situation of this magnitude. As will be seen below, it is extremely unlikely that he could successfully orchestrate such a fabrication, or that he would even want to do so. Secondly, Billy's feeling that the encounter “must” involve evil is no guarantee it does. Despite all critics have said in praise of Billy's goodness and innocence, we are repeatedly reminded by Melville that Billy's “apprehension as to aught outside of the honest and natural was seldom very quick” (BB, 81). Billy, the “child-man,” possesses a child's “simple-mindedness,” his innocence being “but … blank ignorance …” (BB, 86). We have been given no license to assume automatically that whenever Billy stutters it indicates he is confronted by evil “of some sort.” Indeed, examination of those scenes where he loses his powers of speech reveals he stutters whenever he is confronted, not necessarily with evil, but with a situation the nature of which he simply fails to understand. Anything not admitting to ready resolution, anything involving elements of the complex, subtle or sophisticated, will bring about the impediment. In describing Billy's affliction, Melville says only that “under provocation of strong heart-feeling his voice … was apt to develop an organic hesitancy” and goes on to label it “an imperfection in the Handsome Sailor” (BB, 53). This latter comment is important, for it establishes Billy in our eyes as a fallible human being rather than a conventionally-flawless hero from, to use Melville's word, a “romance.” The use of the term “imperfection” seems also designed to prevent us from reading too much into Billy's reactions, seeing them, for example, as signs of his intuitive capacity to discern evil.

Indeed, Billy is if anything morally obtuse, as best seen in his lack of reaction to certain events which we would term evil or unjust. For example, though Melville appears to have acknowledged grudgingly that impressment was a necessary evil, given the times, he obviously regarded it as a gross violation of human rights, as evident in Billy's enforced removal from the aptly-named Rights-of-Man. Billy, however, reacts to the situation with nary a stammer, seemingly oblivious to the injustice involved. He “made no demur” and accepts his impressment with “uncomplaining acquiescence, all but cheerful” (BB, 45). Later, although frightened by the flogging he witnesses, Billy seems similarly unaware there might be anything evil in the perpetration of such an atrocity. Finally, he accepts the questionable verdict of the drumhead court—about whose arbitrariness there can be little doubt—with an equanimity the reader can hardly fail to see as anything other than incredible, not because he sees the sentence as just (the court, Vere, and the entire crew are all aware it is not, at least in an absolute sense, no matter how expedient or necessary it may be), but because the straightforwardness of the verdict is something he, in his simplemindedness, can comprehend.9 Surely, if Billy were meant to be viewed as a moral barometer, one would logically expect his reactions generally to parallel those of author and reader alike. Impressment and other incidents of human brutality are plainly occurrences which we have no difficulty responding to with outrage. But in Billy's case, his failure to respond in a morally appropriate way to any of the above atrocities casts grave doubt on his sensitivity and makes his reaction to the afterguardsman equally open to question.

Finally, we have only the Dansker's word for it that the man was forced into his role by the evil Claggart. The Dansker is commonly regarded as a “shrewd and experienced old man”10 (one critic goes so far as to call him “the Teiresias of the British navy”11) who alone sees what Claggart is attempting. But, were the Dansker meant by Melville to represent an unquestionable source of truth, why would he have taken such pains to qualify his portrayal of him with an extensive use of symbolically dubious characteristics? We are told, for example, he is “scarred,” “wizened,” and has “small weasel eyes” (BB, 69), qualities normally suggestive of negative bias, if anything. We also learn that the sapience he possesses is “primitive,” that he “slyly” studies Billy, and that though something of a “sea Chiron,” he possesses a “pithy guarded cynicism that was his leading characteristic.” This cynicism may well be the result of his having been “subordinated lifelong to the will of superiors” (BB, 71), a factor one would not expect to develop his capacity for objectivity and fairness when a master-at-arms was concerned. It is plain his accusation of Claggart (a man we would expect him to dislike instinctively) is made on the basis of very little, if any, hard evidence. That he lapses into “grim silence” when pressed by Billy for corroborative proof could easily indicate he has none. Furthermore, he seems to be a man given more to the gestures and mannerisms of “the wise old sailor” than anything else; the oracular impression he projects could be misleading. Finally, his correct identification of Claggart as the man behind the messing-up of Billy's gear does not mean he has again discerned the truth. Indeed, from all he says, he seems for his part to be as “down on” Claggart as he claims Claggart is on Billy. Plainly, though he may impress the naive Billy, his conclusions need not convince us he has even come close to solving the riddle.

There are many other, more compelling reasons for suspecting Claggart was not personally behind Billy's encounter with the afterguardsman. When one looks at the entire matter realistically, it does not seem likely that Claggart could coerce anyone into implicating himself in a plot to frame a fellow-sailor under these conditions. No threat would carry much weight when set against the penalty for plotting mutiny; a bribe of a few guineas would also be inadequate in light of the risks the sailor was being asked to take. When the plot was exposed and the accomplice brought before a martial court, only one of two results could occur, both of which would have disastrous consequences for the accomplice concerned. If Vere (or a martial court) believed Claggart's lie, the accomplice and Billy would both be executed; if the plot were exposed as false, the accomplice would be no better off, when we recall Vere's reminder to Claggart of “‘a yardarm-end for the false witness’” (BB, 95). It is highly unlikely, then, that a man could be found who would play a role in such an obviously suicidal scenario, no matter what the circumstances.

Furthermore, the very formulation of such a plot seems inconsistent with what we know of Claggart's intellectual and psychological make-up. First, from the information we have been given of the master-at-arms to this point, it is plain he is far too intelligent to take obvious risks with his own well-being. In the author's lengthy discussion of Claggart's “natural depravity” he observes that such individuals are often “peculiarly subject to the law of reason. … Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of atrocity would seem to partake of the insane,” the naturally-depraved man “will direct a cool judgment sagacious and sound” (BB, 80), reminding us that, mad though he may be, he is far from rash or stupid. Surely, given all this, it does not follow he would try to destroy Billy in such a loose-ended manner, so open to failure on every front. Indeed, if Billy's death were all he desired, no accomplice would be needed. Claggart could merely bring an accusation against Billy on his own and trust his word as a superior officer to carry sufficient weight to produce the desired effect. His chances of success would even be greater, because acting alone there would be no risk of an accomplice breaking down, telling the truth, and tipping the scales against him.

Secondly, it is doubtful Claggart would derive any satisfaction from Billy's death under these circumstances. Although Claggart's relationship to Billy is extremely complex, one fact seems beyond dispute: Claggart's obsessive hatred of the young sailor proceeds from his envy of him, Billy's “daily beauty” increasing the master-at-arms' sense of his own inner ugliness. This sense of deep personal inadequacy and self-loathing is not only a major cause of his envy of Billy, but also explains much about his behavior generally, and certainly accounts for his choice of vocation. As the superior of a crew many of whom have been “eked out by drafts culled direct from the jails” (BB, 66), full of “questionable” fellows, “insolvent debtors” and “promiscuous lame ducks of morality” (BB, 65), the sense of his own worthlessness would presumably be less acute by way of contrast,12 for no matter how despicable he may consider himself to be, he would at least appear not as wretched as those whom he polices. But the seemingly flawless Billy presumably brings Claggart's sense of his own lack of worth back into focus and threatens to destroy what little peace of mind he has achieved. To rid himself of the “problem” Billy poses him, he must demonstrate to his own satisfaction that Billy's goodness is only apparent, by forcing him to reveal a hidden but real imperfection. The little traps he set for him, then, were motivated by the hope that they would bring to the surface a latent rebelliousness—the “true,” imperfect Billy—Claggart perversely needs to prove is there. It would be frankly antagonistic to Claggart's purposes to destroy Billy before his innocence was demonstrably exposed as sham, because the problem—and the contrast he finds so intolerable—would together remain unresolved, the example of Billy's superiority forever haunting him. Billy must reveal himself to be a dissembler who destroys himself accordingly, by his own hand, so to speak, and prove Claggart's contention that “‘a mantrap [was indeed] under the ruddy-tipped daisies’” (BB, 94).

It is also important to keep in mind that Claggart's belief in Billy's hypocrisy is quite genuine, as far as he is concerned. He regarded Billy's farewell to the Rights-of-Man (as did everyone else) as an “adroit fling” (i.e., a sarcastic, abusive remark) and was sure (with some justification, one suspects) the incident of the spilled soup was a similarly subtle attempt to insult him, a “sly escape of a spontaneous feeling [of hatred] on Billy's part more or less answering to the antipathy on his own” (BB, 79). Significantly, “after the little matter at the mess Billy Budd no more found himself in strange trouble at times about his hammock” (BB, 87) because Claggart, now sure he has exposed Billy's true nature to his own satisfaction, is content to wait until such time as Billy commits an overt and punishable act of insubordination.

Given all the above, it does not seem possible that such a man, so intent on exposing his self-styled adversary as a hypocrite, so obsessed with raising himself in his own esteem by bringing down the popular Billy, so eminently intelligent and careful, so obviously anxious to ingratiate himself with his superiors, could jeopardize his own position by telling a lie which, if revealed as such, would ruin him and raise his enemy's status even more in the eyes of his fellow seamen. To be told he will go to certain, petty lengths to “try the temper of the man” (BB, 80) he hates is one thing; to conclude he is willing to risk his reputation, his career and his life in the process is something else again.

It is far more likely Billy has been approached by a sailor sincerely looking for help. Claggart, certain Billy is not what he seems and so ready to make “ogres of trifles” where Billy is concerned, hears of the encounter (possibly from Squeak) and jumps at the chance to inform on him, confident that what he has been told or has heard is true.13 Billy's failure to report the matter would give Claggart additional “proof” of his complicity and provide him with further justification for going to Vere. Interestingly enough, if we knew nothing of Claggart's inner nature, the course of action he pursues could be seen as entirely justified, given his position on the Bellipotent; there is a sense in which Claggart has a genuine case against Billy. For if Billy really does believe the afterguardsman's appeal involved evil, his silence is, while understandable, still a violation of “his duty as a loyal bluejacket” (BB, 85), a serious offence under the Mutiny Act and one which it would be Claggart's obligatory duty to bring to the attention of his superiors.14

When Claggart confronts Vere with his charges against Billy, it is generally assumed that the Captain's “strong suspicion” regarding Claggart's veracity is justifiable, proof he has discerned the truth of the matter. But Vere's actual position is far from an impartial or disinterested one. For example, he has not only been very favorably impressed by Billy, but he instinctively dislikes Claggart, “irritated” as he is by certain of his mannerisms which remind him (somewhat illogically) of a perjuror in a case he had once attended. All in all, that he is repelled by the sycophantic Claggart is not a sufficient reason for us to share his conclusion that the master-at-arms is lying. For his part, as Claggart delivers his accusation, he speaks not awkwardly or self-consciously as a liar might, but with an air of “virtuous self-assertion.” After delivering his charge, his eyes are “calm,” and though we are told he “might have been” lying (as the brothers of Joseph were), though he surveys Vere's reaction to his “tactics,” there is no clear indication he does not believe in the truth of what he has said. Later, when he repeats the accusation in Billy's presence, we are told of his “measured step and calm collected air” yet again; he looks directly at Billy “mesmerically” and as he speaks his eyes “underwent a phenomenal change, their wonted rich violet color blurring into a muddy purple. … The first mesmeric glance was one of serpent fascination; the last was as the paralyzing lurch of the torpedo fish” (BB, 98). While this passage is in keeping with our knowledge of Claggart as a sick and despicable man, taking perverse satisfaction in a moment he conceives to be one of supreme triumph and self-justification, it does not point irrefutably to his being a simple and obvious liar. Claggart's cold and serpentine eyes are assuredly those of an evil man; they are not in themselves indication of a mendacious one.

Given all the ambiguity surrounding each contributing scene, it seems evident the author did not wish us to view Claggart simply as a cold-blooded liar. Why then did he not wish us to reach this conclusion? Are there any advantages in seeing the master-at-arms in this slightly altered light? It seems to me there are.

First, if Claggart can be appreciated not only as evil, but also as a man misled by external circumstances, he would seem to partake more of the nature of the victim than is commonly believed, in a manner which closely parallels that of the other two major characters in the book. Vere was at the mercy of many things: his fear, his conservatism, his reliance on “measured forms”; for his part, Billy was at the mercy of his “uninstructed innocence.” But the fates of both were also directly related to the times in which they lived; surely external circumstances played just as significant a role in their mutual destruction as did anything else. So also in the case of Claggart: he too emerges as something of a dupe of fate, sharing along with Vere and Billy a common human fallibility; all were distinctly human victims of external circumstances over which none had any real control.

This is not to say Claggart in no way resembles Iago; however, he is an Iago who genuinely but mistakenly believes Desdemona is an adulteress and as such, is a more terrifying figure for that reason, simply because he thinks his “cause” is a just one and does not honestly believe he is doing wrong. In that he is acting from genuine conviction, so he is virtually unshakable. Viewing Claggart in this way also denies us the existence of an absolute moral framework operating in the novel in relation to which the characters move. Just as Marlow realized the most frightening aspect of Kurtz was his perverse but sincere sense of conviction, and that he could accordingly make no appeals to him on the basis of a mutually acknowledged moral background, so Claggart takes on an added dimension when we see he is another character who cannot be appealed to or redeemed on the basis of anything high or low. Seeing Claggart at the same time as an evil man who is also wrong and capable of error removes him forcibly from the realm of Biblical or Miltonic myth and places him squarely in human rather than Satanic clothing, of the same species as Vere, Billy, and ourselves, every bit as monstrous as Satan but somehow more disturbing because of his recognizable humanity.


  1. Nathalia Wright, Melville's Use of the Bible (Durham: Duke University Press, 1949), 128–135, rpt. in Billy Budd and the Critics, 2nd ed., ed. William T. Stafford (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Co., Inc., 1968), p. 194.

  2. John W. Rathbun, “Billy Budd and the Limits of Perception,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 20 (June 1965), 19–34, rpt. in Billy Budd and the Critics, p. 244.

  3. William York Tindall, “The Form of Billy Budd,” from “The Ceremony of Innocence,” in R. M. McIver, ed., Great Moral Dilemmas in Literature, Past and Present (New York: Harper and Row, 1956), 73–81, rpt. in Billy Budd and the Critics, p. 188.

  4. Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 1962), p. 73. All subsequent references are to this edition.

  5. Many have assumed that Squeak is responsible for the entrapment attempt. In the dramatized version by Coxe and Chapman, this interpretation was made. In that work, Claggart forces a somewhat reluctant Squeak to approach Billy. Squeak then rouses Billy in the night and offers him two guineas in return for assistance in a mutiny; Billy, of course, repels him. Although this view is held by many critics, only Billy's refusal to participate is an exact transcript of Melville's text; the rest is pure invention. It is doubtful that the cunning Squeak would involve himself in such a situation. Claggart is obviously not a man he could trust to protect him, in case the lie were exposed. Squeak would also be recognized by Billy because of his voice. Furthermore, we have Melville's own statement that Billy was correct in identifying the sailor as an afterguardsman, not Squeak.

  6. Richard Chase, Herman Melville: A Critical Study (New York: MacMillan, 1949), 269–277, rpt. in Billy Budd and the Critics, p. 174.

  7. The Naval History of Great Britian, II (London, 1860), 25–29, rpt. in Melville's Billy Budd, ed. F. Barron Freeman (London: Oxford University Press, 1948), p. 35.

  8. Elsewhere Melville speaks of the man as “equivocal” (i.e., ambiguous), and speculates that it was “as if his precocity of crookedness … had for once deceived him,” in that “the man he had sought to entrap as a simpleton had through his very simplicity ignominiously baffled him” (BB, 89, my italics). But this is only one of several possibilities offered us. Indeed, at another point Melville suggests Billy “was a bit uncertain” (BB, 84) he had identified the man correctly!

  9. Billy's acceptance of his death is generally regarded as a sign of his advanced spirituality. While this may well be true, it does not follow that the decision to execute him was itself just. Surely a morally-sensitive Billy would display some recognition of this fundamental injustice, no matter how resolved the matter may be in his own mind.

  10. Hayford and Sealts, Billy Budd, p. 38.

  11. See James Baird, Ishmael (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1956), 249–251, rpt. in Billy Budd and the Critics, p. 219.

  12. Melville gives many hints that Claggart may be a disgraced nobleman, a bastard, a homosexual, or a convicted felon, providing us with any number of reasons justifying his self-hatred.

  13. Only Werner Berthoff in The Example of Melville (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), pp. 194–203, rpt. in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Billy Budd, ed. Howard P. Vincent (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 67–81, has suggested, and this only in passing, that Claggart “believes his absurd conclusion” (p. 79). But he offers no proof to support this contention, and may simply mean Claggart has come to believe insanely in the truth of his own fabrication. Elsewhere, Berthoff refers to Vere's “intuition” that Claggart is “bearing false witness” (p. 78) and does not call Vere's reaction into question, suggesting he accepts Vere's assumption as correct.

  14. Indeed, this may well constitute the “substantiating proof” (BB, 96) Claggart so confidently offers Vere.

Christopher S. Durer (essay date 1982)

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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 much an act of weakness or malice, or of Schopenhauerian pursuit of nirvana,2 but is rather a deliberate act of a petty mind, held captive by the mores of an aristocratic civilization to which he belongs; the mores of this civilization dictate that a social inferior be punished for an offence against his superior, irrespective of whether he intended to commit the offence or not. Furthermore, it is my view that the presentation of high society in Billy Budd shows the basic inadequacy of this society in dealing with matters which go beyond the ordinary and the commonplace; and that for good or ill, in this case certainly for ill, Captain Vere is a mouthpiece for the mores of this inadequate high social group. So far as his general view of society is concerned, Melville has not changed his orientation in any fundamental way between the time he had written Typee and the time he began to work on Billy Budd.3

Man's redemptive possibilities in relation to society appear in the early portions of Billy Budd—nowhere else more significantly than in the portrayal of Billy's Christ-like role aboard the two ships where he serves. Captain Graveling, the captain of the Rights of Man, who has just been informed by the lieutenant of the Bellipotent that he, the lieutenant, will take Billy away, sadly counters: “Lieutenant, you are going to take my best man from me, the jewel of 'em” (p. 46), and then proceeds to tell the rather amused impressing officer that Billy had won everyone's affection and had in effect transformed the Rights of Man from a “rat-pit” to a “happy family.” But Billy's redemptive powers are equally in evidence on board the Bellipotent, where he infuses love into the ship's company and changes life on board ship. A Christ-like figure, he purifies and humanizes the lower deck and though ill treated by the high priests of his social group, he is an immediate favorite with the rank and file. On board the Rights of Man the impact of his personality is described in the following way by Captain Graveling:

But they all love him. Some of 'em do his washing, darn his old trousers for him; the carpenter is at odd times making a pretty little chest of drawers for him. Anybody will do anything for Billy Budd; and it's the happy family here

(p. 47).

If sanctification and innate human goodness defeat human vices, if Billy is able to tame the rough company of seamen on two different vessels—why then is he defeated by another kind of society, that which stands behind Vere and Claggart? Part of the answer lies, of course, in the fact that on the Rights of Man his antagonist was the crude Red Whiskers, a butcher by trade, whereas on board the Bellipotent his enemy is Claggart, a man highly sophisticated and whose place as a figure of evil in Melville's allegorical scheme is clear, at least in its general outline. Billy's conflict is not with the low-class society, that which is composed of those who work with their hands, and who belong, generally speaking, to the class of unskilled or semi-skilled labor, nor with the naval professional class, without the benefit of aristocratic birth or superior education (the ship's company or the junior officers on board the Bellipotent). His conflict is clearly with a higher form of civilization, marked by a greater sophistication and a higher centrality of purpose than he has encountered before. It is a conflict between Billy the commoner and the upper-class values represented by the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere and his Master-at-Arms, John Claggart.

The bracketing of these two men in examining the nature of social stratification in Billy Budd should not cause any surprise. As the narrator informs the reader, “One person excepted, the master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd” (p. 78), and that other person is, of course, Captain Vere. The social backgrounds of Vere and Claggart are widely different. The former is a member of the English gentry, and the latter, though of unknown origin, appears to have strong connections with the urbanized mercantile class. Yet they share a degree of intellectual maturity and sophistication, which sets them apart from the other tars, including the merchant ship's officers like Captain Graveling or the junior officers on board the Bellipotent. Not only by virtue of their rank, but even more so by virtue of their background and social station, Vere and Claggart are men apart from the rest.

The characterization of Claggart beginning on page 64 is suggestive. “His hand was too small and shapely to have been accustomed to hard toil,” and a few lines later: “But his general aspect and manner were so suggestive of an education and career incongruous with his naval function that when not actively engaged in it he looked like a man of high quality, social and moral, who for reasons of his own was keeping incog” (p. 64). Whatever the origins of Claggart, it is apparent that, a former criminal or not, he was at one time a member of what can best be described as the managerial class. His mental alertness, gift of observation, and general flexibility make it likely that he had been a part of the world of finance, and generally of the rich commercial life as it flourished in large urban centers in England, and particularly in London, at the end of the eighteenth century.4 Claggart is suave and self-controlled. When he first sets a trap for Billy and wants to convict him of complicity in some sort of mutiny, he uses the strategem of agent-provocateur, employing one of his underlings for this purpose.5 His form of address to Vere, when he lays down the accusation against Billy, is bland—the kind of speech that one associates with the Inns of Court or the fashionable places where the successful and the socially prominent congregate. As a person, he is widely different from other members of the crew—and infinitely above their “rude uncultivated natures.” Upon first entering the Royal Navy Claggart had started at the bottom of the ladder, and had been rapidly promoted on account of his many gifts, which may well have been sharpened in a sophisticated urban society.

The superior capacity he immediately evinced, his constitutional sobriety, an ingratiating deference to superiors, together with a peculiar ferreting genius manifested on a singular occasion; all this, capped by a certain austere patriotism, abruptly advanced him to the position of master-at-arms

(p. 67).

The same chapter 8 lists the varieties of gossip about the master-at-arms that circulate on board the Bellipotent—among them that he “was a chevalier who had volunteered into the King's navy by way of compounding for some mysterious swindle whereof he had been arraigned at the King's Bench” (p. 65). One is at liberty to speculate as to the exact nature of the master-at-arms' personal history. There is no doubt, however, that when Billy, through no fault of his own, earmarks himself for tragedy, he does not know that his antagonist is an administrator, a “citified man,” a “city slicker.”

However, much more important for our purpose is the social group to which Captain Vere belongs, since ultimately it is he and not the master-at-arms who will be responsible for Billy's execution. Captain Vere is a member of the landed gentry—the very reverse of the urban class which apparently spawned or adopted John Claggart. Even though characterizations in Billy Budd are for the most part brief, as this one is, the author provides several important details about Vere's background: “allied to the higher nobility,” references to the circumstances under which he received the sobriquet “Starry Vere” and its connection with “Appleton House,” a title of a poem by Andrew Marvell, and also “the name of one of the seats of their common ancestor,” his reserved aristocratic nature. In the middle of the characterization of Vere, we come upon the following passage:

Any landsman observing this gentleman not conspicuous by his stature and wearing no pronounced insignia, emerging from his cabin to the open deck, and noting the silent deference of the officers retiring to leeward, might have taken him for the King's guest, a civilian aboard the King's ship, some highly honorable discreet envoy on his way to an important post. But in fact this unobstrusiveness of demeanor may have proceeded from a certain unaffected modesty of manhood sometimes accompanying a resolute nature, a modesty evinced at all times not calling for pronounced action, which shown in any rank of life suggests a virtue aristocratic in kind

(p. 60).

Melville is at pains to provide in his delineation of Captain Vere a type of English aristocrat, and what he says about him is at least on the surface similar to Henry Newman's idea of a gentleman.6 Captain Vere, as he is presented to us, is a conservative gentleman with a strong inclination for the things of the past. Just as Claggart, the homo novus, aboard the Bellipotent has no past—he never refers to his earlier life, and no one seems to know anything about it—so Captain Vere's mind habitually turns toward the past, in pursuit of stability and congeniality. Thus “in illustrating of any point touching the stirring personages and events of the time he would be as apt to cite some historic character or incident of antiquity as he would be to cite from the moderns. He seemed unmindful of the circumstance that to his bluff company such remote allusions, however pertinent they might really be, were altogether alien to men whose reading was mainly confined to the journals” (p. 63).

When the surgeon verifies that Claggart is dead, Captain Vere exclaims, “It is the divine judgment on Ananias!” (p. 100). And when he addresses the drumcourt, which he has convened and which, for all practical purposes, he controls, he makes a point of stressing the unchangeability of the past, the inexorable duration of what had been and still is, when he sums up the true fettle of the ship's company: “they, long molded by arbitrary discipline, have not that kind of intelligent responsiveness that might qualify them to comprehend and discriminate” (p. 112). For Vere what is worthy of preservation happened in the past, and the present can be greatly enriched if the past is allowed to guide it by example or precedent. As might be expected, his subservience to the authority and wisdom of the past includes also his fundamental philosophical and political attitudes—his conservatism, that is—hostile to innovations because they undermine the ancient and time-tested values.

In Master-at-Arms Claggart and Captain Edward Vere, one “citified” and the other rural, Melville has depicted symbolically but also parodically the two sides, the two halves, of contemporary English civilization: the civilization of the city and of the country respectively, the civilization of the Whig merchant and of the Tory landowner. Both these characters and the values which they represent are seen as defective; but Claggart is more closely and more specifically linked to “civilization” as the word is used in the text. The master-at-arms' “Natural Depravity,” it is intimated, can be used in its cause. We read in Chapter 11 that “[c]ivilization, especially if of the austerer sort, is auspicious to it”—auspicious, that is, to the kind of depravity, “dominated by intellectuality” (p. 75) which we find in Claggart, and, by extension auspicious too, I think, to the inhuman devotion to the letter of the law, at the expense of the spirit of the law, which we perceive in Vere. In a more general way, condemnation of organized society and official civilization appears in the report in the Naval Chronicle under the heading “News from the Mediterranean,” which perverts the truth, and represents Claggart as an honest man, brutally murdered by a would-be mutineer, Billy Budd, portrayed as the blackest of villains. This mendacious report, coming as it does from the bastion of power, reveals how inadequate the bastions of power can be.

The conviction and execution of Billy Budd have been called unsatisfactory by many critics, and for a variety of good reasons. But the blame is usually laid on Captain Vere as an individual, as if he were a free agent, and his remissness entirely his doing. In fact, the situation is much more complex than that. Full of “unobstrusiveness of demeanor” and “unaffected modesty” as Captain Vere is represented to be, he is also mediocre (the air of mental superiority which the carefully written narrative of him gives is one of the most brilliant ironic strokes in Billy Budd), myopic, and obtuse, when it comes to fundamental issues. Above all, the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere is a prisoner of a code of behavior which stems from his social class and which is tragically translated into a mistaken sense of military duty.

Captain Vere is the only character in Billy Budd whose social background is that of landed aristocracy, and it is apparent that the social group to which he belongs—the group which lays particular emphasis on trust and obedience in human relationships within a paternalistically stratified society (and lesser emphasis on self-dependence and mobility)—is largely responsible for what happens. As a result his conduct is shamefully divided between gratuitous kindness which he shows to Billy as a retainer—in consonance with the principle of “noblesse oblige”—and the harshness with which he administers justice, which is provoked by the shock that his retainer, sworn to be faithful and obedient to him, committed an infraction. That Vere is symbolically Billy's father, and may be so in actuality has nothing to do with his official posture. This schizophrenia of sentimentality and severity in him makes itself felt immediately after the death of Claggart and continues to the very end. As the body of the master-at-arms is raised into a sitting position, a change comes over Captain Vere:

Slowly he uncovered his face; and the effect was as if the moon emerging from eclipse should reappear with quite another aspect than that which had gone into hiding. The father in him, manifested towards Billy thus far in the scene, was replaced by the military disciplinarian

(pp. 99–100).

Later, during the court-martial, Vere clearly recognizes the nature of opposing loyalties which face him and the other officers and the constraint under which he must act. That he accepts this constraint without a murmur of protest, and resigns himself to its inevitable consequences springs, I believe, from his allegiance to an aristocratic code of behavior which puts a high premium on obedience and meticulous execution of orders. There is not the slightest indication that Captain Vere combats the code; on the contrary he becomes its willing prisoner.

How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?—Does that state it aright? You sign sad assent. Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval, though this be the element where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King's officers lies our duty in a sphere correspondingly natural? So little is that true, that in receiving our commissions we in the most important regards ceased to be natural free agents

(my italics, p. 110).

Yet his decision to execute Billy is ill-conceived and has in its favor neither moral authority nor practicality. It is here perhaps that the ironic criticism of Captain Vere appears at its most intense. For, after all, what is expected of a naval officer of Vere's rank, especially in time of war, is intelligence, efficiency. And the execution of Billy Budd, for all its pretended necessity, seems to have contributed singularly little to the fighting spirit of the men of the Bellipotent in the subsequent engagements. Instead it created a martyr; the spar from which Billy was hanged becoming to the sailors a relic: “To them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross” (p. 131).

As for Captain Vere's speech to the drum-court, it ingeniously combines “rank-pulling” and specious legal arguments. In the end he brandishes before the assembled officers the specter of mutiny (in the light of future events such a possibility appears to have been remote), and since the memories of Spithead and the Nore are still fresh in everybody's mind, he succeeds in overcoming their legal and moral scruples. Significantly all the members of the drum-court, as professional in their outlook as Captain Vere, are opposed to his decision to hang (they are, to be sure, not members of the landed gentry); and the Nelson episode (Chapters 4 and 5), which immediately precedes the characterization of Captain Vere, drives the point home no less tellingly that there are better ways of preventing disorder on board ship and assuaging the tempers of men than summary executions. In a situation far more inflammable than that which prevails on board the Bellipotent, since the men had taken part in the mutiny at the Nore, Admiral Nelson is asked to “shift his pennant” from one ship to another, “not indeed to terrorize the crew into base subjection but to win them, by force of his mere presence and heroic personality, back to an allegiance if not as enthusiastic as his own yet as true” (p. 59). The entire characterization of Nelson avoids any allusions to his social or family background. This infinitely wiser and more courageous commander than Vere is described to us in terms of what he does and not in terms of his social class. This, I think is a deliberate device on Melville's part. By setting off the limitations of the upper-class consciousness, which resulted in failure, against classless achievement, he affirms that true achievement, such as Nelson's, has nothing to do with social classes or social distinctions.

The situation which confronts us in Billy Budd after the death of Claggart is similar to that taking place in an aristocratic or feudal society where the lord of the manor punishes by death a serf found guilty of poaching, or unintentional killing of the lord's game, or of some other offence to the lord's property or honor—even though there was no evidence of criminal intent. According to precedent—depending upon the lord's whim or his interpretation of the case—the culprit could have been punished more or less severely, but the death sentence, should there be precedents for it, could not have been excluded from consideration. Captain Vere is a bad feudal lord—he does not use prudence and common sense. Instead he goes by precedent, blindly and unthinkingly, and his exclamation “fated boy,” after Billy has struck Claggart, has all the force of a reflex, conditioned by upper-class mores, and triggered off by a subordinate's infraction of an age-old statute. With these two words breathed in “tone so low as to be almost a whisper” the lord indicts, condemns, and sentences his serf. He does not weigh the situation, nor does he take into account the circumstances of the act. He merely exercises his prerogative as the man in authority. It is all too facile and to say that Captain Vere's justice is simply due to his training as a naval officer simply will not do.

The Nelson episode and the surgeon interlude serve in a general way to undermine the reader's confidence in Captain Vere. The first presents a heroic figure—superior both to the “Benthamites of war” and one might add to the landed aristocrats in uniform—and the other offers a thoughtful professional opinion of the surgeon, seconded by the Captain of Marines and the two lieutenants, all of whom favor the referral of the matter of Claggart's death to the admiral. Using this and other evidence, numerous critics have been stressing the presence of irony in Billy Budd ever since the appearance of Joseph Schiffman's “Melville's Final Stage, Irony: A Reexamination of Billy Budd Criticism” (1950),7 which frontally attacked the widely held view that Billy Budd is Melville's “testament of acceptance.” Many of these views were salutary, and Charles R. Anderson's observation that Melville had discovered that “irony is a subtler and finer device for the fiction writer than headlong attack on social abuses,”8 is certainly to the point.

If anything, the scope of irony undermining the legitimacy of Captain Vere's actions and of the social organism on board the Bellipotent is, I believe, even more extensive than is generally credited today, after nearly thirty years of this kind of criticism. To the already impressive collection of evidence I should like to add two items. The first is a detail supporting the theses developed by Schiffman and other partisans of the “ironic school.” In Chapter 3, which briefly relates the mutiny at Spithead and at the Nore, we learn that its suppression was “only made possible perhaps by the unswerving loyalty of the marine corps and a voluntary resumption of loyalty among influential sections of the crews” (p. 55). The marine corps had helped to save the day; it is also a member of the same branch of service, Mr. Mordant, who during Billy's trial emotionally interrupts Captain Vere and pleads Billy's innocence. Is this not another example of “unswerving loyalty” of a soldier who, unlike his commanding officer, understands his true duty and is not a prisoner of an unmilitary code of conduct?

My second example pertains to the whole ironic structure of Billy Budd, but focuses specifically on Captain Vere's choice of reading matter, as it is described in Chapter 7.

With nothing of that literary taste which less heeds the thing conveyed than the vehicle, his bias was toward those books to which every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world naturally inclines: books treating of actual men and events no matter of what era—history, biography, and unconventional writers like Montaigne, who, free from cant and convention, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities

(p. 62).

This is high praise indeed! But is it not supreme irony, since Vere apparently has learned nothing from those books? He is described as a man who concentrates on essentials, and yet what is essential eludes him. The authors to whom he is devoted are free from “cant and convention,” but despite all his assiduous reading he remains precisely a creature of convention. He apparently values common sense in books, but he is sadly devoid of it in his official actions; he is seen, moreover, as treasuring the essence rather than the form, but it is the form that he cultivates, a style masquerading as live intelligence. The often quoted words which Captain Vere is fond of uttering, “with mankind … forms, measured forms, are everything” (p. 128), describe him more accurately than anyone else in Billy Budd and derive added weight and meaning from this very fact. Inherent in the passage just quoted is a monumental chasm between Vere the avid student of recorded wisdom and philosophy and Vere the mediocre performer on the world's stage, unable to put to use, let alone understand, the lessons of those authors. It is this discrepancy between appearance and reality, between pretence and actuality, in the portrayal of Vere and of broader issues like authority and civilization, that is the foundation of the ironic structure of Billy Budd.

From the mid-fifties on, and beginning in particular with the composition of The Confidence-Man, Melville became progressively more inclined towards the indirect, evasive and generally ambiguous use of language. His game with the hypothetical reader—he was rapidly losing the large reading public which he had won with Typee and Omoo—came to depend more and more on a variety of obfuscating and self-protecting devices: innuendoes, double-entendres, hints, allusions, incomplete and contradictory statements, structural complexities and derangements. The deadly impact of upper-class values and upper-class civilization on Billy and the world of the novel, both of whom are in need of a little more understanding, is real enough. But this impact is shown to us in a manner consistent with the aesthetics of Melville's middle and old age; in this aesthetics what is “overheard” may be more crucial than what is actually heard, and a tortuous path may be more faithful than the open road.


  1. The edition used is Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962); all references will be to this edition.

  2. There have been numerous interpretations of Vere's conduct with regard to Billy after Claggart's death, and I agree with some of them so far as they go. At different times stress has been placed on Vere's harshness, his “legalistic dryness” (Schiffman), his allegiance to order, and on related reasons. These are highly plausible but seem to me to describe his frame of mind rather than to explain his actions. It appears to me that ultimately the upper-class mores, as they are portrayed in Billy Budd, are responsible for Vere's strange conduct. Walter Sutton in “Melville and the Great God Budd,” Prairie Schooner, 44 (Summer 1960), 128–133, argues that Captain Vere, in consonance with Buddhist and Schopenhauer's teaching, wants to release Billy from a life of prolonged suffering by an immediate execution.

  3. Melville's diatribes against Western civilization, whatever its actual character, go back to his earliest writings, and civilization, as such, is usually contrasted with nature, understood more or less in the Rousseauistic sense. Typee and Omoo contain the highest number of passages which are explicitly critical of white civilization and for a variety of reasons: e.g., its crass materialism, the different forms of injustice which it imposes, its exploitation of the weak and defenseless, its oppressiveness. The same tendency continues in Melville's later works, though it is usually expressed more subtly or guardedly. See, for example, the comic relief which envelopes Chapter XXI of Redburn, where the whaleman Larry asks, “And what's the use of being snivelized?” or the conversation in The Confidence Man (Chapters XXI and XXII) between Pitch and the herb-doctor and later between Pitch and the PIO representative, on the subject of nature and civilization. The oppressiveness of civilization in Typee has become a veritable shackling and imprisoning force in Billy Budd.

  4. In Chapter 8 Claggart is portrayed indirectly as a denizen of the city. He is described as pale and unhealthy looking, and in the second and third paragraphs, which follow his physical description, there are pictures of and allusions to city life. These paint the milieu from which Claggart and those like him may have come. In Melville's writing vice and depravity are often associated with the city, one of the most dramatic and best known examples of it being Pierre, Book XVI, “First Night of their Arrival in the City,” where the city is portrayed as utterly depraved. It would be consistent with what we find in other works of Melville if the evil and depraved Claggart were to be a product of the city. The Biblical, and broadly speaking the theological, context in which Claggart is set is indisputable. But the urban context does not contradict it; on the contrary, it supports and supplements it.

  5. Agents provocateurs have been used since time immemorial, but they began to play a more important role in Western Europe in the early nineteenth century, when the modern police force was being formed. There is no reason why Melville should necessarily have been indebted to an outside source in writing Chapter 14, where an attempt at entrapment occurs. However, in view of the character of Claggart, and his machinations, it is likely that Melville may have had in mind some fictional or actual accounts of police work, such as Memoirs of Vidocq, for instance, which was available in English translation since 1829 and which was widely read. Nevertheless there is no external evidence that Melville had read Vidocq.

  6. The “unofficial” part of Captain Vere's personality, the one which is suggested rather than described, bears a similarity to Newman's celebrated definition of a gentleman. The similarity touches in particular the first part of the definition, where the manners of the gentleman are reviewed. It is natural to imagine that in his unofficial moments Captain Vere would display some of the qualities that Newman talks about; that he would be, for instance … “tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd,” and that he would show good breeding on all occasions. I am not suggesting that there is necessarily a direct or indirect influence of Newman on Melville (once again there is no external evidence that Melville had read Newman), but there is an analogy. Melville is at pains to create in Vere an aristocrat who on the surface looks admirable, and is the very reverse of a rake or a Squire Western. His aristocrat will be well-spoken, and will have manners and style. It would not be surprising if Melville in effect had been conscious of Newman's celebrated model when he wrote Billy Budd. The Idea of a University, where “The definition of a Gentleman” figures in Discourse VIII, was first published in England in 1852, and was later reprinted several times. In 1888 there appeared a new English and American edition.

  7. Joseph Schiffman's article appeared in American Literature, 22 (May 1950). Other particularly valuable treatments of irony in Billy Budd are found in Phil Withim, “Billy Budd: Testament of Resistance,” Modern Language Quarterly, 20 (June 1959), 115–127; Karl E. Zink, “Herman Melville and the Forms—Irony and Social Criticism in Billy Budd,Accent, 12 (Summer 1952), 131–139; Leonard Casper, “The Case Against Captain Vere,” Perspective, 5 (Summer 1952), 146–152; Arthur Sale, “Captain Vere's Reasons,” Cambridge Journal, 5 (October 1951), 3–18. Both Lawrance Thompson and Richard Chase discuss irony in Billy Budd in their respective Melville's Quarrel with God (1952) and Herman Melville: A Critical Study (1949).

  8. Schiffman, p. 131.

Lyon Evans, Jr. (essay date 1982)

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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 Christian faith. In Clarel (1876), Melville deals explicitly with this crisis. A young divinity student journeys to the Holy Land to try to regain his lost faith. Instead he finds only a spiritual wasteland that is devoid of Christian hope. Rolfe, an American who travels with Clarel, observes that “Zion like Rome is Niebuhrized”—by which he means that the Bible is no longer read as sacred but as purely secular history, like Niebuhr's history of ancient Rome. Personages in the Bible, Rolfe states, are no more real to him than the characters in the novels of Walter Scott. Margoth, a cold positivist, points out numerous errors of fact in Scripture and dismisses the biblical miracles as mere superstition. The principal spokesmen for Christianity in the poem, including Derwent, a Broad Church Anglican who seeks to reconcile science and religion, are all discredited. Clarel is left at the end with his faith unrestored; the reader is left with the disturbing prediction that the Christian era is drawing to a close.

There is no retreat from this skepticism in Timoleon (published in 1891, the year of Melville's death). In a gesture that recalls Pierre at the Memnon Stone, the protagonist of the title poem calls on the gods to reassure him of their existence; the gods remain silent. In “The Night-March,” an army marches through darkness over a boundless plain, with “no chief in view”; in “The Margrave's Birthnight,” toil-worn peasants celebrate Lord Margrave's birthday, but the lord is absent and his throne is empty. In “The New Zealot to the Sun,” Melville characterizes religion as a “sorcerous weed” that “energizes dream— / Transmitted, spread in myths and creeds”; in “The Age on the Antonines,” he contrasts his own era, in which “faith declines,” with the “halcyon Age” of the pagan Roman Empire, when men accepted the finitude of life and did not vainly yearn for a paradise beyond the grave.

These instances and more indicate that to the end of his life, Melville rejected supernatural Christianity. Like other late Victorian “honest doubters,” Melville may have longed for a “home reserved for us in Heaven” (as he put it in Clarel), but he was too much of a skeptic to yield to what he regarded as mere illusion.

In view of his skepticism, so prominent in Melville's works, the meaning of his last book, the short novel Billy Budd (1891; published 1924)3 is puzzling. Melville's story of the innocent “Handsome Sailor,” who is persecuted by the villainous Claggart and unjustly condemned to hang yet evidently redeemed in a martyrdom that recalls the Resurrection of Christ, seems anomalous in relation to his other works. The explicit parallels between Billy and Christ (in Billy's prelapsarian innocence; in the hanging scene, the imagery of which is drawn from the New Testament accounts of Christ's Resurrection; in the supposed supernatural character of Billy's death) are no less baffling. We are left wondering if the story signals Melville's late conversion to Christian acceptance, as some critics contend, or whether, as others have argued, Melville was more cynically seeking to show that ideal innocence and goodness like Billy's and Christ's cannot survive in a corrupt world.4

Both alternatives can be circumvented if attention is given to the advanced theological thought of Melville's day. Starting with the assumption that the Bible was a historical text, the work not of God but of men, the so-called Higher Critics used the methods of historical scholarship developed in the nineteenth century to elaborate a radically new conception of the Bible and of biblical history.5 They showed that the Gospel writers idealized Jesus' life, suppressed and distorted compromising evidence, borrowed freely from one another while also changing received material to suit their polemical purposes, and overlaid the life of Jesus with supernatural miracles and myths, disbelieved because of the Higher Critics' commitment to science and rationalism. The new Christ disclosed by advanced scholarship was not a saint but a man, complex and contradictory: a “fighting peacemaker” who preached love in the Sermon on the Mount but who violently overturned the tables of the money-changers in the Temple; the heralded Messiah who nonetheless cried out on the Cross his fear of betrayal, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In the new view the purely religious Christ gave way to a politicized Jesus who, some theorized, may have been executed for his involvement in Jewish nationalist intrigues against the Roman rulers of Palestine. Judas's and Pontius Pilate's roles and motives in Jesus' betrayal and death could not, it was argued, be definitely established; the biblical accounts of the empty tomb and Christ's supposed Resurrection were regarded as highly dubious. The historical Jesus and the context in which he lived and died were thus regarded as being remote, problematic and largely unknowable.

In view of Melville's knowledge of the Higher Criticism and his endorsement of their views in his other works, it is difficult to see how Billy Budd can be meant to be a Christ-figure in the traditional sense. But if one theorizes that Melville intended Billy Budd as a parody of the Gospels, in which the surface piety is undermined on the second, ironic level of meaning, then Billy Budd may indeed be found to resemble Christ—not the idealized Saviour of the waning age of faith but the problematic man of the Higher Criticism. Looked at this way, Billy Budd would not be an innocent saint persecuted in a corrupt world but rather, like the historical Jesus whom he may have been intended to resemble, no saint at all.

An obvious place to begin an inquiry into such an ironic strategy in Billy Budd is with the narrator, who, as Lawrance Thompson correctly pointed out thirty years ago (but without grasping the full implications of his insight), is himself a kind of character—a naval historian with a bias in favor of constituted authority. The narrator on several occasions clearly says he is writing a history. “The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction,” he writes, “can not so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact” (p. 131). His ostensibly factual narrative is set in the time of the French Revolution (1797), of which the narrator writes, “That era appears measurably clear to us who look back at it, and but read of it” (p. 44). The vantage-point from which the narrator looks back on the earlier age—the time of his and his contemporaries' “grandfathers”—is that of post-Civil War America, as he makes clear when he nostalgically recalls the great sailing ships of old (supplanted by the more prosaic ironclads) and when he observes that the “dandified Billy-be-Damn” of the time before steamships is “an amusing character all but extinct now” (p. 4).

That the narrator is so distanced in time from the events he writes about can be taken to explain one of the story's striking aspects: the limited extent of the narrator's knowledge and his frequent recourse to speculation and hypothesis to fill in the lacunae in the narrative. The most prominent instance of this occurs when the narrator says he knows nothing of Captain Vere's final interview with Billy following the sailor's conviction. “Beyond the communication of the sentence,” the narrator writes, “what took place at this interview was never known”; what he offers is merely his own conjecture (p. 112). There are, however, numerous other instances of the same procedure, as when the narrator says he knows nothing of Claggart's or Billy's earlier lives and merely speculates about them (pp. 16, 42). Elsewhere the narrator's language is curiously tentative and qualified, as when he writes, “What [Claggart] said … was to the effect following, if not altogether in these words” (p. 85). Finally, there are omissions in the story that are never explained. “At sea in the old time,” writes the narrator of Billy's hanging, “the execution by halter of a military sailor was generally from the fore-yard. In the present instance, for special reasons the main-yard was assigned” (p. 124). The narrator never reveals what these “special reasons” were; nor does he indicate what the “special orders” were that the surgeon carried out in supervising the execution of Billy (p. 126).

Critics of Billy Budd, when they have noted such peculiarities at all, have tended to dismiss them as mere Melvillean quirks, instances of the author's supposed inconsistency in the point of view, such as one ostensibly finds in Moby-Dick. If we attend to the fact that the narrator is writing of an event long past, however, then our own doubts as readers will center less on Melville's artistry than on the narrator's reliability. If the narrator's knowledge is limited, then we as readers must subject his statements to careful scrutiny, not simply take them for granted.

Let us proceed by considering what the narrator reveals about himself. “In the time before steamships,” he writes, the sailors on the docks would “quite surround some superior figure of their own class” (p. 3; my emphasis). The narrator here indicates that he was not a sailor himself, that he belonged to a different class. Subsequent statements disclose that he was either an old naval officer or (more likely) a landsman sympathetic to the officers' point of view. An opponent of the French Revolution, the narrator associates the mutinies in the British navy with “the enemy's red meteor of unbridled and unbounded revolt” (p. 22). While conceding that the impressments that brought on the mutinies were unjust and cruel, he nonetheless insists that the practice was necessary in wartime because “Its abrogation would have crippled the indispensable fleet” (p. 31). Such calamities as the Nore Mutiny “can not be ignored,” the narrator writes, “but there is a considerate way of historically treating them”—that is, with discretion (p. 23).

No common sailor, as these remarks make clear, the narrator was also highly romantic. Not only does he wax nostalgic for the great wooden warships of “the time before steamships,” but he praises Admiral Nelson for his “love of glory” (p. 27) and hails his “most magnificent of all victories” at Trafalgar, “crowned by his own glorious death” (p. 28). How his pro-officer, romantic perspective influences his telling of the story of Billy Budd is suggested by the narrator's characterization of the sailors as a class. “Are sailors … without vices?” he asks. “No; but less often than with landsmen do their vices, so called, partake of crookedness of heart, seeming less to proceed from viciousness than exuberance of vitality … ; frank manifestations in accordance with natural law” (p. 17). Such a statement is at odds with the testimony given in White-Jacket (1850), Melville's earlier novel of life on a man-of-war. The warship, the book reveals, attracted the lowest class of men, those who enlisted mainly for the regular allotment of grog and who got drunk whenever they could. The common sailors are described as engaging in acts of petty harassment, cruel pranks, and thievery—hardly evidence of “exuberance of vitality” but rather (as the narrator of White-Jacket, himself a common sailor, makes clear) of “crookedness of heart.”6

Again in White-Jacket, the narrator alludes to horrors too appalling to mention—sodomy is evidently intended—and he refers to the Neversink as “the home of moral monsters” and to men-of-war as “those wooden-walled Gomorrahs of the deep” and “floating Hells.” Yet the naive narrator of Billy Budd states serenely, “as a class, sailors are in character a juvenile race. Even their deviations are marked by juvenility” (p. 78).

What is curious about the narrator's idealization of the sailors in Billy Budd is not only his blindness to life on a man-of-war but his ignorance of the implications of his own darker evidence. In speculating on Claggart's unknown past, the narrator writes that “insolvent debtors of minor grade, together with the promiscuous lame ducks of morality, found in the Navy a convenient and secure refuge.” Seamen, he adds, may even have been “culled direct from the jails” (p. 43). As we will see, the narrator's two views of the sailors aboard the Bellipotent, and his blindness to the incongruity, are characteristic. Much as the Higher Critics' discovery of contradictions in the biblical lives of Jesus served to undermine faith in the Gospels' historical accuracy, so does the disclosure of contradictions in Billy Budd call into question the narrator's veracity.

Given his view of sailors as a class, it is not surprising that the narrator's depiction of Billy Budd is likewise idealized. The sailors may have been exuberant and juvenile, but Billy was something more—he was the “Handsome Sailor,” a heroic type of the “time before steamships,” a “superb figure” and a virtuous natural man. “In many respects … little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company” (p. 17), Billy was “one to whom not yet has been proffered the questionable apple of knowledge” (p. 16). Indeed, writes the narrator, virtues “pristine and unadulterate,” such as Billy had, derive not from “culture or convention” but are “transmitted from a period prior to Cain's city and citified man” (p. 17).

Elsewhere, however, the narrator admits that Billy had a flaw—his stutter—which is “a striking instance that the arch interferer, the envious marplot of Eden”—that is, Satan—“still has more or less to do with every human consignment to this planet of earth” (p. 19). But if this is true, then Billy was no prelapsarian Adam but a mere human after all.

The narrator seeks to minimize the significance of Billy's stutter by comparing him to “the beautiful woman in one of Hawthorne's minor tales” with “just one thing amiss in him” (p. 19). But unlike the beauty who was marred only by the imperfection of a birthmark, Billy's stutter was not his sole flaw. On the Rights of Man, Billy brought peace—by drubbing Red Whiskers for half a minute. After being offered the guineas by the afterguardsman, Billy told the Dansker only a “partial” account of the encounter, which the narrator refers to as a “version” (p. 76); later, at his trial, he lied to the judges when he denied any knowledge of a mutiny plot. And of course Billy killed Claggart. Evidently the narrator has such “flaws” in mind when, after elaborating the qualities of the Handsome Sailor, he adds, “Such a cynosure, at least in aspect, and something such too in nature, though with important variations made apparent as the story proceeds, was welkin-eyed Billy Budd” (p. 5; my emphasis). The word “variations” indicates that Billy's departure from the Handsome Sailor type involved more than just his stutter.

As he proceeds, the narrator does not suppress these variations, but he does try to minimize their significance. In effect he denies his initial statement that the variations were “important.” Thus Billy's failure to report his suspicious meeting with the afterguardsman to his superiors and his lie about the incident at his trial are glossed over as manifesting Billy's “innate repugnance to playing a part at all approaching that of an informer against one's own ship mates” (p. 102). But such a motive hardly squares with the narrator's claim that “of self-consciousness [Billy] seemed to have little or none, or about as much as we may reasonably impute to a dog of Saint Bernard's breed” (p. 16). To conceal and dissimulate, for whatever reason, surely requires a degree of self-conscious reflection and calculation. Similarly, to recoil in disgust from the afterguardsman's bribe because he “instinctively knew [it] must involve evil of some sort” (p. 73) implies that Billy was like Adam after, not before, the Fall.

The conceptual confusion in the narrator's exposition stems from his idiosyncratic elaboration of the type of the Handsome Sailor. He begins his narrative by recalling having seen an exemplary Handsome Sailor on the docks of Liverpool “now half a century ago,” surrounded by his admiring shipmates (p. 3). As viewed by the narrator—himself no sailor—the Handsome Sailor, popular with his fellows, was largely a physical specimen. The narrator then embellishes this portrait of the Handsome Sailor with heroic, epic qualities.

Invariably a proficient in his perilous calling, he was also more or less of a mighty boxer or wrestler. It was strength and beauty. Tales of his prowess were recited. Ashore he was the champion; afloat the spokesman; on every suitable occasion always foremost.

[pp. 4–5]

The narrator then adds to his description a final, crucial characteristic:

The moral nature was seldom out of keeping with the physical make. Indeed, except as toned by the former, the comeliness and power, always attractive in masculine conjunction, hardly could have drawn the sort of honest homage the Handsome Sailor in some examples received from his less gifted associates.

[p. 5; my emphasis]

The narrator's assertion of an innate correspondence between the Handsome Sailor's outward appearance and his inner moral nature is based not on personal experience—again, the narrator was no sailor—but on an inference. As his qualifier indicates, the narrator cannot imagine why the Handsome Sailor would be popular with his less gifted fellows unless his “moral nature” were as attractive as his physique. This conclusion as well as the preceding description reveals the narrator's romanticism and naiveté about sailors, which reference to Melville's sea novels confirms. Not only is there no mention of a Handsome Sailor endowed with all these heroic qualities in any of them, but the implication in Redburn (1849) as well as White-Jacket is that young and handsome sailors were “popular” for sexual reasons, not because of their supposed goodness (in Redburn, the handsome Harry Bolton takes Redburn to a male brothel in London). As an article of wisdom, the assumption that moral goodness is a corollary of physical beauty is highly dubious; a main theme of The Confidence-Man is precisely that there is no necessary symmetry between a person's outward appearance and his inner moral nature.

With his limited knowledge of life on a man-of-war, the credulous narrator of Billy Budd ignores this truth. Because Billy was young and athletically handsome—in appearance an Adam before the Fall, a bronzed Apollo—he must also have been morally unblemished. The narrator insists that “the story in which [Billy Budd] is the main figure is no romance” (p. 19), but in simplifying and idealizing Billy's character to make him conform to the type of the Handsome Sailor, he gives us precisely that—a romance.


If Billy in the narrator's account is the hero, then Claggart, the master-at-arms (or ship's police chief) is the villain. Although Claggart's face was “notable”—handsome and intelligent—the narrator tells us it resembled that of Tecumseh, the rebellious Indian chief, and of the Reverend Titus Oates, treacherously involved in a “Popish plot” against Charles II (pp. 40–41). These highly fanciful comparisons, another indication of the narrator's hostility to foes of established authority, are predicated on, rather than determinations of, the narrator's conviction that Claggart was “the direct reverse of a saint” (p. 58).

Similarly, although he admits that Claggart on entering the navy quickly evinced “superior capacity,” a “constitutional sobriety,” an “ingratiating deference to superiors,” and a “certain austere patriotism” (p. 45), the narrator prefers to downplay these favorable qualities and concentrates on the supposed seamier side of Claggart's background. He cites a “rumor” circulated among “certain grizzled sea-gossips of the gun-decks and forecastle” that Claggart entered the navy to escape being tried on charges of swindling. Although he concedes that “nobody could substantiate this report” (p. 42), he says it was given a “vague plausibility” by the fact that during this period of British history, the navy was a refuge for petty debtors and scoundrels. Sailors, he says, may even have been “culled direct from the jails.” But nowhere does the narrator suggest that he has any evidence linking Claggart to such practices. For that matter, he is not even sure that the British government did draft criminals into the navy (p. 43). At any rate, the narrator says finally, “the less credence was to be given to the gun-deck talk touching Claggart, seeing that no man holding his office in a man-of-war can ever hope to be popular with the crew” (p. 44).

Unable to prove that Claggart was either a criminal or a reprobate, the narrator cites the testimony of a grizzled old sailor called the Dansker to support his view of Claggart's villainy. When Billy's gear is disturbed by unknown parties, thus getting him into trouble with his superiors, the Dansker tells him, “‘Jemmy Legs’”—meaning Claggart—“‘is down on you’” (p. 52). “Yes, why should Jemmy Legs, to borrow the Dansker's expression, be down on the Handsome Sailor?” asks the narrator, picking up on the idea (p. 57). But the authority of the Dansker's opinion is called into question, first, by the narrator's previous statement that sailors' gossip about the master-at-arms was not to be credited and, second, by the scene in the mess, when Billy spills the soup in Claggart's path. When Claggart does no more than banter with Billy and “playfully” tap him on the backside with his rattan, Billy exclaims to his messmates after Claggart has left, “‘There now, who says that Jemmy Legs is down on me!’” (p. 56). A sailor named Donald then demanded “with some surprise,” “‘And who said he was, Beauty?’” The narrator adds, “Whereat the foretopman looked a little foolish, recalling that it was only one person”—the Dansker—“who had suggested what to him was the smoky idea that this Master-at-arms was in any peculiar way hostile to him” (p. 56).

Although this disclosure indicates that neither Billy nor Donald thought the master-at-arms disliked Billy, the narrator is bent on reading Claggart's behavior in a sinister light. Thus Claggart's bantering words to Billy, despite the “low, musical voice” in which they were delivered, are called “equivocal,” and described as having been accompanied by an “involuntary smile, or rather grimace” (p. 55). The sailors are said to have laughed with “counterfeited glee,” although no reason is given to indicate why the laughter was counterfeited, and indeed, the reaction of Donald suggests that his at least was genuine.

As evidence that Claggart hated Billy, the scene in the mess is curiously inconclusive. That the narrator relies on it so heavily, despite the compromising words from Donald, shows how little hard evidence he has to support his contention that Claggart was a villain. Going on to admit that he knows of no “romantic incident” implying that Claggart had prior knowledge of Billy, which might have given the master-at-arms a reason to hate the sailor (p. 57), the narrator next makes something of an imaginative leap. He accuses Claggart of hating Billy with a “‘Natural Depravity: a depravity according to nature’” (pp. 59–60).

The inspiration for this idea, the narrator states, came from an “honest scholar, my senior,” now dead (p. 58). Like the narrator, the scholar was intrigued by the inner character of a man “so unimpeachably respectable that against him nothing was ever openly said though among the few something was whispered, ‘Yes, X——is a nut not to be cracked by the tap of a lady's fan.’” The key to acquiring a deeper understanding of such inscrutable characters—like Claggart—the scholar said, lies in rejecting mere “‘knowledge of the world’” in favor of what he called a “‘finer spiritual insight,’” such as was possessed by the Hebrew prophets, who shed light into “‘obscure spiritual places’” despite being “‘mostly recluses’” (p. 59).

We have seen how dependent the narrator is on his bookish learning in his rendering of the Billy Budd affair. Billy is compared to “the heroine in one of Hawthorne's minor tales” as well as to Adam, Hercules, Apollo, Achilles, and Hyperion. Claggart is said to resemble Tecumseh and Titus Oates, the latter hardly a household name. The cause of Claggart's supposed hatred of Billy is described as being “as much charged with that prime element of Radcliffian romance, the mysterious, as any that the ingenuity of the author of the Mysteries of Udolpho could devise” (p. 57). Even the reference to the sailors laughing “with counterfeited glee” is taken from a text, Goldsmith's “The Deserted Village” (pp. 55–56 n.). Given his reliance on the mediation of books, it is not surprising that the narrator now turns to the authority of one as well suited to his purposes as Plato, father of the Archetype, whom he credits with being the author of the theory of Natural Depravity (p. 59). The irony lies in his insistence that such mediation—itself inspired by an “honest scholar”—constitutes a “finer spiritual insight,” superior to mere “knowledge of the world.”

The key element in the narrator's definition of Natural Depravity is that the naturally depraved man is, in his “outward proceeding, … always perfectly rational” (p. 61; my emphasis), always folded “in the mantle of respectability” (p. 60). Such a definition, of course, fits Claggart like a glove; the narrator admits as much when he writes that Claggart was “secretly down on” Billy (p. 57; my emphasis). But that very secretiveness makes it impossible for the narrator to know what Claggart was thinking and feeling; he cannot deduce the inner man from the outward physical appearance. Hence “his portrait I essay, but shall never hit it” (p. 40).

To be sure, following the incident with the soup, Claggart does seem disturbed by Billy's presence. The narrator describes him as giving Billy an ambiguous “immitigable look, pinching and shrivelling” (p. 80). Since Claggart's glance is ambiguous, however, the narrator's attribution of motives to him is mere conjecture. Although the narrator hints at a sexual motive in the scenes where he describes Claggart as inwardly seething, simultaneously attracted to and repelled by Billy's supposed beauty and innocence, it is really the narrator who is obsessed by Billy's beauty, as his rapturous descriptions of Billy's “comeliness and power” make clear. The implied comparison of Claggart to Iago and to Milton's Satan are similarly fanciful, like the comparison of Claggart's visage to Tecumseh's and Titus Oates's. The narrator projects his book learning and his obsessions onto Claggart's equivocal portrait and offers them as instances of his “finer spiritual insight.”

It is the narrator's commitment to his dualistic scheme (Billy as ideally innocent, Claggart as a depraved villain) that blinds him to other possibilities allowed for by his own evidence. Thus he fails to consider whether someone other than Claggart may have been responsible for sabotaging Billy's gear. In White-Jacket, it was the common sailors who engaged in such malicious pranks. The narrator suggests such a motive when he reports that one sailor said to Billy, “‘Is it your bag, Billy? … Well, sew yourself up in it, bully boy, and then you'll be sure to know if anybody meddles with it’” (p. 50). Sailors were sewn up in canvas when they were dead; the reference to Billy as a “bully boy” reminds us that Billy beat up Red Whiskers on the Rights of Man, which could have given the sailors of the Bellipotent reason to dislike him.

If the narrator too readily assumes that Claggart was responsible for sabotaging Billy's gear, he also leaves the impression that the afterguardsman who tempted Billy with the guineas worked for Claggart. But there is no convincing evidence in the text to support this assumption.

When Billy tells the Dansker his “partial and anonymous account” of his nocturnal meeting, the Dansker repeats his warning, “‘Jemmy Legs is down on you.’” To Billy's query as to what Jemmy Legs has to do with the afterguardsman, the Dansker replies cryptically, “‘A cat's-paw, a cat's-paw!’” (pp. 76–77). A cat's-paw can refer to a wind gust on the ocean as well as to an agent. The narrator acknowledges the ambiguity when he writes of the Dansker's remark, “whether it had reference to a light puff of air just then coming over the calm sea, or a subtler relation to the afterguardsman, there is no telling” (p. 77).

The narrator writes of the afterguardsman that with his “genial” and “rattle-brained” appearance, he seemed to be “the last man in the world … to be overburthened with thoughts, especially those perilous thoughts that must needs belong to a conspirator … or even to the underling of such a conspirator” (pp. 73, 76). The afterguardsman's inner moral nature thus bore no relation to his outward physical appearance. Whether the afterguardsman was an agent for Claggart or for others (such as a faction of sailors that disliked Billy) is never established, as the narrator all but admits when he says he does not know what “that equivocal young person's original design may … have been” (p. 82).

Moreover, while the afterguardsman may have been trying to frame Billy in offering him the guineas, it also is possible that he was a real plotter. This becomes plausible if the context of his scene with Billy is taken into account. At the time of the narrative, the English navy, full of impressed men, was seething with unrest; the calamitous mutiny on the Nore had recently been put down (p. 23). In their nocturnal meeting the afterguardsman tells Billy, “‘We are not the only impressed ones [on the Bellipotent], Billy. There's a gang of us’” (p. 71). The narrator writes of Billy's ship, “very little in the manner of the men and nothing obvious in the demeanor of the officers would have suggested to an ordinary observer that the Great Mutiny was a recent event” (p. 33; my emphasis). The careful language does not exclude but rather seems to invite speculation that a plot was secretly being planned and that the officers were discreetly on the lookout for signs of such activity. The narrator's statement that “certain other individuals included like [Billy] among the impressed portion of the ship's company … were … apt to fall into a saddish mood which in some partook of sullenness” (p. 12) also suggests a context ripe for mutiny. In such an environment, the afterguardsman's involvement in a mutiny plot cannot be ruled out.

If the sabotaging of Billy's gear and his temptation by the afterguardsman cannot be traced to Claggart, another piece of evidence can be interpreted as actually exonerating Claggart of the charge of hating and framing Billy. The narrator states that Claggart's “understrapper,” a corporal called Squeak, “pervert[ed] to his chief certain innocent frolics of the good natured foretopman”—that is, Billy—“besides inventing for his mouth sundry contumelious epithets [directed against Claggart] he claimed to have overheard him let fall” (pp. 66–67). The narrator writes, “The Master-at-arms never suspected the veracity of these reports” (my emphasis). If this is true, then Claggart would have had good reason to give Billy a “pinching and shrivelling” look. Moreover, if he never suspected the accuracy of the reports about Billy brought to him by Squeak, then the master-at-arms may very well have believed that Billy was involved in a mutiny plot. In that case, Claggart would not have hated Billy with a Natural Depravity at all but, in taking the charges which he believed to be true to Captain Vere, would have been motivated by a sense of loyalty and duty. Such a scenario would be consistent with the narrator's report that Claggart had evidenced “a certain austere patriotism,” and it would make of him not the Judas of the Billy Budd affair but a victim—possibly even a hero.

To be sure, the very incompleteness of the narrator's account means that Claggart cannot be definitely absolved of the charge of maliciously hating and framing Billy. But neither is the narrator's case against him particularly persuasive. Both interpretations are allowed for by the narrator's own evidence.7


Once Claggart's hatred of Billy is called into question, then the master-at-arms' warning to Captain Vere at the mainmast cannot simply be dismissed as a malicious lie. Accusing Billy of being “‘for all his youth and good looks, a deep one,’” Claggart goes on to say,

“Not for nothing does he insinuate himself into the good will of his shipmates, since at the least all hands will at a pinch say a good word for him at all hazards. … It is even masqued by that sort of good humored air that at heart he resents his impressment. You have but noted his fair cheek. A man-trap may be under his ruddy-tipped daisies.”

[pp. 87–88]

If Claggart is not lying, then his distressed words can be explained as indicating the disparity between his pleasant impression of Billy and the negative reports brought to him by Squeak. But there is another possibility not excluded by the text—namely, that Billy really was a “deep one” and was more deeply implicated in a mutiny plot than the narrator knows about or is willing to admit.

The most damaging evidence against Billy comes in the trial scene. When a troubled judge asks Billy why Claggart should have “‘so maliciously lied’” in falsely accusing him of plotting a mutiny, the narrator writes of Billy's response:

At that question unintentionally touching on a spiritual sphere wholly obscure to Billy's thoughts, he was non-plussed, evincing a confusion indeed that some observers, such as can readily be imagined, would have construed into involuntary evidence of hidden guilt.

[p. 103; my emphasis]

The narrator interprets this guilty response as an indication that in his childlike innocence Billy could not comprehend Claggart's ostensibly malicious moral sphere. But this interpretation presumes precisely what is at issue: Billy's innocence; and besides, Billy himself lied, in denying to the judges any knowledge of “incipient trouble” on the ship. It seems an instance of Melvillean irony when the narrator describes Billy's protest of innocence as manifesting “the impulsive above-board manner of the frank one” (p. 102). Not only is Billy not entirely frank, but the trial itself takes place below deck, not above board.

Billy's evidence of “hidden guilt” at the trial puts his other behavior in a more suspicious light. Thus the narrator reveals that Billy willingly followed the afterguardsman to the site of their secret meeting. Convinced as always that Billy was innocent, the narrator states that “Billy, like sundry other essentially good-natured ones, had some of the weaknesses inseparable from essential good nature,” in being unable to say no to “an abrupt proposition” (p. 69). But the narrator admits he does not know Billy's motive in following the afterguardsman when he adds, “However it was, he mechanically rose, and … betook himself to the designated place” (p. 70; my emphasis).

The narrator describes Billy as rebuffing the afterguardsman when he is offered the guineas and asked to join a plot. But additional scenes are given in which the two men pass each other and exchange glances that may or may not have hidden meaning. It is Billy himself who seeks out the afterguardsman the day after their late-night meeting (p. 73). “Noting that Billy was looking at him, [the afterguardsman] thereupon nodded a familiar sort of friendly recognition as to an old acquaintance” (p. 76). In subsequent casual meetings the afterguardsman gives Billy “a passing pleasant word or two” but on “these occasions” makes no mention of his “original design” (p. 82). The reference to “these occasions,” however, makes us wonder if there were others in which the “design” was discussed. Moreover, even the narrator is troubled by the fact that Billy keeps the knowledge of his meeting with the afterguardsman to himself, does not report the incident to his superiors, does not go up to the afterguardsman and “bluntly demand … to know his purpose in the initial interview,” and does not sound out his fellow impressed sailors as to the afterguardsman's intentions (p. 82). The narrator states that “something more, or rather, something else than mere shrewdness is perhaps needful for the due understanding of such a character as Billy Budd's,” but that “something else” is not Billy's prelapsarian innocence.

To be sure, Captain Graveling's testimony to Lieutenant Ratcliffe that Billy was the “jewel” of his men on the Rights of Man cannot be ignored. According to Graveling, his ship was a “‘rat-pit of quarrels’” until Billy came and brought peace by drubbing the “buffer” or leader of the gang, one Red Whiskers, for “‘about half a minute.’” Adds an admiring Graveling, “‘And will you believe it … the Red Whiskers now really loves Billy—loves him, or is the biggest hypocrite that ever I heard of. But they all love him’” (p. 8; my emphasis). A hint of Melvillean irony flickers through the highlighted passage. Taking into account not the narrator's idealization of sailors but the more hardened view of them given in Redburn and White-Jacket, it is not very likely that the gangleader of the ship, soundly beaten in a fight, and in front of the other men, would subsequently love the person who had whipped him. Captain Graveling says of the sailors of the Rights that “‘Anybody will do anything for Billy Budd; and it's the happy family here’” (p. 8). But one must wonder whether the family was happy because Billy brought love to the quarreling Rights or because he enforced peace with his fists. Captain Graveling testifies to the more benign view, but Lieutenant Ratcliffe points out the incongruity when he notes with amusement, “‘Well, blessed are the peacemakers, especially the fighting peacemakers!’” (p. 8). Ratcliffe's words link Billy to the Jesus who used violence against the money-changers, and with the same effect achieved by the Higher Critics: Billy's moral nature as well as the purity of his motivation is called into question.

There is a further irony in the narrator's characterization of Captain Graveling as a “respectable man” (p. 6). The whole point of the “honest scholar's” anecdote is that “respectability” is no sure sign of authenticity (p. 58). The narrator himself calls respectability “that manufacturable thing” (p. 17). If Graveling is “respectable,” then his veracity is not certain, and his account of Billy's tenure on the Rights is called into question.

The narrator also says of Billy that he “at last came to be called” Baby Budd (pp. 5, 52)—as if to suggest that everyone on the Bellipotent recognized his innocent, childlike nature. But only the Dansker ever calls Billy “Baby,” and even the Dansker's use of the term carries no assurance that he felt Billy had a morally innocent nature. The narrator writes, “There was a vein of dry humor, or what not, in the mast-man; and, whether in freak of patriarchal irony touching Billy's youth and athletic frame, or for some other and more recondite reason, from the first in addressing him he always substituted Baby for Billy” (pp. 51–52; my emphasis). By means of his qualifying phrases, the narrator all but admits that he does not know why the Dansker called Billy “Baby.” Thus as a guide to Billy's moral nature, “Baby” is no more reliable than “Handsome Sailor.”8

Other aspects of the story are similarly equivocal. Thus the scenes of Billy with the Dansker depict Billy as being surprised at the idea that Jemmy Legs was “down on him,” as if to suggest that Billy was ingenuous. But when the narrator's embellishments are set aside (as when he writes, “‘Jemmy Legs!’ ejaculated Billy, his welkin eyes expanding”), the words themselves tell us little about Billy except that he was surprised (pp. 52, 77). Moreover, the failure of the narrator to tell us about Billy's so-called “innocent frolics” also raises questions. The narrator assumes that Billy's spilling of the soup in front of Claggart was an accident, but it could have been another “frolic.” The narrator himself suggests this possibility when he speculates that Claggart thought Billy's spilling of the soup was deliberate (p. 66). Finally, the narrator states that Billy, “horrified” by the sight of an afterguardsman being flogged, resolved never to do anything that “might merit even verbal reproof” (p. 49). The narrator seems to take this as a sign of Billy's innocence, but it can also be read as indicating a decision by Billy to play the role of a cheerful innocent with his superiors in order to stay out of trouble with them. Aspects of his true nature—such as his “frolics,” and perhaps also his resentment at being impressed, and his “epithets” directed against Claggart—could have been concealed from all but a few of his fellow sailors but discovered by Claggart's spy Squeak.

While such an interpretation is but speculation, it is no more so than the narrator's. That alternate readings of the same evidence are allowed for by the text—once the narrator's reliability is called into question—shows how open and variable is meaning in Billy Budd. But this variability cannot be resolved into a single, determinate account of Billy's character, because the different scenes of Billy that the narrator gives us do not add up to an integrated human being. Like the rendering of Jesus in the Gospels—saintly in one scene, enigmatic or violent in another—Billy Budd's behavior as well as his moral nature is contradictory and baffling. The narrator writes of Billy, “something about him provoked an ambiguous smile in one or two harder faces among the blue-jackets” (p. 14), but what this “something” was cannot be known, only speculated about. The one thing we can be sure of is that the narrator's idealized portrait of Billy bears little relation to the original; it is literally “too good to be true.”9


By this point the question naturally arises concerning the motives behind the narrator's bias—why he insists against his own evidence that Billy was ideally good and Claggart a depraved villain. The answer has to do both with the narrator's narrative method and with his other biases—his sympathy for the officers' class and his deference to established authority, manifested in his opposition to the French Revolution and in his belief in the necessity of impressment to prevent the crippling of the “indispensable fleet.”

As we have seen, the narrator does not so much write an account of Billy Budd's life as assemble it. He begins with a number of self-contained scenes or set-pieces, such as Billy being impressed, Billy spilling the soup, Claggart and Vere at the mainmast, and Billy's trial and execution (I identify about a score of such scenes). In addition he has descriptions (or actual portraits) of Billy and Claggart, testimony by such characters as the Dansker and Captain Graveling, stray dialogue, such as the sailor advising Billy to sew himself up in his bag, and other information, such as the sailors' gossip about Claggart and Claggart's actual naval record. This heterogeneous material is organized into a continuous narrative in which the contradictions are glossed over (but not entirely eliminated) by the narrator's unifying perspective.

This method of the narrator's (which is, of course, an invention of Melville's) closely corresponds to the method of the Gospel writers as discovered by the Higher Criticism.10 Moreover, like the authors of the Gospels, the narrator of Billy Budd conceals his method of composition as well as his limited knowledge and offers his heterogeneous text as an infallible guide to truth—an “inside narrative.” In Billy Budd as in the Gospels, however, the lingering presence of the contradictions makes possible the discovery of the respective “confidence games” and also allows for the elaboration of alternative scenarios derived from the same evidence.

There is something else that justifies my belief that the narrator of Billy Budd assembled his narrative from disparate sources; namely, Melville himself used such a method in many of his own books. Thus in White-Jacket, Melville borrowed from and quoted—without attribution—no fewer than twelve secondary sources relating to life on a man-of-war.11 Besides parodying the Gospels, then, Melville in his duplicitous narrative strategy in Billy Budd seems also to be parodying his own role as a “confidence man” of writers.12

In the Gospels, the disparate material is organized around the assumption that Christ was the chosen Messiah; the unifying element is the divine word of God. In Billy Budd, the unifying element is Captain Vere. It is Vere who first characterizes Billy as innocent and Claggart as a villain. At the trial Vere testifies that Billy was not involved in a mutiny plot and that Claggart's accusation was a lie (pp. 101 ff.). This testimony, which the narrator—out of deference to Vere's position as the ship's captain—accepts without question, serves as the framework of his narrative. Committed as he is to upholding the authority of Vere, the narrator forces the contradictory evidence into the Procrustean bed of Vere's dualistic interpretation. In his testimony Vere terms Claggart's supposed lying a “‘mystery of iniquity’” explicable only to “‘psychologic theologians’” (p. 104). The narrator becomes one in developing his theory of Natural Depravity, a supposed instance of a “finer spiritual insight” such as was possessed by the Hebrew prophets. In developing his archetype of the Handsome Sailor, the narrator again follows Vere's lead. When Claggart at the mainmast accuses Billy of being a “‘dangerous man,’” Vere replies, “‘the young fellow who seems to be so popular with the men—Billy, the Handsome Sailor, as they call him?’” (p. 87). The narrator assumes from this that there was a Handsome Sailor type and that the men recognized Billy to be one.

Reference to the scene of Claggart and Vere at the mainmast brings me to another important aspect of the story. Given the finitude of the narrator's knowledge—a key assumption of this paper—then the account of what Claggart and Vere said to one another at the mainmast had to have come from Vere; these two were the only ones present. The narrator poses as an eyewitness to the scene at the mainmast, but he achieves this effect by combining two different sources. Sailors aloft and officers nearby saw Claggart approach Vere, but their words to one another were “beyond earshot” (p. 90). The dialogue, however, is surely from Vere, who, at the trial, “concisely … narrated all that had led up to the catastrophe, omitting nothing in Claggart's accusation” (p. 101). This explains the narrator's statement that what Claggart said “was to the effect following, if not altogether in these words” (p. 85). The narrator cannot give Claggart's exact words because Vere's testimony at the trial was itself a paraphrase of what Claggart ostensibly said.

Given the central, organizing presence of Vere in the narrative of Billy Budd, the question of his veracity becomes all important. Let us consider Vere's account of what was said in the meeting with Claggart. When Claggart made his accusation against Billy, Vere testifies that he replied with “unfeigned astonishment … ‘mean you … Billy, the Handsome Sailor[?]’” (p. 87; my emphasis). Despite the fact that Claggart outlined the charges against Billy (discreetly unspecified by the narrator) and promised that “substantiating proof was not far” (p. 89), Vere is more alarmed by Claggart than suspicious of Billy. Given Claggart's status as the ship's police chief, the recent outbreaks of mutiny in the fleet, and the large numbers of impressed men on his own ship, Vere's reaction seems unlikely. One can hypothesize that Vere was out of touch with reality on board the ship, that he was living up to his nickname, “Starry Vere,” which suggests a self-absorbed, unworldly dreamer. Vere was given the nickname by his cousin, because “Fairfax” (Vere's middle name) appeared with “Starry Vere” in a poem by Marvell called “Appleton House,” the name of Vere's ancestral home (p. 34). The nickname thus had no necessary connection with Vere's character. Indeed, Vere was a war hero (pp. 34–35) who is also termed by the narrator a “martinet” (p. 130). Furthermore, Vere is said to have favored “unconventional writers like Montaigne, who … in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities” (p. 36)—another indication of a realistic, not a dreamy, attitude.

Just as with Claggart and Billy, then, the narrator's rendering of Vere invites contradictory interpretations. Perhaps Vere was not as naive as his own testimony makes him out to have been; perhaps he qualified or even falsified his testimony to achieve his own ends. Clearly, Vere wanted a speedy trial followed by a swift execution. His assertion that Billy was innocent and Claggart a liar had the effect of securing that result with the fewest possible complications or delays. If Vere had disclosed his doubts about Billy's innocence, he would have invited the kind of protracted inquiry that he had to dissuade the judges from conducting as it was. The narrator writes that Captain Vere “necessarily appear[ed] as the sole witness in the case” (p. 101), but this is not true if Claggart's charges against Billy are taken to be relevant. The “substantiating proof” Claggart was prepared to disclose and the role of his subordinate, Squeak, might have surfaced if witnesses had been called.

Vere precluded this line of inquiry by insisting that only Billy's act of killing Claggart was relevant to the trial. His manipulation of the judges was thus a classic “cover-up.” Moreover, his assertion that Billy was innocent, Claggart a liar, and Billy's killing of Claggart an accident was precisely the testimony best suited to secure Billy's acquiescence in his own conviction. Vere testified to Billy's innocence while Billy was in the courtroom; only after Billy was taken away did Vere argue that Billy must hang (pp. 104 ff.). That Billy supported Vere's testimony thus does not necessarily prove its truth. Thinking perhaps (though wrongly, as it turned out) that it would secure for him a lighter sentence, Billy would have had good reason to concur in the captain's characterization of him as an innocent victim.

Vere's courtroom cover-up has other implications. Since only Billy, Claggart, and Vere were present in Vere's cabin when Claggart was killed, we have only Vere's word for what happened there. This scene, too, is presented as if by an eye-witness, but like the one at the mainmast, it is demonstrably a dramatized reconstruction based in part on Vere's testimony. The evidence is the exactitude with which the narrator describes Vere's entry into and departure from his cabin: “‘Shut the door there, sentry,’ said the commander, ‘stand without, and let nobody come in’” (p. 92); “Then going to the cabin-door where it opened on the quarter-deck, Captain Vere said to the sentry without, ‘Tell somebody to send Albert here’” (p. 94). The sentry's testimony sets the outer scene; Vere's courtroom testimony supplies the scene within.

With the episode in Vere's cabin we reach a barrier to knowledge beyond which we cannot pass. We cannot be sure that Billy's killing of Claggart was accidental, or even that Billy killed Claggart at all. Whether Vere testified truthfully at the trial or lied for his own private reasons cannot be known, only speculated about. (For example, it is possible that Vere opposed the calling of witnesses because he feared what might be revealed: his own complicity in Billy's framing, perhaps.)

What is evident from the foregoing is how closely the trial of Billy Budd resembles that of Christ as discovered by the Higher Criticism; the truth about each (what was the real reason that Jesus was brought to trial and executed?) remains obscure. Moreover, like the Pontius Pilate of the Higher Critics, Captain Vere—a central figure in the drama—is problematic and largely unknowable. Like Pilate's, Vere's words and actions take place against a backdrop of dimly perceived political turmoil and intrigues; like Pilate, Vere protests the defendant's innocence but acquiesces in—or instigates—his execution. The narrator depicts Vere as taking a fatherly interest in Billy and gives a sentimental account of Vere's final interview with him following Billy's conviction. But this scene is merely the narrator's conjecture. “What took place at this interview,” he writes, “was never known” (p. 112).

A more cynical reading of Vere's attitude toward Billy can be gleaned from Billy's cryptic words at the trial, “‘I have eaten the King's bread and I am true to the King’” (p. 102). These words have both patriotic and Christian overtones; they suggest that in the interval between Claggart's killing and the start of the trial, Vere may have used an appeal to flag and Cross to help win Billy's acquiescence in his own conviction. Later, in the final interview, Vere may have used similar patriotic and religious appeals to help win Billy's acceptance of his impending death. Billy's passivity and his final words—“‘God bless Captain Vere!’”—suggest that Vere's persuasion was successful.

Such a strategy in the context of his other behavior would make of Vere not a true believer but a skillful manipulator of patriotic and religious forms. “‘With mankind,’” the narrator reports Vere as saying, “‘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’” (p. 130). The narrator cites these words in the context of Vere's imposition of shipboard order and discipline following Billy's hanging; they imply that Vere, the Orpheus, used such “measured forms” to keep the common sailors, the “wild denizens of the wood” or undisciplined natural men, from reverting to the state of nature, characterized by strife and disorder and represented in his own time by the anarchic French Revolution. But if Vere used appeals to patriotism and religion to secure Billy's acquiescence in his own death, then these could be regarded as “measured forms” as well—in the sense that, like discipline, they help to uphold established authority.

Another “measured form”—Vere's courtroom testimony—is accepted without question not only by the judges but also by the credulous narrator; he too is spellbound by “Orpheus' lyre” (Lawrance Thompson pointed out long ago the pun on “liar”). Blind to Vere's cover-up at the trial, the narrator also overlooks the adroit stage-managing of Billy's hanging, which seems intended to serve as an object lesson to the men of the captain's absolute power and as a warning to any would-be mutineers among the crew, whose leader Billy may or may not have been. Ignoring these darker resonances, the narrator is uplifted by the supposed spirituality of Billy's repose as he awaits hanging and inspired by the picturesque backdrop of the predawn setting (the postponement of the trial until daybreak may have been another of Vere's “spellbinding” gestures). When Billy is described as “ascending and taking the full rose of the dawn,” he is being expressly compared to the resurrected Christ; and the narrator is further awed by the fact that Billy's body at death unaccountably showed no spasmodic movement.

The supposed supernatural character of Billy's death is one of the most mysterious elements in Billy Budd, but it becomes explicable if the story is taken to be not a homage to the Gospels but a disguised parody of them. The clue is given in the short chapter called “A digression,” in which the purser questions the surgeon about the unnatural manner of Billy's death. The surgeon's cryptic disclosure that the execution was “‘scientifically conducted … under special orders’” (p. 126) suggests the possibility that Billy was administered a drug—much as the dying Vere was given a “magical drug which sooth[ed] the physical frame” (p. 132). This hypothesis, given further credence by the description of Billy in chains, lying “without movement … as in a trance” (p. 118), relates Billy Budd to the effort, widespread in Melville's day, to explain Christ's Resurrection naturally, for example, in the theory that Christ, drugged and taken from the Cross still living, was apparently resurrected because he was never really dead.

A scientific explanation for Billy's unnatural death not only undercuts the purser's effort to explain it as “‘a species of euthanasia’”—a peaceful, painless death; it also ironically discredits the sailors'—and the narrator's—posthumous worship of Billy, since his transformation into a saint is seen to rest on a delusion and to constitute a fraud.

It is central to Melville's ironic design in Billy Budd that the reader discover this imaginable fraud through a method of reading and exegesis analogous to that of the Higher Criticism. Just as the advanced biblical scholarship of Melville's day undermined the divine authority of Scripture, so does the discerning reader of Billy Budd discredit the authority of Captain Vere, who would have been responsible for the drugging as well as for the other elements in his stage-management and cover-up. This is the significance of Vere being felled by a shot from the Athée. He is deposed not only as the captain of the Bellipotent but in his God-like authority in the narrator's “craft.” Like the French radicals who overthrew Church and State in 1789, Vere is subverted by readers who “plot” to overthrow him—by seeking to rewrite the “plot” that Vere authored in the trial and execution of Billy Budd. The disorder and chaos that resulted from the political act of rebellion in France is thus analogous to the epistemological disorder—the fall into doubt and proliferation—that follows on the act of rebellion against Vere's authority in the text. The movement of Billy Budd in this regard resembles that of Pierre, in the sense that in the earlier book, Pierre's denial of the authority of his father (and of God the Father) plunges him into a nightmare of ambiguities.

Pierre, however, ends in exhaustion and madness; in Billy Budd, Melville retains his sanity and his control. Although he is arguably motivated by a perverse spirit of revenge against his unwitting readers, his text, like The Confidence-Man, is an intricate puzzle (with more elements than I have been able to suggest here), a kind of Nabokovian game in which the pleasure li