Billy Budd Herman Melville
American novelist, short story writer, and poet. The following entry presents criticism on Melville's novella Billy Budd (1924). See also Bartleby, the Scrivener Criticism, Benito Cereno Criticism, Pierre, or, The Ambiguities Criticism, and Redburn: His First Voyage Criticism.
Began in 1888 and completed in 1891, the year of Melville's death, Billy Budd is deemed one of his most finely crafted and mature works. Focusing on the execution of a young sailor aboard an English warship, the novella has amassed a diversity of critical responses seeking to determine Melville's final views on such issues as justice, morality, and religion. Billy Budd is also consistently praised for its philosophical insight, multifaceted narrative technique, and complex use of symbol and allegory. Billy Budd has been adapted into a celebrated play, a highly praised opera, a popular motion picture, and a television drama.
Plot and Major Characters
Set in 1797, Billy Budd begins with a preface elaborating on the preceding crises of the French Revolution and the mutinies aboard British naval ships at the Nore and Spithead. Billy is introduced as the archetypal “handsome sailor,” homeward-bound aboard an English merchant vessel, the Rights-of-Man, when he is impressed by an English warship, the Indomitable (denoted the Bellipotent in the revised transcription, as the 1924 text later proved erroneous). Billy, a foretopman, is popular with the crew, but learns from a shipmate that the master-at-arms, John Claggart, harbors a mysterious antipathy toward him. Although Billy refuses an invitation to join in a subversive effort left undefined in the narrative, Claggart later confronts Captain Vere and accuses Billy of fomenting mutiny. Vere is unconvinced, yet brings the two into his cabin and repeats the charge to Billy. Stunned and unable to speak because of a pronounced stutter, Billy fatally strikes Claggart, a superior officer. An impromptu “drumhead court” is held by the captain in which he convinces his officers to hang the foretopman and thus enforce discipline and deter any threat of mutiny. Vere subsequently conducts a private interview with Billy, after which the two appear reconciled. Billy is executed the following dawn, and his only words before he is hanged are “God bless Captain Vere!” The novella ends with three reports: an account of Vere's death after a battle against the Athéiste; a journalistic rendering of the events surrounding Billy's execution; and a description of the crew's remembrances of Billy, concluding with the ballad “Billy in the Darbies.”
Although Billy Budd is relatively straightforward in plot, the work's complicated interweaving of historical digression, mythological and biblical allusion, and multiple narrative viewpoints has inspired an abundance of interpretations. Melville's novella has been noted predominantly for its biblical allusions, especially the parallels to the Christian concept of the Fall of Adam and the crucifixion of Christ. In these interpretations, Billy is associated with Adam and Christ, Vere with God, and Claggart with Satan. A political dimension of the work has also been detected in Melville's references to the French and American revolutions, British admiral Horatio Nelson, and predominant political theories of the eighteenth century. Psychoanalytic perspectives on Billy Budd generally interpret Vere as a superego repressing the instinctual vitality embodied by Billy, and focus on the theme of homosexuality in the work, particularly in the interactions between Billy and Claggart. Autobiographical aspects of the novella have garnered attention, as commentators debate whether Billy Budd is an accurate reflection of Melville's philosophy before his death; moreover, the story has been viewed as a reworking of the author's relationship with his sons.
The major body of Billy Budd criticism has been grouped into two camps: the “testament of acceptance” and the “testament of resistance.” In the former view, early commentators generally found that Melville condoned Captain Vere's actions, recognizing the limitations of society, law, and religion, and expressing what E. L. Grant Watson termed a “testament of acceptance.” However, Joseph Schiffman's 1950 interpretation of the novella, in which he asserted that Vere is presented as an autocrat whom Melville condemned ironically through an unreliable narrator, inspired numerous critics to explicate the text based on this position. While most subsequent criticism of Billy Budd has focused on this debate, other critical approaches have also been applied to the story. Recent criticism has explored the narrative technique of Billy Budd and the text's self-reflexive statements on language and art. The status of the short novel's original manuscript has also been an object of debate since the publication of a revised transcription in 1962. Attempting to redress earlier transcriptions, the editors identified and amended misreadings of Melville's handwritten words and punctuation marks, excluded corrections they attributed to Melville's wife, and clarified the chronology of the work's composition. Among the significant differences arising from Melville's revisions of Billy Budd, the new transcription more clearly displays the author's ambiguous treatment of Captain Vere and has renewed the dispute over his portrayal of the captain. Today, Melville's novella remains highly lauded for its narrative craftsmanship, and its ethical complexity has been compared with classical tragedy and the later dramas of William Shakespeare. Critics concur that the work represents one of Melville's most significant fictions, second perhaps only to Moby-Dick(1851), and stands as a major accomplishment of nineteenth-century American literature.