Billy Budd Essays and Criticism
by Herman Melville

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Narration vs. Character: Self-consciousness in Billy Budd

(Novels for Students)

Esdale is a doctoral candidate in the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo. In the following essay, he analyzes the self-conscious narration that exists in contrast to the apparent lack of self-consciousness in Billy Budd.

Herman Melville's Billy Budd has produced an astonishing diversity of equally plausible interpretations. Most critics consider finally whether they approve or condemn Captain Vere's decision to try and execute the sailor Billy Budd for the murder of the officer John Claggart. Invariably critics include in their analysis a statement made by the novel's narrator near the end that ostensibly apologizes for the meandering style and the unresolved questions: "Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges." Following this proposition, the narrator concludes the history of Billy with three sequels—on the further adventures of the ship, the doomed captain, and the venerated spar from which Billy was hung—and a poem describing Billy's final moments in between life and death. The narrator includes as well a naval report that contradicts the version of events just given. This naval report is anything but ragged. It justifies the execution of Billy in the strongest terms, claiming that he "vindictively stabbed" the honorable John Claggart.

Judging by this report alone, there is no doubt that Billy's death answers for the life he took. For the good of the English nation Billy is hung. But there is no judging anything alone; everything has a context that, if explored, will lead to the digressions and ragged edges that the narrator understands both as a burden on the mind that desires order, and as a liberation from closure. With the narrator, the reader will feel both disoriented and empowered—like the vertigo a person feels close to the edge of an abyss. Attention to all the facts puts the narrator in the impossible position of offering an endless series of contradictions, leaving readers uncertain about the intentions of the characters, and about the events themselves. Finally, the inclusion of other perspectives, like the naval reports, not only throws the truth of each account into doubt, but truth itself seems unreachable, a vanishing point on the horizon.

The novel—and language in general—structures itself through the use of binaries, such as child and adult, innocence and guilt, inner being and appearance, compassion and military or legal duty, the individual and the nation, sea and land. Looking carefully at all the facts tends to blur the difference between these "opposites." In a digression on the line between sanity and insanity, for instance, the narrator asks, "Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other?" A question central to Melville's novel is where does the character "Billy Budd" end, and the character "John Claggart" begin? The two men appear to be utterly distinct, the one intent on doing good and the other intent on doing evil, but also, at times, the one seems to have merged with the other.

When does the past end, and the present begin? When does the future begin? These questions haunt the narrator, and the history of Billy Budd becomes itself a questioning of how history is written: the narration is self-conscious, which means that every general statement is qualified by a particular and contradictory statement, and that the lines among a character, the narrator, and the reader are blurred. The ragged edges of the story refer also to the rags or fragments of history the narrator finds and picks up as the story is written. An infinite number of sequels will still leave the story unfinished (as Melville left the manuscript unfinished at his death in 1891), and the narrator will consciously draw attention to this incompleteness. Critics have since 1924, when Billy Budd was first published, chosen either to write about the ragged edges,...

(The entire section is 6,701 words.)