Billy Budd eNotes Lesson Plan
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By the end of this unit, students should be able to
- explain in basic terms the historical context of the story and the significance the context plays in the story’s events;
- describe the three principle characters—Billy Budd, Claggart, and Captain Vere—and identify their distinguishing traits;
- define allegory and interpret allegorical elements in the text;
- express arguments both for and against Captain Vere’s determination to execute Billy;
- identify and explain the underlying conflicts that constitute the primary themes of the story, including good versus evil, the individual versus society, human nature versus reason, and compassion versus the rule of law;
- analyze the character of the narrator and describe how his intrusions into the narrative affect the story.
Herman Melville belongs to a group of eccentric, visionary 19th-century writers—others include Whitman, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Dickinson—whose work drew limited acclaim in their lifetimes, but who in the 20th century were championed by scholars and transformed into icons of American literature.
Melville’s first novels, written in his twenties, were best-selling adventure tales based on the five years he spent sailing the world as a merchant marine. His ambitious, philosophically searching sixth novel, Moby-Dick, now one of the most famous works in American literature, was a commercial failure at the time of its publication, and it marked the beginning of the decline of Melville’s career as a professional writer. In his forties, he took a post as a customs inspector in New York City, a job he held until retirement two decades later. He wrote poetry that reached a tiny readership, but he never again published a work of fiction. He did, however, return to fiction writing in his final years, and on his death in 1891, he left behind the heavily annotated manuscript for Billy Budd.
The text was discovered among his papers in 1919 and first published in 1924, in a version that’s now thought to have significantly misinterpreted Melville’s notes and edits. It was nonetheless greeted with critical acclaim, and in the ensuing years, it became firmly established in the canon of American literature. In 1962, a painstaking re-examination of the manuscript resulted in a new edition that’s considered the definitive text.
Billy Budd is short—it’s commonly classified as a novella—and it has a straightforward plot: While at sea, Billy, a likeable young sailor of almost saint-like virtue, is falsely accused of insubordination by an envious petty officer. Shocked by the accusation and momentarily tongue-tied, Billy strikes the officer and kills him with a single blow. In accordance with the rules of maritime law, Billy is hanged for the murder, despite having the sympathy of the captain and other members of the crew.
Despite its brevity and simple storyline, Billy Budd is a challenge for almost all readers. The book is most appropriate for 11th- and 12th-graders and will present difficulties even for advanced students. It’s worthwhile to acknowledge these challenges and make navigating them an explicit part of instruction:
- Vocabulary: Melville’s language is elevated. Adding to the vocabulary challenge, some of his usage is archaic, and he employs lots of nautical terminology.
- Syntax: Sentences are often long and convoluted.
- Abundant allusions: The book is loaded with references to naval history and the Bible, as well as some digressions on ancient philosophy. Working with an annotated text helps students understand the allusions.
- Ambiguous allegory: There are unmistakable allegorical elements in the story—Billy is compared to Adam and to Christ, and his nemesis, Claggart, is described as the embodiment of evil. Melville’s intent regarding the book’s allegorical elements is difficult, if not impossible, to unravel. Some readers interpret the story as his coming to terms with God, while others see it as a satire of religious allegory.
- A murky, inconsistent narrator: Billy Budd is told in the third person, but the narrator has a distinct personality, to the extent that it’s appropriate to treat him as a character in the book. He isn’t a participant in or a witness to the story’s events, and readers are never told who he is or when he is supposed to be writing. He makes occasional, cryptic references to his own life, and he freely expresses judgments about characters and events—only in the next breath to second-guess his interpretations. At some points he’s omniscient, recounting private scenes between two characters, while at others he says, in effect, “no one knows what really happened, but here’s what I think might have taken place.”
- Sexual subtext: There’s nothing overtly sexual in Billy Budd, but in crucial scenes Melville uses vocabulary that lends itself to sexual double entendre. Billy’s physical beauty is one of his defining characteristics; he has a clear, though never explicitly stated, “sex appeal.” The book can be taught without addressing the topic of sex, but attentive students may draw inferences from the innuendos and raise them as a topic of discussion. If students can maturely interpret sexual nuances in the text, another facet of the book can be explored. However, devoting too much attention to sexual subtext can become a distraction.
Some of these difficulties are also Billy Budd’s virtues. For strong students, learning to navigate through complex syntax and diction can be a rewarding exercise. Allusions, ambiguity, and multiple levels of meaning all add to the richness of the text. However, the book’s greatest strength rests in its simple plot and the fundamental question at its heart: does Billy’s punishment fit his crime? Even students who have been flummoxed by Melville’s storytelling style can become highly engaged in discussing and debating the question and the universal issues inherent in it: the individual versus society, instinct versus reason, and compassion versus the rule of law.
About this Document
- An in-depth introductory lecture
- Discussion questions
- Vocabulary lists
- Section-by-section comprehension questions
- A multiple-choice test
- Essay questions