Student Question

Why does Melville include a newspaper account of events in chapter 29 of Billy Budd?

Expert Answers

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In Chapter 29 of his novel Billy Budd, Herman Melville includes a newspaper account of the events described in the novel.  His reasons for doing so can be variously explain.  Such explanations include the following:

  • In the newspaper account, the execution of Billy Budd is merely one “among other matters” discussed.  For readers of Melville’s novel, as well as for many aboard the Bellipotent, the crime, trial, and execution of Billy have been matters of crucial importance.  For the rest of the world, however, these matters do not seem nearly so important.  Melville may be suggesting that newspaper accounts (unlike novels) cannot begin to do full justice to the events they report.
  • The newspaper is “an authorized weekly publication.” Melville’s novel has offered the story of Billy Budd in ways that cause many readers to question authority; this is not, obviously, the purpose of this “authorized” publication.
  • Melville’s narrator suggests that the newspaper account was “doubtless for the most part written in good faith” – words that are typical of Melville’s frequently ambiguous phrasing. Words such as “doubtless” and “for the most part” inevitably make us question the very assertions they seem to offer.
  • The newspaper account, from its very first paragraph, is not only obviously incorrect but also obviously biased. Melville may thus be suggesting how difficult it is to discover the “real truth” of any event, if indeed the such is even possible.
  • By suggesting that Billy was “no Englishman,” the newspaper account plays on xenophobic and nationalistic prejudices that Melville himself seems to be mocking.
  • By having the newspaper refer to “the extreme depravity of the criminal” (that is, Billy), Melville implicitly pits the subtlety and nuance of his own prose and his own perceptions against the sensationalism and bombast of shoddy popular journalism.
  • The fact that the newspaper account makes no pretense of being objective or unbiased helps highlight, by contrast, the greater complexity of Melville’s novel.
  • The newspaper article is essentially a piece of propaganda, designed to dictate the way others think. Melville’s novel, in contrast, is a work designed to lead readers to think for themselves and to arrive at their own conclusions.
  • The fact that the newspaper article explicitly approves of the swift execution of Billy Budd can be (and has been) used by critics of Captain Vere as evidence that Melville himself is undercutting the justice of Vere’s treatment of Billy.
  • Defenders of Vere, however, might argue that the newspaper account doesn’t begin to do justice to the real complexity of Vere’s own position, thoughts, and motives.
  • The final paragraph of Chapter 29 indirectly suggests the value of Melville’s own novel and implies how little of the “real truth” about the past we are usually likely to know.

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