In fervid hearts self-contained, some brief experiences devour our human tissue as secret fire in a ship’s hold consumes cotton in the bale.
Herman Melville’s small novel Billy Budd, Sailor, published posthumously in 1924, stands as his second “masterpiece”. With his first being Moby-Dick, Billy Budd resumes some of the same themes.
Melville presents Billy Budd, the newest sailor on the Bellepointe, as the epitome of Innocence. In stature and demeanor, Billy is like a Greed god, he is Adam Before The Fall. He is liked immediately by all – well, almost all. John Claggart, the ship’s master-at-arms takes a dislike to Billy. The exact reason for this hatred is never completely revealed, but as Billy portrays Innocence, Claggart portrays Evil.
Their clash ends first for Claggart and as a result an intense moral dilemma unfolds as Billy is court-martialled. The fact that neither Evil nor Innocence appears to win in this drama gives the sea story a haunting ambiguity as the narrator relays the details of Billy’s trial and the results.
For some reason, the narrator’s style reminded me of the narrators on the old police television shows – serious and to the point. While the ship’s captain talks to Billy in confinement, the conversation is given to the reader “as it might have happened”. In other words, the narrator doesn’t know for sure. I thought this was an interesting twist Melville brought to the story.
The story-line also brought to mind Albert Camus’ existential novel The Stranger. I don’t know Melville’s philosophical persuasion, but he definitely grapples with life’s meaning and grapples with it in a big way. And as I read more of Melville, I’m finding that there is no better place to grapple with life’s meaing than on a ship in the middle of the ocean.