Melville’s Billy Budd

Billy Budd, Sailor

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.

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2 responses to “Melville’s Billy Budd

  1. Hi Dale,
    I had a kind of personal “reading renaissance” in the early ’90s, and it was during that time I read Moby Dick, Typee, Omoo, Benito Cerino, Bartleby, The Encantata’s and most of Melville I could lay my hands on. For some reason, Billy Budd was my favorite, though, I may have benefited from reading it near the end of my Melville explorations, where I was used to the authors’s voice and was able to focus solely on the story and language. Whatever the reason, I remembering it being my favorite book of that year. Thanks for making me think about it again.
    -Jay

    • Jay, I’m really liking Melville. His short stories are going to be on my 2014 list. I have one to go still for 2013. Typee might have to be in my queue for the near future. One thing about Melville that I find fascinating (I’m not sure why) is that I continuously forget that he was American. I’m glad we get to claim him, though!
      -Dale

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