Billy Budd is a classical tragedy novel. In this novel, one theme might be the corruption of innocence by society, but another might be the consummate peacemaker who brings about unity of man through martyrdom. The narrator never actually says his name, but tells how Billy was accused of mutiny and kills Captain Claggart. In turn Billy is hung and killed for alleged mutiny. Billy is first take from his original ship and put on Claggarts, who at first likes Billy. The action starts rising the moment Claggart reports Billy to Captain Vere as a conspirator in mutiny. The story reaches its climax in the confrontation between Billy and Claggart. After Billys hanging the story starts to come to a close. This story reminded me of the movie, The Negotiator. Billy is like Samuel Jackson in that they are both setup in a crime that they did not do, or took any part in. On the other hand they have opposites like Samuel get to go free, but Billy ends up dying but he get to go back to nature that he adores so much. All the action of the novel takes place aboard a British naval ship named the H.M.S. Bellipotent during the year 1797. Although the setting is a ship, the sea is greatly overlooked because the book looks inward. The atmosphere of the ship stand out against the background of war and mutiny during theses times.
There are only three main characters, Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Captain Vere. The rest play some importance in the novel but not that much. The narrator introduces Billy as the foretopman in the British Fleet. Billy has blue eyes and a youthful figure and is the center of attention. He is surrounded by flat and stereotypical characters that go about their tasks like robots. A youth of outstanding beauty and sincere kindness, he exhibits extreme innocence reflecting his lack of awareness that evil exists. Billys only flaw is a tendency to stutter when under emotional stress. Wherever Billy goes, he is acknowledged as a peacemaker, yet he maintains his manhood by handy applications of his fists when need to be. For this reason, and for the role he plays in the novel, Billy resembles Christ, who also resorted to violence in driving the moneychangers from the Temple. Billys obscure origin also accentuates his universality. His profession allies him with the journeyman. His illiteracy and penchant for song connects him with the birds and other simple creatures of nature, with which he shares kinship. Tanned by the sun at his high post, Billy accepts the blessing of nature, to which he returns after his execution. If Billy is the representative of good, at one with the universe, Claggart is the epitome of evil and resides on the periphery of order. The serpent in Billys Eden, Claggart serves as both tempter and destroyer. Melvilles comparison of Claggart to Tecumseh, the Shawnee, treacherous enemy to the English colonists, to Titus Oates, diabolical plotter against Charles II, and Ananias, shameless liar stuck dead by God, clearly and concisely sum up his evil nature. As a disciplinarian, he shows a rattan as a symbol of his policing role. He takes an evil role in that he tempts Billy to commit mutiny. Claggarts background is mysterious which represents a lurking evil. Captain Vere is the most controversial of the three, he is intelligent like Claggart but his intelligence brings him wisdom rather than monomania. As a forthright commander, he represents the synthesis of heart and mind. His most symbolic and controversial act is the trial and execution of Billy Budd, who seems like a son to him. Vere wants nothing unexpected in his day and rules his ship by the book. In the matter if Billys alleged conspiracy, he puts the welfare of the ship above personal feelings. Fearing the consequences if Billys alleged conspiracy goes unpunished, he persuades the court to give sympathy and act for the goodness of society. Although he feels compassion for Billy, he must make an example of himself to preserve law and order on the ship. There is a handful of other characters that are confronted during the story. The Dansker has a pale jagged scar across his face, weasel eyes, and a blue-peppered expression. He is a favorite among the men. He demonstrates unsentimental wisdom. He also gives Billy a nickname, Baby, and warns him that Claggart is down on him. All that means is that Claggart is out to get Billy. Squeak is a small-stature corporal aboard the ship who sneaks around in order to give Claggart false reports of petty offenses allegedly committed by Billy. Captain Graveling is the captain of Billys original ship, the Rights-of-Man. He prizes Billys qualities and regrets losing him to the Bellipotent. Lieutenant Ratcliff is burly and cynical about his role as impressment officer. The Aftergaurdsman is one who gets Billy accused of mutiny by Claggart. He gets Billy out of bed one night, takes him aside, and offers a bribe for his part in a purported mutiny. Later he plays innocent through casual humor. The Sailing Master was the only one who proposed a lesser sentence for Billy. The Senior Lieutenant was the most reluctant to condemn Billy, he later takes command of the ship and leads the crew to victory over the French. He also hears Captain Veres dying word and correctly interprets their significance.
My favorite part of the book was when Billy enters Captain Veres cabin and sees Claggart. He thinks that the master-at-arms will give a report of Billys performance. Vere orders the sentry to let nobody enter the room. Then Vere tells Claggart to tell the story that he related to the captain. So Claggart tells Billy the story and Billy becomes speechless. When Vere orders Billy to speak in his defense Billy is still speechless. Then Vere tells Billy to take his time and places his hand on him shoulder. After a moment or two Billys right hand wails out, decking Claggart on the forehead. Claggart falls to the deck, dead. Vere tries with Billy to revive Claggart, but it is like handling a dead snake. The surgeon comes in and knows right away that Claggart is dead, but does the usual tests to confirm. The captain says Claggart is Ananias, struck dead by an angel of God who must hang for his deeds. I think that this is the best part of the entire book because Claggart gets what is coming to him. I mean maybe he doesnt deserve to die, but for setting up Billy like that, he deserves to be severely punished.
According to the detection page, Melville owed much to his former sea friend, Jack Chase, whose looks and spirit served as the model for Billy. The setting comes from Melvilles memories of his navy years aboard the man-of-war United States. More significant to the subject matter was a scandal resulting from an abortive mutiny on the U.S. brig-of-war Somers. The captain, Mackenzie, held a shipboard court and hung three of the troublemakers, one of whom was the son of Secretary of War John Spencer. When the Somers returned to port, Mackenzie meet the fury of the Spencer family, yet survived both a military and civil tribunal with his honor intact. However public testimony cast doubt on his sanity. Melville read of these proceedings in the Albany newspapers and received eyewitness accounts of the alleged mutiny from his cousin Guert Gansevoort, a lieutenant aboard the Somers who guarded prisoners and assisted at their execution. Gansevoort publicly condemned the captains actions, but privately sided with the victims. Critics surmise that Melville, who had a brush with a shipboard uprising in Papeete, identified with the situation, which he used as the basis for Billy Budd. For a nation that had undergone the agonizing paranoia of a civil war, the short novel speaks volumes. Billy, like many people caught up in conflicting loyalties, represents two possible modes of morality. As a member of the British navy, he owes allegiance to the flag and the law-bound nation it represents. From my personal point of view, he is a civilized person who owes devotion to order and decency. When the public stance comes into conflict with private, Billy must violate one to satisfy the other. By actually killing the tormentor, Billy calls into play Captain Vere, who has come to love Billy like a son. Vere, also a victim in this scenario, is forced to exercise his military authority in spite of the fact that execution will not right Billys wrong. The irony of this impasse is that impersonal laws, when applied to Billys crime, call for death. And so a public citizen and military man is hanged, thereby destroying the private soul who conquered evil with one involuntary blow of his fist.
Billy Budd is a typical Melville story-a sea story, the authors favorite genre. It treats rebellion, contains rich historical background, abounds in Christian and mythological allusions, concentrates action on actual incident, and concerns ordinary sailors. Melville uses many devices to excencuate this story. Such devices include irony, symbol, foreshadowing, suspense, extended metaphor, rhetorical question, dictation, simile, biblical allusions, mythical figures, and stories. The novel is inevitably interpreted as allegory. Melvilles prose contains the rhythm of poetry. The sentences are long and the chapters short. Thus producing an impression of completeness. The story develops simply, unhurried; yet the action rises to frequent dramatic cataclysms. By making the story short, he shows himself as a writer at his deepest and most poetic. Most of the writing is expository. The event takes place sequentially, but from a retrospective point of view. Digressions are used at strategic moments to often give the ultimate background to illuminate a particular event. Overall, the novel depends on sustained irony in that it dwells on the discrepancy between the anticipated and the real. The irony involves paradox, a statement that is self-contradictory or false. For example, Billy, hanged as a felon, is immortalized as a saint, blessed at the moment of his death by the sailors ironic repetition of his words, God bless Captain Vere!
One suggested theme of Billy Budd is the corruption of innocence by society. Melville seems to prefer the primitive state over civilized society. If this posthumous work is indeed the authors last will and testament, then the theme may indicate his personal resignation and acceptance of the imperfection of life. It also reflects his dissociation from religion, which had always been full of contradictions and uncertainties for him. Finally, in this terminal work he seems to adjust to the incongruities of life as a necessary tragic factor. Through acceptance and endurance, his characters-and the author as well – discover a peace and understanding gained through suffering and reflection. Critics sum up Melvilles final words with an explanation of innocence and perfection in this novel. They see two concepts as unequal. Billy, though innocent, is not perfect. Rather, he embraces death as a means of atoning for evil and goes willingly to his death, blessing Captain Vere as Christ blessed his enemies. If this analysis is true, Billy may represent Melvilles late-in-life subordination of will to Gods infinite judgement. Another view of Billy is the consummate peacemaker who brings about brotherhood of man through martyrdom. Although evil is the ultimate victor and takes its place alongside good, natural goodness remains unconquered in the human heart. In the real world, evil exists unmitigated, unexplained, unmotivated, and impossible to grasp. Billy, hopelessly unsuited to exist in such a world, is its obvious victim. Melvilles comparison of the two irreconcilable facets of Claggarts nature to Chang and Eng, the famous Siamese twins who were joined together in life and death, suggest still another theme in this mysterious and complex tale. The two, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, represents two sides of human nature. On one hand, Claggarts strength resides in his job as shipboard peacekeeper: then, when evil takes control, his evil bent rears up like a coiled snake to strike out at goodness. Like Aristotles golden men, the conjunction of these two extremes is the only viable solution. Such a blend is found in the nature of Claggarts foil, Captain Vere. Perfectly proportioned, he opposes innovation and change, but remains at peace with the world. He is truly a balanced man. Some critics view the story as a commentary on the impersonality and essential brutality of the modern state, exacting the death penalty of the innocent. Billy succumbs to a hostile environment because he lacks the sophistication and experience to roll with the punches. Unlike the shifting keel of the ship, Billy is unable to lean either way and so must break apart and sink to the bottom. In such a state, the peace loving Rights-of-Man cannot operate without protection of the Bellipotent, a symbol of warfare and usurper of those rights. In turn, the Bellipotent can protect the merchant ship only by impressing men from the ship protects. This arbitrary snatching of men to staff the warship equates with the arbitrary justice of wartime, which snatches Billy from a safe berth and makes an example of him. Melville obviously concerns himself with the historical development of humankind and particularly with isolated episodes in which history devours a single expendable individual. Furthermore, Melville sees Christianity as the center of an order, which seem to be slipping away. Because these dismal thoughts invaded the peace of his declining years, Melville deserves greatness for tackling so great an inquiry.
Melville appears to have added the last three chapters to square the story with reality. They also serve as a completion of the myth. It is the memory of Billy rather than Claggart or Vere that survives. The poem reads as though it takes place in Billys mind both before and after his death. His death softens into a peaceful sleep amid the twining seaweed that comprises his final resting-place.