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Billy Budd
Herman Melville


THE NOVEL

THE PLOT

The year is 1797, a time of war between Britain and France, and also a time when British sailors rose up in mutinies against the naval authorities. Billy Budd, a handsome, naive, and good-natured young sailor, is forced to join the British Navy aboard the man-of-war Bellipotent (called the Indomitable in some editions of the book). Billy was happy and liked by everyone on The Rights of Man, but he doesn't protest the change; he's not a complainer, and he does what he's told. Billy is assigned to the foretop (a platform up on the foremost mast of the ship), and he soon makes friends with the other foretopmen and becomes a popular member of the crew. Billy is so virtuous that he seems almost too good to be true, but he does have one defect: he stutters, especially when he becomes emotional. Both Captain Vere, the commander of the Bellipotent, and John Claggart, the ship's master-at-arms (which is really a police spy job), notice Billy, but they each have different reactions to him. Because of his good looks and innocent temperament, Billy reminds the captain of Adam, the father of mankind, in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. But Claggart, a sneaky, evil, and deceitful fellow, singles Billy out because he's jealous and resentful of his popularity.

Billy, unaware of the attention he's attracted, applies himself to his job. One day he sees a fellow sailor being flogged as punishment for some petty crime, and Billy vows never to do anything that will bring this dreadful punishment upon himself. But try as he might, he keeps getting into trouble over minor details having to do with his bags and bedding. He just can't figure it out, so he asks the Dansker, a wise old friend, for advice. When the Dansker tells him that Claggart is down on him, Billy can't believe it. Claggart's always been so kind! There has to be some other explanation.

A few days later, when Billy is having lunch, he accidentally spills his soup across Claggart's path. Oddly enough, Claggart's only response is to tap Billy on the back and tell him jokingly that it was "handsomely done." Billy takes this as proof that Claggart really likes him. But how wrong he is! Claggart is so depraved and paranoid that he trumps up this soup-spilling into a major offense and starts plotting Billy's demise.

Claggart gets one of his henchmen to approach Billy at night and offer him money to join in a mutiny. Billy is so shocked that he starts to stutter. Though he furiously rebuffs the man, he fails to report him to the authorities because he doesn't want to be an informer.

Meanwhile, the Bellipotent is sent out on a scouting mission and sails miles away from the British fleet. Claggart chooses this moment to spring his trap. He goes to Captain Vere and tells him that Billy Budd is causing trouble on board and hints that he might be leading a mutiny. Vere has trouble believing this story, so he decides to bring Claggart and Billy together in secret and force the truth to come out. The meeting takes place in his cabin. Claggart delivers his accusation, and Billy is so surprised and upset at the lie that his stutter gets the better of him. In an agony of frustration, he punches Claggart in the forehead, and the blow kills him instantly. Though Vere sympathizes with Billy and believes him to be honest, he feels he must carry out his role as captain and follow the naval rules exactly. He calls in three officers for a hasty court martial and argues that, according to the regulations, Billy must be hanged. While acknowledging that Billy is innocent in the eyes of God, Vere insists on an immediate execution. One of the officers suggests that they convict Billy, but pardon him, which Vere rejects. He convinces them that to do so would encourage the crew to mutiny because it would seem as if the officers were scared of them.

Vere breaks the news to Billy himself: He's been found guilty and must hang in the morning. Billy takes it calmly, and, in fact, the two men embrace like father and son.

The entire ship's crew gathers to watch the dawn hanging. At the moment before death, Billy calls out, "God bless Captain Vere!" and the crew echoes his blessing. As he ascends on the yardarm, the sun streaks through a cloud and shines gloriously on his face. His body does not twitch in muscle spasms, as is usual with hanged men, and the crew takes this for a miracle. Captain Vere watches without expression and then disperses the crew before they can protest.

Soon after Billy's death, the Bellipotent enters into a fight with a French ship called the Atheist. Captain Vere is shot in battle and dies some days later on land. His last words are: "Billy Budd."

Long after Billy's death, the sailors still remember him and even keep the yardarm he was hanged from as a relic, as if Billy were Christ and the yardarm, the Cross. One of his fellow foretopmen commemorates Billy in a gentle ballad, and his story ends with this simple poem.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT OF BILLY BUDD

When Melville died in 1891, he left Billy Budd in the form of a working manuscript, full of cross-outs and alternate word choices and phrases. Since the book was first published in 1924, several scholars have gone back to the original manuscript and tried to come up with a text that is closest to what Melville intended. This is why there are different versions of the text of Billy Budd, with different titles, different chapter breaks, and many other minor variations. One very noticeable difference is the name of the ship on which the story takes place. In the earlier editions it is called the Indomitable, while in the most recent edition it is called the Bellipotent. This guide is based on the most recent edition, which is considered definitive. Edited by Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. and first published in 1962 by the University of Chicago Press, its full title is Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative.)

[Billy Budd and Typee Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

  • BILLY BUDD

    Is Billy Budd for real- or is he meant to have only symbolic significance? Your interpretation of the book will depend in part on how you answer the question. One thing is clear: Billy Budd moves in a different realm than either of the other two major figures in the book, Captain Vere and John Claggart. There seems to be something larger than life that sets Billy apart. It's possible that you know someone who reminds you of him; but if you do, you probably keep asking yourself if this friend is believable. People like Billy are just not like the rest of us.

    The first thing you notice about Billy is how handsome he is- a blond, blue-eyed, 21-year-old with a perfect build, smooth rose-and-tan complexion, and noble yet relaxed way of carrying himself. He's more boyishly charming than sexy, but there's even more to his looks than this. His appearance has a classical perfection that brings to mind the gods and heroes of Greek mythology- Hercules, Apollo, Agamemnon. Billy does, however, have one flaw, though it's not a physical blemish: He stutters when he's upset, and the more upset he is the worse his stutter becomes. If you want to view Billy as a real person, you can point to his stutter as a trait that takes him off his pedestal and makes him humanly believable. On the other hand, some readers interpret the stutter symbolically, and say it represents original sin, the inborn tendency to evil in our nature.

    Billy is as good-natured as he is good-looking. When he worked on the merchant ship The Rights of Man, he was the most popular man on board, the ship peacemaker whom all the sailors loved and looked out for. When he's forced to sign on the man-of-war Bellipotent as a foretopman, he doesn't complain, and he soon wins the friendship of the sailors on that ship as well. Billy's way of joking around with his shipmates and worrying about getting flogged make him seem like one of the guys. He sings songs, goes out of his way to be respectful to his friend, the old Dansker, occasionally does clumsy things like spilling his soup, and becomes violent when provoked. All of these details help us to see him as a real person. The fact that Billy hides the truth about a possible mutiny on board adds another shade of complexity to his nature. Is he being honorable because he won't squeal, or is he being stupid for endangering the welfare of the ship?

    Billy's most basic characteristic trait is his innocence, again, it's up to you to decide whether to interpret it symbolically, and if so, how far to take the symbolism. What exactly does innocence mean in Billy's case? Partly, it means simplicity, honesty, purity, and straightforwardness. Billy lives and acts from his heart; he's not the least bit intellectual or self-conscious. He's incapable of sarcasm or deceit. His innocence partly reflects a lack of experience: Billy can't read or write; he knows little of the world except what he's seen at sea. He's so trusting that he can't imagine the presence of evil in anyone. His gullibility makes him an easy mark for someone like Claggart, who sets traps for Billy in secret but pretends to like him.

    Is innocence of this magnitude possible in a real person? Readers who see Billy as a symbol say no, and point to the many comparisons of his character with Adam in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

    The symbolic view is also brought out by the vagueness surrounding Billy's background and parentage. The guess is that he's the illegitimate child of an English lord, and some readers even speculate that Captain Vere (a bachelor) is Billy's actual father. We're never told anything about his childhood, his relatives, or really anything at all about his life prior to the events narrated in the novel. Like Adam, he seems to have sprung full-grown out of God. There are readers who feel this lack of information turns Billy into an Everyman figure and makes him more universal. Others say that it isolates him and emphasizes his uniqueness.

    There is still another aspect to Billy's innocence that we haven't discussed. Again and again, Billy is called a "barbarian." What Melville had in mind here was a natural, precivilized man- the "noble savage"- similar to the islanders we meet in Typee. Like the islanders, Billy lacks an understanding of the tricks of sophisticated life. He's easygoing, lives in the present, and expresses himself through his body and emotions- not his intellect.

    Billy is often seen as a symbol for Christ. Like Christ, he is an innocent man who is unjustly accused and put to death. The Christ symbolism comes out strongest in the scenes where Claggart accuses Billy of plotting a mutiny and Billy's hanging. Comparisons with Christ add to the symbolic significance of Billy's story and elevate Billy even further above the sphere of the common sailor. But these comparisons also draw your attention to the many ways he is not like Christ: his violence, his lack of worldly knowledge and understanding, his stutter, and his gullibility.

    Can someone like Billy survive long in a world that is not nearly as good as he is? On a symbolic level, his downfall through the traps laid by Claggart reenacts the fall of Adam from a state of innocence and follows the oldest theme of all: good versus evil. But on a more realistic level, if you've ever known someone like Billy, you know how vulnerable he is to attack by a clever, deceptive enemy. Billy as a symbol is the innocent whom the devil will always seek to destroy. Billy as a man is the eternal good guy who gets trapped in a world more complicated and more treacherous than he is.

  • JOHN CLAGGART

    What is John Claggart's problem? This is a question you can think about endlessly and still not answer to your satisfaction. Claggart is the force of evil in Billy Budd. He is Billy's opposite in just about every way. This will give you a good handle on how to talk about Claggart, but it doesn't get to the bottom of him. As Melville makes so clear in the novel, evil is a mystery that can never be adequately explained. And John Claggart, the embodiment of evil, contains this mystery at the very center of his character.

    To look at him, you might not think he's so bad. Thirty-five years old, tall, dark-haired, and fairly handsome, there are only two really unusual things about his appearance- a dead-white complexion and an overly large chin. Claggart's job is master-at-arms aboard the Bellipotent, but in fact what he does is spy on the crew of the lower gun decks. He's supposed to report any infringement of the rules no matter how small, and his job seems to fit his secretive, spider-like personality perfectly. The odd thing about Claggart is that he seems to be quite intelligent, and no one can quite figure out how he got to be in the navy. Rumor has it that Claggart was a small-time criminal in England, and that he was drafted into the navy directly from prison. But no one seems to know anything about him for sure, and he doesn't give away anything. Even his citizenship is in doubt, because Claggart's accent has a hint of something foreign. This vagueness about his background is the one thing he has in common with Billy. His intelligence links him, as we'll see, with Captain Vere. But Claggart's depraved nature is totally unique.

    Where Billy has the innocence of Adam and becomes a victim like Christ, Claggart has the deceitfulness and envy of Satan, and he doesn't hesitate to use these personality traits to bring about Billy's downfall. In a symbolic reading of the book, there's no question that he represents evil. But it's also worthwhile to take a closer look at the man behind the symbol and try to fathom the "mystery of iniquity" that he embodies. Claggart is depraved by nature- he didn't learn to be evil by associating with evil people or picking up bad habits. His evil is inborn. In fact, he doesn't even have bad habits. On the outside, he's straight, clean- living, calm, and rational. He applies all the powers of his intelligent mind to bringing about his hateful purposes, but he does so in secret. If you were to meet him, you'd think there was something slimy about him, but you'd never have any idea just how sick he was inside. Because of his secrecy and surface tranquility, Claggart is the most dangerous kind of madman there is. Yes, madman: You finally have to conclude that Claggart is insane.

    Why does he pick on Billy? There are several possible reasons. One is envy: Claggart sees how popular Billy is. He's smart enough to understand that Billy's good looks go with a good heart; he half wishes he could be like Billy, but since he knows this is impossible, he moves in for the kill.

    Why must men like Claggart be around to mess things up for the rest of us? Does every Eden have to have its snake? The presence of John Claggart in Billy Budd suggests that evil is part of our world, and it will always attach itself to innocence and try to corrupt or destroy it. The judges and leaders are not the only ones who must deal with this problem- it is everyone's concern.

  • CAPTAIN VERE

    In Billy Budd, the role of judge and leader is played by the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere, the commander of the Bellipotent. Vere is a member of the English aristocracy; in fact, Vere is the name of a noble family that was especially prominent in the seventeenth-century. A bachelor about 40 years old, Vere is a brave but not imprudent captain, who has distinguished himself in several battles and risen to his rank through dedicated service and because he treats his crew well. He is an intellectual, which is something of a rarity in the armed forces. He loves to read, especially history and philosophy books that reinforce his strong and conservative opinions of the world. Though he is a decisive leader, he also has a touch of dreaminess in his character and can be seen, on occasion, staring out to sea, thinking his own private thoughts. This trait is the real reason the nickname "Starry" Vere stuck with him, even though his cousin originally gave him the name as a mark of honor after Vere returned triumphantly from a naval victory. Some of his fellow officers find him a bit pompous, because he's always sprinkling his conversation with learned quotations. But they all agree that even though he can be odd and aloof, he's a good, solid captain, who does his duty and serves his King well. As a leader, Vere exercises caution and doesn't take unnecessary risks. He thinks before he acts and he can make a fast and firm decision when he has to.

    This is the fundamental nature of Vere's character, and everyone agrees on these basic facts. But when Vere has to deal with the extremely difficult situation on board his ship caused by Claggart's accusation, and Billy's striking out at him, his character is thrown into a whole new light. The way he handles himself in this situation has provoked endless debate and heated disagreement among critics, readers, and students. The central dilemma of Billy Budd puts Vere to the test and forces him to make an excruciating decision. The way you feel about this decision, and the man who makes it, will form the backbone of your interpretation of the book. Let's look at some of the different points of view on Captain Vere.

    1. VERE AS STERN BUT JUST JUDGE

      No one likes the fact that Billy hangs for killing Claggart, but many feel that Vere made the only decision possible. As the captain of the Bellipotent he must look out for the welfare of the whole ship, not just the fate of one man, and his decision to execute Billy takes this priority into account. You know how much Vere suffers because the more he sees of Billy, the more he loves him. By the end, he feels almost like Billy's father. He knows Billy is innocent in the ultimate sense, but his duty concerns the here and now. The law demands that Billy must hang, and Vere knows he must uphold the law.

    2. VERE AS COLD-BLOODED COWARD

      Vere argued himself into the death penalty for Billy out of cowardice and naked fear. He might easily have pardoned Billy, but he convinces himself that to do so would cause the crew to mutiny, and he uses this lame argument to convince the other judges to go along with him. It's the typical second-guessing of a nervous coward. Vere might read a lot of books, but all they do is fossilize his already settled opinions. Like so many intellectuals, he totally separates his feelings from his thoughts, and assumes that his gut reaction is wrong, because it comes from his gut.

      Would you want a man like this to be your judge? Vere's total lack of imagination wouldn't be so bad if he were only a private gentleman, reading and smoking his pipe in the seclusion of his own library. But since he's a captain in the navy, in a position of key responsibility, it's an unforgivable flaw with fatal consequences for Billy.

    3. VERE AS A WELL-ROUNDED MAN IN A TOUGH SPOT

      If you've ever had to make a really difficult decision, you know how tough things must have been for Captain Vere. What makes it even worse for Vere is that he's a highly intelligent, complex person who understands all the implications of Billy's case. He's a leader and a thinker, a man of deep feeling but also a stickler for detail, a man with strong personal opinions but with an even stronger sense of duty. There's no simple right or wrong in this case; Vere knows this and suffers for it. Don't you find making some decisions to be torturous? Vere has to weigh human nature, the mood of his crew, the political situation, the law, and the ultimate right and wrong of the case. Because of his training, education, and disposition, Vere is uniquely qualified to grapple with Billy's plight. He does the best that he can. You have to respect him for this and feel for him.

  • THE DANSKER

    Though Billy has many friends among the crew of the Bellipotent, the Dansker is the only one whose character Melville fills out completely. Wrinkled, cynical, tight-lipped, and wise in the crooked ways of the world, the Dansker offers quite a contrast to the handsome young sailor whom he dubs "Baby Budd." Melville compares the old Dansker to the oracle at Delphi, a kind of religious fortune-teller whom the ancient Greeks would consult for advice about the future. Like this oracle, the Dansker likes making short, cryptic pronouncements, and once he speaks, he refuses to explain what he's said. Billy, for one, can't understand half of his utterances, and what he understands he refuses to believe. You might get frustrated with the Dansker because, while he cares for Billy, he refuses to take a stand and speak up for him.

  • THE SHIP'S SURGEON

    The Bellipotent's surgeon is a man of science, a materialist who insists that everything that happens in the world has some rational explanation in physical fact. At first you might think the surgeon injects a note of sanity and reason into the overheated atmosphere of Billy Budd, but finish the book before you jump to any conclusions. Science only has a limited amount to say about a story as emotionally and spiritually complex as Billy Budd, and the surgeon's smug self-confidence may strike you as missing the point altogether.

  • THE SHIP'S CHAPLAIN

    The chaplain of the Bellipotent is a good and pious man who comes to talk with Billy about Christianity on the night before his hanging. But he comes away feeling that Billy's innocence will serve him better on Judgment Day than anything the gospels have to offer. Even though he sympathizes with Billy, he does nothing to help him. Melville gives us the chaplain to show how Christianity, the religion of peace, is forced to serve war in our society. In fact, Billy, the "barbarian," who is impervious to the teachings of Christ, is closer in spirit to Christ than the chaplain, kind and discreet as he is.

[Billy Budd and Typee Contents]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

Billy Budd, an "inside narrative," focuses on the inner life of a single ship. Life aboard the Bellipotent is a scaled-down model (a microcosm) of life itself, yet you will feel how intense and almost claustrophobic this setting can become as the story proceeds and tension mounts. Though the wide open sea is all around, it only isolates the men from the rest of the world. If you've ever been on a long ocean voyage or cut off from the world in some small group (on a camping trip with other people, for example), you know how quickly people can get on each other's nerves, and how minor irritations can flare up into anger and sometimes violence. Melville captures this intensity on board the British man-of-war Bellipotent and heightens it into the symbolic story of Billy Budd. Throughout the book, this ship is cruising the Mediterranean, though we're never told precisely where. At the crucial moments of the plot, the ship is miles away from the rest of the British fleet.

Billy Budd is set in a time of war and mutiny, and these factors have a major impact on the story and on Captain Vere's decision to condemn Billy to death. During the last quarter of the 18th century, the British saw revolution sweep first through their American colonies and then, several years later, through France. In both cases the revolutions succeeded: America gained her independence, and the French revolutionaries toppled the monarchy and plunged that country into a period of turmoil that ended only when Napoleon took over as emperor. Napoleon promptly engaged in a series of protracted wars with the major monarchies of Europe: Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The Napoleonic Wars dragged on from 1796 to 1815 and changed the political map of Europe.

The action of Billy Budd unfolds against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. And the war enters into the story in several ways. Britain was so desperate for sailors to man her large fleet at this time that it became legal for naval officers to board private ships and commandeer whatever men they wanted into the British Navy. This practice was known as impressment. Billy is impressed off the merchant ship The Rights of Man onto the man-of-war Bellipotent at the start of the book. It's also hinted that Claggart is impressed into naval service from a British prison.

Even more important to the atmosphere and action of Billy Budd are the two mutinies that occurred in the British Navy just months prior to the story. Though the mutinies were suppressed, you can easily imagine the fear they caused throughout Britain. Many people were terrified that the mutinies would be the first sparks of a revolution. On board the Bellipotent, you can feel this fear vividly. The word mutiny alone is like a curse that no one- except Claggart- dares to utter, though you know that everyone has it on his mind. New legislation was passed in Britain to allow naval officers to deal swiftly and brutally with any new mutinous outbreak. These laws and this atmosphere of tension work against Billy when Claggart decides to go after him.

THEMES

Readers have interpreted the major themes of Billy Budd in a wide variety of ways, some of which seem contradictory. No one reading is, or ever can be, definitive; no one theme can sum up the book: Your analysis will be influenced by your personality, your feelings about the characters, and your own sense of justice. You may even want to focus on contradictory meanings as one of the book's themes. So long as you can find support for your ideas in the text, your interpretation is valid.

Here are some of the major themes of Billy Budd:

  1. A DRAMA OF INNOCENCE AND EVIL

    Billy is closely associated with Adam before the Fall and with Christ; Claggart is like the serpent Satan who wormed his way into Eden and tricked mankind out of a state of purity, innocence, and happiness. Billy Budd reenacts this age-old conflict between good and evil symbolically and in the workings of the plot. It's a parable (a symbolic story) about the Fall of Man.

  2. RECONCILIATION, ACCEPTANCE, AND FORGIVENESS

    Yes, Billy Budd reenacts the Fall of Man, but it goes a step further to show the forgiveness and acceptance that follow. The crucial scene in this book is the meeting between Captain Vere and Billy after the trial (the scene from which we're significantly excluded), when the judge embraces the condemned killer like a father embracing his son. The father-son motif is a sub-theme within this general interpretation. The key line in the book is Billy's resounding blessing: "God bless Captain Vere!" Melville, who struggled with the mystery of evil all his life, ends his career on a note of peace and forgiveness.

  3. IRONIC TRAGEDY

    Billy Budd is neither a morality play about good and evil nor a story of reconciliation, but an ironic tragedy with no neat and tidy resolution. Vere's decision to execute Billy is totally legal and yet totally unnatural. Billy accepts his fate, but does he understand the forces that brought about his doom? The narrator hints at many possibilities of meaning and many possible responses to underscore the ambiguity of the case. Far from accepting evil at the end of his career, Melville draws a chilling portrait of it and asks the question: Why must we have this force in our world?

  4. LAW AND HUMAN NATURE

    The focus of Billy Budd is on the drama of how law deals with the complexities of man's nature. While Billy is fundamentally innocent and Claggart is guilty of evil, the law demands that Billy be hanged for murder. Is the law, therefore, an instrument of Claggart's evil? Or is Billy's sacrifice necessary to sustain justice overall? The central character of this theme is Captain Vere and the central scene is Billy's trial, when Vere argues the importance of upholding the law, even at the expense of human feelings. Though law is never perfect, imperfect human nature makes it necessary.

  5. SOCIETY IN TRANSITION

    The story of Billy Budd plays out the transition from a bucolic world of simple values and innocent men to a cold, inhuman world dominated by harsh laws, violent wars, and industrial mechanization. Billy is the natural man destroyed by the rigidities of a civilized society that cannot accommodate his goodness and trust. What do you think of a world that believes it is necessary to condemn Billy to death? Do we, in fact, live in a world that has become progressively more brutal and inhumane? Billy Budd signals the transition of society from a state of simplicity to the nightmare of the modern world.

  6. A STUDY IN CONTRASTING VALUES

    Throughout Billy Budd, different values are compared and contrasted. Billy not only represents innocence, but emotional truth, spontaneous action, physical beauty and health, and a natural goodness untainted by the deceit of civilization. His opposite is Claggart, who is associated with the depravity of the intellect, the corruption that hides behind a civilized exterior, secrecy, and a tricky genius at manipulating appearances. In the middle is Captain Vere, who shares some of the characteristics of each. Does he resolve them? Is it possible to resolve them? The resolution or lack of resolution may be deeply embedded in human nature itself.

  7. THE DIFFICULTY OF MAKING A DECISION

    All the events in Billy's story emphasize the impossibility of making a fair decision about his fate. Melville gives you many ways of looking at it- from the point of view of what is essentially right and wrong, from a legal standpoint, from an historical perspective, in terms of the total good of the ship, from the perspective of basic human compassion- and forces you to undergo the difficulty of making a choice. There is no easy answer, and really no right answer. So you must settle it as best you can with your own conscience, just as Vere must settle it with his.

STYLE

The style and point of view of Billy Budd can be treated together because the strong narrative voice determines both. The narrator of the story is clearly a highly educated person with a great knowledge of mythology and the Bible, and with strong opinions that he occasionally steps forward and asserts (for instance, when he holds up Lord Nelson as an example of glorious heroism). Though the narrative voice is consistent throughout the novel, the point of view continually shifts. Sometimes the narrator puts you inside the heads of the characters- he tells you Claggart's secret thoughts about Billy, and makes you feel the anguish Captain Vere experiences in making such a hard decision. But then sometimes he purposely excludes both himself and you from a scene- most notably when Vere goes to tell Billy that he must hang- and avoids making judgments. The shifting perspective and the drawing back from judgments force you to apply your own feelings and values to the events of the book. It draws you in and makes you experience the complexities of the situation.

The narrator constantly makes allusions to the Bible and to Greek mythology, and this has the effect of elevating Billy's story into a symbolic drama. The narrator also has a habit of digressing, and he confesses that this weakness is a "literary sin." You might find these digressions distracting, but in fact when you stop to think about why the narrator has included them you see that they do shed light on the story. Not only does the narrator keep changing his point of view, but he keeps changing the pacing of the story as well. Broodings on history, or long analyses of characters are followed by intense dramatic action, such as Billy's being approached about a mutiny or his killing of Claggart. The narrator evokes the atmosphere of the ship through the use of light and dark, short but vivid descriptions, and through the poetic rhythms of his language. The narrator devotes the last two chapters of the novel to a newspaper story and a poem, both of which have voices and styles completely different from his own and depict Billy's story in a totally different light. Doesn't this make you think that the way a story is told can be at least as important as the story itself?

FORM AND STRUCTURE

The narrator himself admits that Billy Budd lacks "symmetry of form," but he claims that this is unavoidable since it's a true story, and the truth will always have its ragged edges. We know that this is, in fact not the case, that Billy Budd is a work of fiction, so why does Melville put this in? It draws your attention to the form and structure of the book and makes you think about what he means by truth.

While you perceive the book's structure to be loose and flexible, you might find that the digressions, the fits and starts, and the alternation of long and short chapters are the best way of conveying the feel and meaning of Billy's story. Maybe the narrator means that Billy Budd is true in a deeper sense: Its form corresponds to the shape of real experience. Don't you find that when you're trying to make a major decision, or when you're living through some crucial event, your mind keeps jumping from one thing to another, sometimes dwelling on an analysis of the event, sometimes taking things in quickly and dramatically, sometimes inventing hypothetical situations to use as comparisons or contrasts? This is what the form and structure of Billy Budd are like. The book does not proceed in a strictly orderly fashion but begins by dwelling at length on character portraits, then shifts to fast action, slows down again to a long and closely argued trial scene, and then draws rapidly and dramatically to a close with the intense and cinematic hanging of Billy. Even after this event, the book lingers on to comment on it and tie up loose ends. Many readers feel that though the structure lacks symmetry, it coheres in a profound and moving way.

THE STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES


ECC [Billy Budd and Typee Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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