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]
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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]
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
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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.
AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
[Billy Budd and Typee Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]
© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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