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MonkeyNotes-Billy Budd by Herman Melville
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Notes

Billy's last hours are described in a soulful, poetic, and mournful manner, much like the ending lines of a ballad. It begins with Vere's visit to Billy that is left intentionally vague for dramatic effectiveness. The reader has to imagine what goes on behind the closed doors as the captain explains the verdict to Billy. Later, as the chaplain approaches Billy, it is clear that Billy's innocence will protect him from feeling the real tragedy of events that have conspired against him. He accepts his death with grace and in ignorance.

There is great irony in the scene between the chaplain and Billy Budd. First, the visual irony is clear. The peacemaker, the Christ- like figure, is chained between two guns. It is a visual statement that makes a clear criticism of war. The chaplain immediately recognizes Billy as an innocent, incapable of true murder. Yet this representative of the Christian faith makes no attempt at all to save the life of the innocent victim. He simply accepts military law over moral law. Therefore, his kiss on Billy's check becomes especially ironic. It is a Judas kiss, the betrayer marking the innocent victim. It is also ironic that Billy, the innocent and non-Christian "barbarian" has no fear of death, while the chaplain worries over his sin and salvation.

When Billy speaks his last words, the full tragedy of his death becomes exceedingly clear. First, in a Christ-like manner, Billy fully and openly forgives Captain Vere for his harsh sentence. The crew responds to him by repeating Billy's words, making it very clear to everyone, including Captain Vere, that the Indomitable has been in no danger of suffering a mutiny, and certainly not at the hands of the innocent Billy.


It is important to note that Vere holds his emotions in check through the entire proceedings. He is the true military man. He gives orders to hang and bury the sailors exactly as dictated by naval code. He quickly puts the men to work after the hanging, never missing a beat. He takes control to make sure that an uprising does not occur in reaction to Billy's death. Vere is truly all business. In fact, the reader has the sense that the Indomitable pushes on through the sea through all these events.

Melville's use of Christian images heighten the dramatic effect of the entire book, and the juxtaposition of Christian ideals and wartime ideology is haunting. The chaplain is particularly in an incongruous position, as a man of God on a warship. In these last chapters Melville again uses several Biblical allusions. Vere becomes Abraham, the father who is asked to sacrifice his son; thus, Billy becomes his Isaac. Billy becomes a stronger symbol of Christ. Like Jesus, he patiently awaits his execution. The chaplain kisses Billy, recalling the kiss of the traitor Judas. As Christ hangs from a cross, Billy hangs from a noose and then "ascends" into the fleece of the Lamb of God. Melville is clearly stating that Billy is no mere mortal, and perhaps, like Christ, his death will be a saving grace.

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