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MonkeyNotes-Billy Budd by Herman Melville
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Notes

Melville finds it necessary to add a "sequel" to Billy Budd, possibly as a bridge to the ballad (in Chapter 30) which was actually his point of departure for the novel. The story is the making of a legend; it started with the history of the British navy and the adoration of the Handsome Sailor as a type and ends with the death of an evil master-at-arms, a Handsome Sailor, and their naval captain. The story printed in the newspaper gives a clue as to how legends are made, changed, and internalized.

The sailors react strongly to Billy's hanging and burial, and especially to the appearance of the large waterfowl, sensing that the birds are some significant omen. They watch all of the external events in guarded silence; but after each one, there is much talk amongst them. The captain is now so fearful of a mutiny that he breaks routine and sends the sailors off to their duties an hour earlier than normal. It is ironic that when Billy is around, mutiny is not a real issue, except in the mind of Captain Vere; now the ship is much closer to mutiny because Billy is gone.

It is important to notice the strength of the auditory imagery in these scenes surrounding Billy's death. As he is executed and buried, there is absolute silence on deck, broken only by the screeching of the seafowl and the splash of the body into the water. After each of the incidents, a general murmur begins to swell amongst the sailors. Vere takes quick control, ordering the drums to be sounded and the chaplain to say his prayer earlier than normal. It is his way of controlling the noise and the sentiment.

When the purser asks the surgeon about the unusual calm in Billy's dying body, Melville seems to be pointing out three important points: first, that Billy's extreme purity extends to his bodily functions; second, that the impatient surgeon is still obviously disturbed by the whole set of events; and third, that Melville is commenting on how limited "science" really is.

Finally, when the Indomitable meets the Athee, it is inevitable that the captain must die -- to prove he is not indomitable. It is ironic that the shot that kills him comes from the porthole of the captain's quarters, the same place he stood on his own ship convincing the drumhead court to execute Billy. It is also ironic that Vere, who saw to the murder of a Christ-like figure, is killed by the "atheist."


The published account of the affair is certainly ironic, for it totally twists the story of Claggart and Budd. It is also Melville's way of showing the old warning, "Don't believe everything you read."

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