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MonkeyNotes-Billy Budd by Herman Melville
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OVERALL ANALYSES

CHARACTERS

Billy Budd

Billy Budd is introduced in the novel as the prototype of the Handsome Sailor. At age twenty-one, he is handsome, strong, and charming. In spite of his great naiveté, he is liked and admired by all who know him, with the exception of the evil Claggart. His only flaws seem to be his stuttering in moments of great emotion and his quickness to anger. It is these two tragic flaws that lead to his downfall. When he is accused by the evil Claggart of planning a mutiny, the innocent Billy is dumb-founded, and because of his tendency to stutter, cannot utter a single word in self-defense; however, he is upset enough to react quickly and directly. His anger leads him to give Claggart a strong blow on the head as an answer to the accusation; ironically, the strike immediately kills the accuser.

Billy Budd is a true sailor, who loves the sea and works hard to do a good job. At the beginning of the book, he is taken off the merchant ship, Rights of Man, and impressed into the service of the British navy on the Indomitable, where he serves as a foretopman. Accepting of his fate in life, Billy does not complain about the transfer; instead, he smoothly makes the transition and is soon noticed by his officers and fellow sailors as a man who keeps to himself, gets his job done efficiently, and is proud of his work.

A great deal of literary analysis has been written on Billy Budd, focusing on his child-like, Christ-like, feminine, or barbarian attributes. When Melville points out Billy's childlike or barbaric qualities, he is always careful to note that these are not stupid or outrageous, but indications of extreme and pure innocence, a kind of angelic and untouched beauty. Throughout the book his innocence is displayed, almost like Adam before the fall. He never suspects the evil Claggart of being down on him and even finds it hard to accept the fact when Dansker warns him of the situation. When he is approached about participating in a mutiny, he can hardly believe his ears and threatens to throw the sailor over the rail for his suggestion. Such innocence does not serve him well in the world of men and warships, but this is precisely Melville's point: purity of this type survives only long enough to make legends.


Billy's physical and moral beauty is observed, viewed from a certain distance. In the observation, he becomes feminine and Christ-like. The nineteenth century expectation of women as angels of the house placed the female in the role of possessed beauty with the ability to create a heaven (or haven) at home, a type of familial savior. Billy is often referred to in the text as having feminine beauty, and his angelic, Christ-like attributes are referred to numerous times. He is known as a peacemaker who is kind to his fellow man. He is also sacrificed to evil and receives a "Judas" kiss before his execution. In the end, Billy becomes a mythic Christ figure in the text, with the yardarm becoming his "cross" and the ballad becoming his text. Billy Budd is a pure spirit who can help calm a soul at its darkest hour.

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