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The noose is around the handsome sailor's neck. The whole crew is standing by on the ship's deck. Captain Vere, the man who condemned Billy Budd to death, looks on without a flicker of emotion or movement as the sailor speaks his final words: "God bless Captain Vere!" Every person on board, including Vere himself, knows that Billy is an innocent man, and yet he must hang. The Captain gives the silent signal, and the sailor ascends on the yardarm (the long pole to which the top of the sail is bent). Billy dies as the sun breaks through the dawn clouds, illuminating his rose-and-tan colored face.
Why must Billy die? How does this hanging of the innocent, good-looking sailor come about? Does Captain Vere make the right decision? Why are Billy's final words a blessing of the judge who condemned him? These are the questions you'll be asking yourself as you read through this story. And the way you answer them will be the basis of your interpretation of Billy Budd.
The story begins with a vivid picture of the Handsome Sailor, not Billy himself, but the group to which Billy belongs. We learn right away what sets the Handsome Sailor apart from other sailors. We see them on shore leave, the "bronzed mariners" flanking this fellow like bodyguards of an important personage. They are proud of him- not only because of the way he looks but for his nobility of spirit. He is like the first-magnitude star Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. And yet, despite his superiority to his fellows, there is nothing vain about him. Rather, he has a "natural regality" combining strength and beauty. So, right from the start, we see that a very humble man like a sailor can have the qualities of an honored king. The Handsome Sailor comes to these qualities naturally. He is born with them, and all who know him recognize them and honor him. In fact, the Handsome Sailor is a hero.
As we will soon see, this quality of heroism is crucial to understanding Billy Budd and his story. And somehow, this heroism seems even more grand because the story is set in an earlier time. "In the time before steamships" is how the book opens. The year is 1797, the stormy era of the Napoleonic Wars. For Melville, writing back in the 1890s, the time before steamships seemed like an age when greater deeds and nobler actions were possible. The narrator calls it a "less prosaic" time, a time when Handsome Sailors could be kingly heroes.
NOTE: THE SUBTITLE, "AN INSIDE NARRATIVE"
Now that we have a general description of the Handsome Sailor, the narrator gives us a specific example of one. Again, the example is in the form of a picture painted in strong, clear colors. We see a tall African man, "intensely black," whose face is shining with sweat on a hot day. He smiles "with barbaric good humor-" and his fellow sailors are proud to be seen with him. Though this seems to have nothing to do with the story of Billy Budd, it's actually an important digression, one of several in the book. That this particular Handsome Sailor is black shows more than the narrator's nonracist point of view. Colors, especially black and white, have a special importance in the story- one that is the reverse of what you might think. If you have read Moby-Dick, the story of the great white whale, you know that white, in that book, symbolizes evil, the absence of good qualities. In Billy Budd blackness has nothing to do with evil, it's just part of the sailor's good looks. (You'll notice that when the villain Claggart is introduced, a point is made of describing how sickly pale and white his skin is.) But that's not the only surprising association in this passage. Barbaric is linked with good humor. So, while you might think of barbaric as being cruel, dangerous, and savage, the narrator is telling you right away that, if you're barbaric, you can also be pleasant and sociable. As we'll soon see, the positive meanings of barbaric give us important insight into the character of Billy Budd himself.
Having defined the Handsome Sailor both in general and with a specific example from Africa, the narrator now brings Billy Budd on the scene. Billy, we're told, is a Handsome Sailor as well, and has the noble nature of this type "with important variations made apparent as the story proceeds." The vagueness here only whets our appetite to read on. He's 21, and he's a foretopman in the British Navy, which means his position aboard ship is the platform on the mast located at the very front. How Billy got to be in the navy is an interesting story that occupies the remainder of Chapter 1.
Before the novel opens, Billy was a sailor on board an English merchant ship that is sailing back home. The boat has the significant name of The Rights of Man (significant because this is also the title of a book by Thomas Paine that defends people's rights to stand up against an unjust government), and Billy is the favorite of everyone on board. But since 1797 was a time of war between the British and the French, people's rights must give way to requirements of battle. The British Navy needed every able-bodied man it could get, and if enough men didn't enlist, the crew of a warship could be filled by impressing sailors from other non-military ships. This meant that the naval officers would board a private ship, select the crew members they wanted, and force them to join the crew of the warship, whether they wanted to or not. Though it sounds almost like piracy, it was perfectly legal at the time.
In Billy's case, Lieutenant Ratcliffe of the warship Bellipotent boards The Rights of Man, spots the Handsome Sailor as good naval material, and impresses him into service on the spot. Captain Graveling of The Rights of Man is nearly reduced to tears when he learns that his "jewel" is being taken away. Billy, he tells the bluff Ratcliffe, was the ship's peacemaker- not because he gave sermons to the crew, but because "a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones." One sailor, however, resisted Billy's spell- a fellow called Red Whiskers, who took a dislike to Billy and teased and provoked him. One day, Graveling relates, when Red Whiskers went too far in his provocations, and Billy could no longer stand it, he "quick as lightning" let fly with his fists, giving the man a "terrible drubbing." Surprisingly enough, Red Whiskers loved Billy from then on, and there was no more trouble on board.
What do we make of this incident with Red Whiskers? Isn't there something contradictory in Billy's sweetness and his violence, something brutish in settling a score with your fists? On the other hand, Red Whiskers did persecute Billy for no reason and seemed to get what he deserved. Billy's spontaneous lashing- out on board The Rights of Man directly foreshadows the central action in the book, and the way you feel about this incident will have an impact on your interpretation of the whole. It's too soon for you to make a final judgment on Billy, but keep this scene and your reaction to it in mind as you read on.
As Chapter 1 ends, Billy takes up his new position as able seaman assigned to the starboard (right-hand side facing forward) watch of the Bellipotent. The ship's name suggests the power of war- a far cry from The Rights of Man, the ship and the situation that Billy has now left behind forever. It's going to be a new world, with new rules, and new dangers for Billy. How will he handle it? Let's read on and see....
This chapter gives us many of the details of Billy's history, appearance, and personality that you may have wondered about after meeting him in Chapter 1. But on a deeper level, Billy's fate and the theme of his story can't be distinguished from his character. Even the name "Billy Budd" makes you stop and think: Billy suggests a simple, boyish, common person; Budd makes you think of a flower bud about to unfold, or maybe "nipped in the bud." As you picture the images that describe Billy, you'll not only get a clearer sense of him, but also a better idea of what the book means.
Billy Budd has often been called the American Adam, and this identification points to one of the book's major themes- the destruction of innocence by evil. Billy, we are told, is "a sort of upright barbarian," just like Adam before the "urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company." He can't read; therefore, he hasn't yet bitten into the "questionable apple of knowledge."
Remember the African with his "barbaric good humor" in chapter 1? It's in this sense that Billy and Adam- and for that matter the islanders of Typee- are barbaric: natural, unselfconscious, gullible, and unsuspecting. His opposite is the "urbane Serpent," a sly, sneaky, fast-talking liar you might find hustling innocent tourists in a big city, or worming his way into the Garden of Eden. Billy is so innocent he can't even imagine that anyone could have this kind of evil. How's he going to handle himself when he finally meets evil face to face? We'll soon see.
Do you know anyone like Billy Budd: someone so good-hearted and simple he seems to be in another world, someone you could easily trick but you'd never want to, someone you make fun of but secretly admire because he's so honest and fair? Or do you think this kind of innocence is impossible in the real world? Is Billy too good to be true? Maybe Melville was worried about the unreality of his hero when he gave Billy his one defect- the stutter that comes out when he's upset. Why do you think a stutter is Billy's one flaw? Melville might have chosen a physical deformity of some sort, as Hawthorne did in the tale of "The Birthmark" (a story about a beautiful lady's beauty mark referred to in this chapter.) The stutter, as we'll see, prevents Billy from speaking at the most critical moment in his life. And because he can't speak, he must act- once again with his fists.
Having introduced Billy and filled in some important details about his character, the narrator now leaves him and launches into two important digressions. The first one, in Chapter 3, tells us about the naval mutinies that went on during the period in which Billy's story takes place. When you read this, you might be wondering what happened to Billy, because he's totally off the scene. What do these mutinies have to do with a handsome sailor who's just been forced to join the British Navy? Before answering, let's see what the digression is about.
NOTE: TWO MUTINIES IN THE BRITISH NAVY
Think about how tense everyone feels at an airport after a hijacking. That's how stressful things were in the British Navy after these mutinies. And remember that Billy Budd takes place during the summer of 1797, just a few months after they occurred. Can you imagine how worried the captain and officers of the Bellipotent must have been that another mutiny would break out on their ship? We'll soon see how important this atmosphere of fear and tension is in determining Billy Budd's fate when trouble does break out on the ship.
CHAPTERS 4 AND 5
These two short chapters go off on another digression. They paint the portrait of one of the greatest admirals in the history of the British Navy, Horatio Nelson. Again, they don't really further the book's plot, but they do add a lot to its underlying themes. Lord Nelson was a great hero and, as we already know, Billy Budd is a kind of hero, too. What was different about the heroism of these two men? Let's see if the portrait of Lord Nelson has the answer.
NOTE: A PORTRAIT OF LORD NELSON
The narrator of Billy Budd praises Lord Nelson for his "glorious death." "Personal prudence," he says, "surely is no special virtue in a military man; while an excessive love of glory... is the first."
Is Billy Budd's heroism similar to Lord Nelson's? Billy would certainly be brave in any battle, not so much for "love of glory" but because it would never occur to him to be afraid. Lord Nelson is a leader of thousands of men, but Billy is just himself. He's heroic because he's so much himself: kind, solid, and dependable. You'd gladly trust your life to him in a dangerous situation, but you wouldn't want him to be your general or admiral. Billy's heroism is based on personal goodness; Lord Nelson's on passionate and impulsive leadership. Neither is an intellectual kind of hero: both act naturally and spontaneously from the heart.
We're about to meet another leader in Chapter 6, Captain Vere, commander of the Bellipotent. Since you'll have the portrait of Lord Nelson fresh in your mind, it will be easy to compare these two leaders.
CHAPTERS 6 AND 7
A PORTRAIT OF CAPTAIN VERE
The captain's full name is the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere. He's about 40 years old, a bachelor, and "a sailor of distinction." The name Vere, like the name Billy Budd, suggests several meanings: it brings to mind the Latin words "vir" (man, manhood, hero), "verus" (truth), and the verb "vereor" (to revere, or to fear). Also Vere, it turns out, is an actual name of a distinguished aristocratic English family. Noble birth is something Vere has in common with Lord Nelson and also, oddly enough, with Billy. (Some readers even suggest that Billy is Vere's bastard son! We'll see more about a father-son tie between them later on.) Like Nelson, Vere rose to his high position not only because of his connections with the right people, but because he treated his crew members well and was brave in battle. But here the resemblance ends. Captain Vere is an intellectual, who enjoys reading histories and biographies, especially if they agree with his own settled opinions. Some of his fellow officers find him a bit pedantic, remote, and hard to relate to. He likes to commune privately with himself, "gazing off at the blank sea" and thinking his own thoughts. Vere, we are told, is "intrepid... but never injudiciously so." He has "sterling qualities," but "no brilliant ones." In other words, he's the kind of man who does his job well, but doesn't take unnecessary risks: He thinks things through before he acts. What a far cry from Lord Nelson rushing with his men into battle with an "excessive love of glory"!
The captain has a nickname, "Starry Vere," which comes from the poem "Upon Appleton House" by the 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell. Though he got the nickname from one of his cousins after a great sea victory had made him something of a star, it stuck because of his habit of staring dreamily out to sea, like a star-gazer. Vere's nickname makes you think of about as many different meanings as his regular name. One critic called Vere a "typical intellectual," who'd rather be off by himself thinking and dreaming than actually doing anything. Since the nickname comes from a poem about real, historical figures, you can say it makes Vere more real and more interesting. Or you might say the nickname removes him one step further from the actual world, and pushes him into the made-up world of books.
NOTE: Who would you rather have as your leader- Vere or Nelson? It's a good thing to consider, because the way you feel about Vere is going to be a major part of the way you feel about the entire book. Do you think people in positions of power should be intellectual types, who read, ponder, and maybe even get a little dreamy at times? Or do you think the best leaders are passionate, impulsive men like Nelson? Vere is certainly less dramatic and colorful. But are the best leaders always the most exciting men? It's a question people have been asking since time began.
Chapter 8 introduces the third major character in Billy Budd, its villain John Claggart. At this point, you might find yourself getting a little tired of meeting characters without anything happening. What happened to the story line? Where's the plot? We get portrait after portrait- Billy, Nelson, Vere, and now Claggart- but no action. What gives?
There is exciting action in Billy Budd, and you'll get there very soon, but meanwhile maybe you should ask yourself if there isn't also something exciting and dramatic in the way these different characters are presented. Could it be that part of the story of Billy Budd is in the contrast and tension between these different types of men? Maybe it's not action in the outside sense, but in the inside sense (remember the subtitle- an inside narrative?). Billy, Vere, and Claggart, with their very different traits of innocence, cautious leadership, and evil, are all on one ship together- but couldn't their ship be any enclosed community... your town, your block, your classroom? Maybe all of these qualities are even inside you! Part of the excitement of Billy Budd comes in this very realization- when you put innocence and evil and leadership all in one boat, you just know there's going to be trouble...
A PORTRAIT OF JOHN CLAGGART
Outwardly, Claggart is a good-looking enough man. Thirty-five years old, tall and thin, he has a handsome face with features "cleanly cut as those on a Greek medallion." There are only two things wrong with the way Claggart looks: he's got a strange, protuberant chin, and an unhealthy whiteness to his complexion that "hints of something defective or abnormal in the constitution." Part of the reason his skin is so pale has to do with his position on the ship, which, though it's called master-at-arms, really boils down to spying on the crew. Down below the decks, Claggart lurks and sneaks with his "peculiar ferreting genius," sticking his chin into other people's business while Billy is way above the ship, manning the foretop platform. In the middle is Captain Vere, gazing out to sea and thinking deep thoughts. Do you see the symbolism in these positions?
What about Claggart's background and character? All is shrouded in darkness. No one knows for sure where he comes from, what his social class or education is, why he's in the navy, and whether he's really English. Rumors go around that he was in trouble with the law, and there's a strong hint that he was snatched from jail and impressed into naval service. Claggart does nothing to contradict the nasty rumors and never makes any reference to his former life. All of this just makes him seem more sinister, and adds to the mystery of the question: Who is John Claggart and what is his problem?
The chapter ends by referring to his "underground influence" over his lowly henchmen, and how he can make this influence work to the "mysterious discomfort" of the other sailors. You ask, what kind of discomfort and which sailor in particular? Can't you feel the suspense building as this spidery man weaves his web?
Many of you will breathe a sigh of relief when Billy finally comes back in this chapter. Not only are you glad to be away from Claggart, but you can expect the action to pick up. It may make you a little nervous, though, to see Billy right after Claggart is introduced. It's this kind of juxtaposition that plants ideas in your mind about the plot and also brings out the book's symbolic structure, so much of which is based on contrasts of people and ideas.
Life is going well for Billy on board the Bellipotent. He's made friends with the other foretopmen, and when they have free time, they enjoy lounging together "like lazy gods" up on their platform and looking down on the ship below. Billy works hard and wants to make a good impression, partly because he's that kind of person, and partly because he's seen what happens if you're caught goofing off: you get flogged.
Billy, like Melville, is horrified by flogging, and he vows never to slip up, so he won't be in danger of getting punished. Imagine, then, how surprised and worried he is when he starts getting into "petty trouble" (for matters like how he stows his bag) with the lower deck corporals who spy for Claggart. How can this be happening to him, he wonders. He just has to get to the bottom of it, and so he turns to his friend, the old Dansker (man from Denmark), for help. The old man is as wrinkled, cynical, and weather- beaten as Billy is fresh-faced, gullible, and young, and they sure make an odd pair of friends. Billy looks up to old "Board-Her-in-the-Smoke" (the Dansker's nickname) not only because he seems wise, but because he once served under Lord Nelson. The Dansker likes Billy because Billy shows respect for age, and he gives him the nickname Baby Budd as a kind of joke on Billy's youth and innocence. But beneath the joke, he worries a little about his new friend. If Billy ever gets into a "moral emergency," the Dansker thinks, his "simple courage" will be no match for a subtle and secretive enemy. Who can he be thinking of?
When Billy tells the Dansker about his problem, the old man replies: "Baby Budd, Jemmy Legs is down on you." Jemmy Legs, it turns out, is Claggart's nickname. (Everyone, it seems, has a nickname on board the Bellipotent, from Starry Vere down to the master-at-arms. Jemmy Legs was a common nickname for someone in Claggart's position. Doesn't it make you think of a prying, long-legged spider?)
Billy is more shocked and mystified than ever by what the Dansker tells him. Claggart has always seemed to like him, and even calls him "the sweet and pleasant young fellow." If Claggart is down on him, why is he being so nice? It's just like Billy to think that everyone is as honest and straightforward as he is. The Dansker has said all he feels like saying on the subject, and the chapter ends with Billy in the dark.
This very short chapter brings Billy and Claggart together, for the first time, in an incident that seems quite trivial. However, it turns out to have some very important consequences for Billy and his future.
It's noontime and Billy is down below, having dinner, and joking around with his shipmates. Suddenly the ship rolls and Billy accidentally spills his entire bowl of soup on the freshly scrubbed deck. Who should walk by at that very moment but Claggart. He's about to step over the "greasy liquid" that streams across his path, when he notices who spilled it. All at once his expression changes, he goes up behind Billy and taps his back with his switch made of rattan. "Handsomely done my lad!" Claggart says in a low musical voice. "And handsome is as handsome did it, too!" Then he walks on, his face still twisted into a nasty grimace.
Now what do you make of this scene? Billy takes it as proof that the Dansker was wrong about Claggart being down on him. Though his mates give a fake laugh at Claggart's feeble joke, Billy laughs for real because Claggart has called him handsome. But isn't Billy being a little too literal? Even if you can't see the ugly look on Claggart's face, it's obvious he's being sarcastic. But this is the last thing that would occur to Billy.
Do you think there might be something symbolic in the action here? Some readers say the scene has strong sexual overtones, and that part of Claggart's problem is suppressed sexual attraction to Billy. We'll think about this more when we get to Chapter 17.
Meanwhile, we eagerly read on to find out more about what's going on inside the obviously warped mind of John Claggart.
CHAPTERS 11, 12, AND 13
What's the matter with Claggart, and why does he have it in for Billy? These are the questions that chapters 11, 12, and 13 consider in depth, and they are central questions to your whole understanding of Billy Budd.
CLAGGART AND THE MYSTERY OF INIQUITY
Remember when John Claggart was introduced in Chapter 8, and the narrator said he would try, but would never succeed, in painting Claggart's portrait? Now we see that the reason for this is that Claggart is the agent of evil in Billy Budd, and evil is a mystery. The narrator goes back to a phrase from the Bible to capture the essence of this idea: "The mystery of iniquity." Wickedness like Claggart's is one of the very basic unknowns of human nature. Though it will never be explained, it can be defined. What are some of the characteristics of the "mystery of iniquity" in John Claggart?
It's a warm night at sea, so Billy and a few of his shipmates go up on deck to sleep by the booms (long poles) piled between the foremast and mainmast. Billy is awakened from a deep sleep by a touch on his shoulder and a voice whispering "there is something in the wind." The voice tells him to sneak into the lee forechains (an isolated platform overhanging the sea and screened from view by piles of ropes and chains). As you can probably predict by now, Billy's not the type to say no to anything unless it seems really bad or stupid. So even though he's still half asleep, he gets up and goes to the meeting place.
Can you imagine how shocked Billy is when the stranger joins him and starts dropping all sorts of hints about a mutiny? He doesn't come right out and say it, but first he mentions that he, like Billy, was impressed, and then he offers him money if he'll "help- at a pinch." Billy gets so worked up at the very idea that he begins to stutter, and he stutters out a threat to throw the man (whom he identifies as one of the afterguard) overboard if he doesn't beat it. The man scuttles away in the darkness, but the racket wakes up some of the crew. One asks what the commotion was about, but Billy, now calm enough to control his stutter, hides the truth, and merely says he came across an afterguardsman and told him to get lost. The others grumble for a while about what sneaks the afterguards are, and then they all forget about it and go back to sleep.
All except for Billy, that is...
Billy feels "sorely puzzled" and uneasy. Nothing like this has ever happened to him before and he keeps wondering what this underhanded intrigue can mean. The more he wonders about it, the more upset and confused he becomes.
NOTE: AN IMAGE OF A HORSE AND CHEMICAL FACTORY
Even though the whole shady business is constantly gnawing at his insides, it never occurs to Billy to report this possible mutiny to the ship's officers. Do you think he's wrong? What would you do in his place? Would you keep it to yourself because, like Billy, you think that reporting on one of your shipmates seems like the "dirty work of a telltale"? Or would you consider it more important to save the ship from possible danger no matter how it reflected on you? The narrator says that Billy's impulse not to be a telltale is "one of novice magnanimity"- which means the generous noble-mindedness of someone without much experience. Keep the word "magnanimity" in mind when you get to Chapter 22.
Meanwhile, Billy just can't keep his worries bottled up any longer, and he opens up to the old Dansker. The wise old man quickly reads between the lines and takes this incident with the afterguardsman as further evidence that Claggart is out for Billy. This really throws Billy for a loop, and he demands an explanation. The Dansker, who loves to come out with pithy but obscure utterances, like the ancient oracles at Delphi, just says, "A cat's paw." This is a nautical term for a light puff of wind on a calm sea, which might mean that the incident is the first sign of a storm coming. But doesn't it also make you think of a cat swatting at a mouse with its paw? The chubby mutineer is really Claggart's agent- the paw that toys with Billy, while the cat stays out of sight.
Billy still doesn't get it, but try as he might, he can't make the Dansker explain. Long experience at sea has taught the old man the "bitter prudence" of keeping his nose out of other people's business and never giving advice. Billy is left all alone with his troubles and more baffled than ever.
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