Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist and poet. He was born in New York City in 1819, the third of eight children born to Maria Gansevoort Melville and Allan Melville, a prosperous importer of foreign goods. When the family business failed at the end of the 1820s, the Melvilles relocated to Albany in an attempt to revive their fortune. In another string of bad luck, overwork drove Allan to an early grave, and the young Herman was forced to start working in a bank at the age of thirteen. After a few more years of formal education, Melville left school at eighteen to become an elementary school teacher. This career was abruptly cut short and followed by a brief tenure as a newspaper reporter. Running out of alternatives on land, Melville made his first sea voyage at nineteen, as a merchant sailor on a ship bound for Liverpool, England. He returned to America the next summer, to seek his fortune in the West. After briefly settling in Illinois, he went back east in the face of continuing financial difficulties. Finally, driven to desperation at twenty-one, Melville committed to a whaling voyage. This experience later formed the core of his first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, published in 1846. An indeterminate mixture of fact and fiction, Melville's fanciful travel narrative remained the most popular and successful of his works during his lifetime. Life among these natives and numerous other exotic experiences abroad provided Melville with endless literary conceits. Armed with the voluminous knowledge obtained from constant reading while at sea, Melville set out to write a series of novels detailing his adventures and his philosophy of life. Typee was followed by Omoo (1847) and Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849), two more novels about his Polynesian experiences. Redburn, also published in 1849, is a fictionalized account of Melville's first voyage to Liverpool. His next novel, White-Jacket; or The World in a Man-of-War, published in 1850, is a more generalized and allegorical account of life at sea aboard a warship.
Through the lens of literary history, these first five novels are all seen as a prologue to the work that is today considered Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick; or The Whale, which first appeared in 1851. A story of monomania aboard a whaling ship, Moby-Dick is a tremendously ambitious novel that functions at once as a documentary of life at sea and a vast philosophical allegory of life in general. No sacred subject is spared in this bleak and scathing critique of the known world, as Melville satirizes by turns religious traditions, moral values, and the literary and political figures of the day.
In the remaining thirty-five years of his life, Melville's literary production cooled considerably, grinding nearly to a halt. A brief stint on the national lecture tour gave way to more stable employment as a customshouse inspector, a job he held for almost twenty years before his retirement in the late 1880s. A volume of war poetry, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, appeared in 1866, and Melville published the lengthy poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land in 1876. Toward the end of his life, Melville produced two more volumes of verse, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon (1891).
At the time of his death in 1891, Melville had recently completed his first extended prose narrative in more than thirty years. However, this work would remain unpublished for yet another thirty years, appearing in 1924 in a limited London edition under the title of Billy Budd. Only after Melville began to gain wider acclaim in the mid-twentieth century did scholars and general readers begin to read Billy Budd with serious care. Based in part on events Melville himself experienced at sea, Billy Budd also incorporates a historical incident involving Melville's first cousin, who played a role, similar to Captain Vere, as an arbitrator in a controversy involving the trial and execution of two midshipmen on board the U.S.S. Somers in 1842. Melville worked on Billy Budd during the final years of his life, and though he seems to have essentially finished a draft of the novel, he never prepared it for publication. When he died in 1891, he left it in the form of an extremely rough manuscript with innumerable notes and marks for correction and revision, some in his own handwriting, some in the handwriting of his wife. Undiscovered until more than thirty years after Melville's death, the novel went unpublished until 1924
Billy Budd is a novella begun around 1886 by American author Herman Melville, left unfinished at his death in 1891 and not published until 1924. The work has been central to Melville scholarship since it was discovered in manuscript form among Melville's papers in 1924 and published the same year.
Plot and structure:
The plot follows Billy Budd, a seaman impressed into service aboard the HMS Bellipotent in the year 1797, when the Royal Navy was reeling from two major mutinies and was threatened by the Revolutionary French Republic's military ambitions. Billy, an orphaned illegitimate child suffused with innocence, openness and natural charisma, is adored by the crew, but for unexplained reasons arouses the antagonism of the ship's Master-at-Arms, John Claggart, who falsely accuses Billy of conspiracy to mutiny. When Claggart brings his charges to the Captain, the Hon. Edward Fairfax "Starry" Vere, Vere summons both Claggart and Billy to his cabin for a private confrontation. When, in Billy's and Vere's presence, Claggart makes his false charges, Billy is unable to find the words to respond, due to a speech impediment. Unable to express himself verbally, he lashes out seemingly involuntarily at Claggart, killing him with a single blow. Vere, an eminently thoughtful man whose name recalls the Latin words "veritas" (truth) and "vir" (man) as well as the English word "veer," then convenes a drumhead court-martial. He acts as convening authority, prosecutor, defense counsel and sole witness (except for Billy himself). He then intervenes in the deliberations of the court-martial panel to argue them into convicting Billy, despite their and his belief in Billy's innocence before God. (As Vere says in the moments following Claggart's death, "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!") Vere claims to be following the letter of the Mutiny Act and the Articles of War, but recent scholarship suggests otherwise. At his insistence, the court-martial convicts Billy; Vere argues that any appearance of weakness in the officers and failure to enforce discipline could stir the already-turbulent waters of mutiny throughout the British fleet. Condemned to be hanged from the ship's yardarm at dawn the morning after the killing, Billy's final words are, "God bless Captain Vere!", which is then repeated by the gathered crew in a "resonant and sympathetic echo." A story ultimately about good and evil, Billy Budd has often been interpreted allegorically, with Billy interpreted typologically as Christ or the Biblical Adam, with Claggart (compared to a snake several times in the text) figured as Evil. Part of Claggart's hatred comes because of Billy's goodness rather than in spite of it. Claggart is also thought of as the Biblical Judas. The act of turning an innocent man in to the authorities and the allusion of the priest kissing Billy on the cheek before he dies, just as Judas kisses Jesus on the cheek when he was betrayed, are cited in support of this reading.
Billy Budd: Discovered on a doorstep as an infant, Billy Budd is a fine physical specimen at age twenty-one, renowned for his good looks and gentle, innocent ways. Upon taking up as a young seaman in the service of His Majesty the King of England, Billy grows into the near-perfect image of what Melville calls the “Handsome Sailor,” an ideal specimen who inspires love and admiration in all his fellows. While working on board the merchant ship Rights-of-Man, Billy is impressed into naval duty as a foretopman (a sailor who sits atop the foremast or above) on board the warship H.M.S. Bellipotent. Although much younger than most of the Bellipotent's crewmen, the cheerful, innocent young man quickly gains back the popularity he had previously enjoyed, earning the nickname “Baby Budd” in the process. He has several shortcomings, however, including an inability to perceive ill will in other people. He also has an unpredictable tendency to stutter, and at certain crucial moments he is rendered completely speechless.
Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere: Captain of the H.M.S. Bellipotent. A bachelor of aristocratic lineage, the forty-year-old Vere has made his mark as a distinguished sailor. His nickname, “Starry Vere,” seems fitting for this abstracted, intellectual figure who often shuts himself up at sea with his books. Vere remains somewhat aloof and diffident among his peers, though he is not haughty.
John Claggart: The master-at-arms of the Bellipotent, an office equivalent to chief of police on board the ship. Behind his back, the crew refers to Claggart with the derogatory nickname “Jemmy Legs.” At age thirty-five, Claggart is lean and tall, with a protruding chin and an authoritative gaze. His brow bespeaks cleverness, and his black hair contrasts starkly with his pallid complexion. Because of his pale face, he stays out of the sun as much as possible. The narrator gives few details about Claggart's past, although speculation runs rampant among the crewmembers. It is known that after entering the navy unusually late in life, Claggart rose through the ranks to attain his present position on the strength of his sobriety, deference to authority, and patriotism. However, his compliant exterior disguises a cruel and sinister streak, which the narrator explains is actually a natural tendency toward evil and depravity.
The Dansker - Billy's acquaintance and confidante aboard the Bellipotent. A wizened old sailor with beady eyes, the Dansker listens and occasionally issues inscrutable, oracular responses when Billy seeks out his confidence. At other times, however, the Dansker is decidedly reticent and unhelpful.
Ship's Surgeon: Pronounces Claggart dead upon arriving in the captain's cabin. The surgeon considers Vere's decision to call a drumhead court somewhat abrupt and hasty. Though unable to account for Billy's unusually peaceful death in the gallows, he refuses to believe that the event is attended by supernatural circumstances.
Ship's Purser: Ruddy and rotund, the purser speculates that Billy's unusually peaceful death in the gallows shows a phenomenal degree of will on Billy's behalf, perhaps revealing a superhuman power.
Ship's Chaplain: Reluctantly and unsuccessfully attempts to console Billy with words from the Bible on the eve of Billy's execution. When the chaplain realizes that Billy is already peacefully resigned to his death, and that his spiritual direction cannot do anything more for Billy, he leaves, kissing Billy gently on the cheek as he goes.
Squeak: Claggart's most cunning corporal. Squeak supports and fuels Claggart's contempt for Billy, and tries by various maneuvers to make Billy's life miserable.
Albert: Captain Vere's hammock boy. Trusted by the captain, Albert is sent to summon Billy to the cabin on the day Claggart accuses him.
Lieutenant Ratcliffe: The brusque boarding officer of the Bellipotent. Lieutenant Ratcliffe selects only Billy from the company of the Rights-of-Man for impressment, or involuntary recruitment into naval service.
Captain Graveling: Captain of the Rights-of-Man. At fifty, the slightly overweight Captain Graveling is a benign, conscientious shipmaster who is sorry to lose Billy Budd to the Bellipotent.
The Red Whiskers: Billy's adversary aboard the Rights-of-Man. When Billy strikes him, his hatred of Billy turns to love, which both parallels and contrasts with Billy's disastrous striking of Claggart.
Red Pepper: The forecastleman who reproves Billy for not taking greater disciplinary action against the stranger who tries to corrupt him.
On an English warship, the Bellipotent, somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea. Summer of 1797, four years into the Napoleonic Wars between England and France and several months after the Great Mutiny at Nore.
Point of view:
The narrator generally focuses on Billy’s point of view, but in certain chapters shifts to that of Claggart and Vere. For brief moments, the point of view of minor characters such as Captain Graveling is represented.
The first-person narrator refers to himself as "I" and briefly talks about himself and his past experiences. He does not give his name and is not on board the Bellipotent, yet he speaks authoritatively about the events that take place there. The narrator has a limited omniscient point of view, which means that he is able to see nearly all of the novel's action, including some of the characters' thoughts. His admission of being unable to grasp Claggart's character - "His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it" - is one example of the narrator's limited omniscience, but it also contributes to the novel's overall depiction of Claggart's strangeness and foreignness.
The narrator’s attitude toward his story is generally one of ironic disillusionment. The notes of hope, reconciliation, and optimism that creep into the text, especially toward the end, have been interpreted by some readers as sincere and by others as satirical.
The ships, the purser, the surgeon
Herman Melville relies on symbols to tell a deeper and more complex story than the one explicitly presented in "Billy Budd, Sailor". By creating characters such as Billy Budd himself who represent purity and innocence, the author is constructing a tale that draws its power from the religious significance it invokes. As a result of these presentations of particular characters (such as Billy as a symbol for perfect innocence) Melville sets up his second symbol—the story of Christ and thus the tale also functions in the realm of religious symbolism. The third main symbol in the text is Billy’s stammer which pokes holes in the theory that Billy Budd is a perfect Christ figure and reminds readers perhaps even the greatest innocence cannot be perfect.
Part of the complexity of Billy Budd arises from the intricate series of allusions that lurk behind virtually every line of imagery Melville employs. This page, also accessible from the text by clicking on any words in red, groups allusions into historical, biblical, and mythical lines.
Duty and Conscience.
Captain Vere's dilemma—whether to convict Billy and hang him in spite of his sense that the young sailor is innocent—arises from Vere's very nature. Captain Vere is characterized throughout Billy Budd as a man who heeds his duty. Even before Captain Vere appears, a description of the captain by minor character Captain Graveling of the Rights-of-Man anticipates the more central captain's problem: "His duty he always faithfully did; but duty is sometimes a dry obligation " The "dry-ness" of duty is in its disconnection from feeling or intuition: duty is intellectual rather than emotional. AndCaptain Vere is described as possessing "a marked leaning toward everything intellectual," and "never tolerating an infraction of discipline." He adheres to the law and expects his men to do so as well.
Sea story, Christian allegory, novella, philosophical novel
My own interpretation:
On one level, the conflict of the book is between the natural innocence and goodness of Billy and the subtlety and deceptiveness of evil, represented by Claggart. The second major conflict of the book is the dilemma about whether Vere should absolve Billy for killing Claggart, since Billy is fundamentally innocent, or whether he should execute him to avoid appearing lenient toward mutiny.
"...you want to take them their pearl and me my peacemaker!"
"Handsome is that who makes nice things."
“Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!”