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Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville

Billy Budd

Billy Budd, Sailor” is a novel written by Melville, is a reflection of injustice and human rights violation, where the protagonist Vere is embodiment of cruelty and hat hate their own crew in which the character of Billy Budd is a contradiction to all norms and depicts the justice and overthrow of the regime. Billy Budd, the protagonist, is impressed into the military at age twenty-one, and from the start is teased about his boyish looks, being nicknames “Baby Budd” by other soldiers. This symbolizes Budd’s inherent goodness and innocence. His only weakness is a stutter he has when he is overcome with strong emotion. The most prevailing belief of Billy Budd is that he is symbolic of Jesus, and is even compared to Adam before the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Melville’s characters are rich and believable, and always with deeper meanings embedded into them.

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Reading the novel there appears a question whether Billy’s execution provides justice, or whether it violates Billy’s innate rights as a free citizen. The perceived infringement, or not, of human rights leads the reader to ascertain for themselves both Melville’s true stance and message from and the reader’s own feelings towards the judgment of Billy. (Wenke) The dramatic contradiction between the law and true justice, clearly highlighted in this work, made it a cult object of research in the field of law and literature. (Wenke) As Loosemore states, “Near the opening of “Billy Budd, Sailor” the great moral parable and political allegory left unfinished”. (Loosemore) Throughout the novel, although unfairly treated numerous times, Billy is always good natured and has no spite towards anyone. “His simple nature remained unsophisticated by those moral obliquities which are not in every case incompatible with that manufacturable thing known as respectability.” Billy does now know who his parents were, as he was found abandoned as a child in a basket hanging from a doorknob.

The action of the novel occurs primarily between Billy and Captain Vere, both of whom are symbolic characters. Vere, a father figure with godlike powers and an intellectual side, sees the evil in Claggart. Billy, the main figure, is what brings the novel together. He is present in every scene and every thought, even after his death. The novel reaches its dramatic climax in the confrontation as Claggart accuses Billy of mutiny. The height of significance takes place at the execution, which precedes the description of Billy’s burial, and then begins in a somber mood before blossoming into a metaphysical transformation. Nature acknowledges Billy’s sacrifice with color, light, and music in the story. (Wenke) Fate has determined that Billy be impressed, ultimately leading to his death and tragic end. From the moment of Billy’s hanging, there is falling action until at last the novel closes with a choric ode, called “Billy in the Darbies.”

The Christ symbolism gathers force in the closing chapters. Billy’s shipmates revere fragments from the wooden beam from which he was hung as if they were fragments from the Cross of Christ. And the ballad, “Billy in the Darbies” that is composed by one of his shipmates, contains the line, “Sure, a messmate will reach me the last parting cup,” which could be taken as an allusion to the Last Supper that Christ shared with his disciples. (Wenke) The picture being presented in the novel to the reader is of innocent goodness surrounded by dark evil. Justice for Billy centers around the character and actions of Captain Vere. On the surface it seems that Billy does not receive justice, since there are mitigating circumstances to his act- he was falsely accused by Claggart and never meant to kill him. However, Captain Vere is bound by law to carry the appropriate sentence: “Would it be we ourselves so much who would condemn as it would be martial law operating through us? For that law and the rigor of it, we are not responsible. Our vowed responsibility is this: That however pitilessly that law may operate in any instances, we nevertheless adhere to and administer it.”  However, he later regrets his choice to obey the law, and feels a deep sense of conflict and moral wrong.

Hermann Melville depicts the tension between the sea as a place of the uprising and its role in a global colonial state comes to the fore. Critics in this book tend to find confirmation of their own inclinations and prejudices in it, reading it in accordance with the binary logic that insists that it is the final Melville’s adoption of heroism. The reader may assume that it would be wrong to blame Vera as the only offender who neglects the rights of men on board his ship, abusing them, or, of course, imposing on them regressive forms of public punishment such as beatings (Davis). Although other warships in this narration and other commanders may be guilty of such harsh measures as violations of the general rule, we have no evidence that such conditions suppress the men at Bellipotent under Captain Vera – even if some of them are on board due to the impression (Davis). The role of Claggart was to keep discipline and order among the seamen, but his hatred of Billy prevented him from strictly adhering to all instructions. In other words, Billy Budd’s “tragedy” does not follow from allegations of inhumane and abusive conditions on board Vere, or about the tyranny of power, which constantly trample on the law (Davis). Even if the existence of harsh conditions for sailors and gross misconduct by the authority of the ship’s officers disappointed Melville, it does not necessarily follow that such conditions suppressed the men on board the Bellipotent, or that Vere was the captain of the ship, or even countered by their officials with such misconduct (Davis). Nevertheless, the Great North of Butine in 1797, to which Melville refers in his story, undoubtedly intensified already tense relations on ships, and the potential for further uprising and rebellion that emerged from the trial and execution of Billy Budd

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Melville presents his characters in such a way as to bring out the fundamental conflict between good and evil in the world. He accomplishes this by the use of Christian symbolism, portraying Billy Budd as the innocent lamb who was slain for a crime he did not deserve to be punished for. Billy Budd is a symbolic tale of a boyish Christ, his physical destruction by evil, and the resulting resurrection of his spirit through the other sailors’ admiration of his virtues. The last three chapters of Billy Budd peacefully end the story, and also serve as a moral. They complete the tale by recording the death of Captain Vere, who realizes his mistake in condemning Billy, and utters his last words as “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.” Billy was pure and innocent to the very end, as Captain Vere finally acknowledged.

Works Cited

  • Wenke, John Paul, Melville’s Muse Literary Creation & the Forms of Philosophical Fiction, 1995. //
  • Davis, R. Evan, An Allegory of America in Melville’s “Billy Budd”, 1984, //

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