Billy Budd, Sailor: an Inside Narrative by Herman Melville, 1924

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by Herman Melville, 1924

Left unfinished at the time of Herman Melville's death, "Billy Budd, Sailor" was discovered and first published in 1924. Its definitive version was brought out by Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts in 1962. Like most of Melville's fiction, the story raises complex issues in which ethics, psychology, and metaphysics shade into one another.

The plot of "Billy Budd" is partly reminiscent of the events that took place on the USS Somers in 1842, but Melville set the action on an English man-of-war in 1797, a few months after "the Great Mutiny" at Spithead and the Nore, when British naval authorities had reason to fear the spread of rebelliousness through the fleet engaged in the war with revolutionary France.

The story stages the classical conflict of innocence and evil. The former is represented by William Budd, an outstandingly handsome and generally beloved young sailor who has been impressed (arbitrarily enlisted) into service on the outward-bound gunship Bellipotent; symbolically, the merchantman to which he bids farewell at the beginning of the story is called Rights-of-Man. The bearer of the theme of evil is Claggart, the Bellipotent 's master-of-arms, whose duties at the time were those of a disciplinarian and chief of the ship's secret police. Billy is an almost extreme romantic version of the noble savage, with only an occasional speech impediment to remind one of the doctrine of humanity's postlapsarian condition. Innocent to the point of inability to suspect maliciousness in others, he fails to notice Claggart's ill will toward him. By contrast, Claggart is presented as a case of "natural depravity," a mysterious turpitude in the constitution not of people in general but of a few rare individuals. Although capable of an intellectual appreciation of Billy's character, he is determined to destroy him out of an envy that fosters irrational suspiciousness and, as is indirectly suggested, perhaps out of a warped homosexual attraction. Yet during the confrontation that follows Claggart's attempt to denounce Billy as a mutineer, it is Billy who, handicapped by his speech impediment, instinctively strikes out and causes Claggart's death.

This paradoxical development gives rise to a set of ambivalences that leave no further space for the good/evil dichotomy. Though the captain of the ship is convinced of Billy's loyalty and innocence of any intent to murder Claggart, he nevertheless convenes a drumhead court and practically forces it to sentence Billy to death.

Captain Vere's immediate view of the situation is expressed in his impulsive remark that Claggart has been struck dead "by the angel of God" yet "the angel must hang." A sailor's violence to an officer is a capital offense; at the time extenuating circumstances would be overruled by the vague fear of mutiny. Yet it is not for the sake of expedience in the prevention of unrest but rather out of a single-minded adherence to the principles of military discipline that Captain Vere consciously sacrifices natural justice: "Do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King." Significantly, he has been presented as a conservative not out of class interests but out of conviction and as an intellectual who reads books not for new ideas but for the confirmation of his old ones. Owing to an almost mystical fervor of his single-minded commitment, he strikes the ship's surgeon as "unhinged."

True to his name, which is etymologically linked with the Latin for "truth," Captain Vere never stoops to distort facts, either in giving evidence to the drumhead court or, the narrator suggests, in explaining the sentencing and his own role in it to Billy. His feelings for Billy, who is a foundling of apparently noble descent, are presented as paternal, and Billy himself seems to have been in search of a father figure in the course of his brief life. It is to his ideology that Vere, like the biblical Abraham, appears to sacrifice Billy, and Billy accepts the necessity of this sacrifice calmly and perhaps with a sense of fulfillment at the completion of a quest. His hanging is described in language that associates him with Christ, and there is a suggestion of the supernatural in the absence of the involuntary muscular spasm that usually follows hangings. Belli and Budd happen to be the names of a Celtic god ritually sacrificed for the sake of victory, and soon after the event the Bellipotent vanquishes the French ship Athée (Atheist).

This is also the thematic framework for Melville's references in "Billy Budd" to Sir Horatio Nelson. Melville notes that in 1797 Nelson was ordered to shift his pennant to a ship off the Spanish coast that had newly arrived from the mutinous English shores; he would not terrorize the crew into submission but won them over by the sheer strength of his heroic personality. Though "military utilitarians" eventually condemned Nelson's "ornate publication of his person" in the battle of Trafalgar, the effect and the meaning of such an act, tantamount to placing oneself on a sacrificial altar, were, according to Melville, beyond rational explanation. Captain Vere, who, unlike Nelson, is not a natural leader, instinctively sacrifices a person who represents another charismatic archetype, that of the handsome sailor.

As if to complement this layer of significance, Melville refers to the cagey older sailor to whom Billy has clung on the Bellipotent as "the Agamemnon man." The Greek king after whom old Dansker's ship was named had sacrificed his daughter for the sake of victory. Unlike the Aeschylean Agamemnon, however, Captain Vere does not dismiss the clash between the systems of value among which he has to choose, nor does he waive his feelings for Billy. His choice of asserting an abstract set of principles at the price of an innocent human's life sharply contrasts with his keen awareness of the dilemma and his profound emotional engagement.

The story ends with two outside narratives of Billy's death: a newspaper report that transforms Billy's image into that of a foreign-born traitor and a ballad, "Billy in the Darbies," that presents a third version of his character and fate. The inside narrative seems to be a true account of the politics and of the clash of individual and social goals. Yet the subtitle of the story also points to the inner dynamics of the work of imagination that explores the branching multilevel significances of human acts, critiques mendacious or simplifying ways of representing them, and places itself amid the multiplicity of incomplete and perhaps incommensurable human perspectives.