critical analysis of Billy Budd by Herman Melville

An analysis of Herman Melville's Billy Budd 

Billy Budd by Herman Melville

Melville began writing Billy Budd towards the end of his life but died before he fully completed editing it was published posthumously in the 1920s. Some have seen this novel as a "testament of acceptance". Moby Dick was about a man (Captain Ahab) who couldn't accept his limitations. Billy Budd seems to reconcile to the powers-that-be. This novel accepts that evil or bad stuff happens.

This lesson will serve you best if you read it after having already ready read the designated chapters from the novel. So will first look at Chapters 1 through 17. The novel opens with a scene in which Billy is forced into military service against his will this was known as (impressment). Clearly, there is some meaning in the idea that billing leaves a ship called "The Rights of Man" which was named after Thomas Paine's book and forced onto the "Bellipotent". Note how much emphasis is put on Billy's personal Beauty. Much like Hawthorne, Melville has an interest in beauty and he - suggests that it often reflects a kind of spiritual purity.

There is a gay subtext within this novel: Some have suggested that the emphasis on Beauty contains homoerotic elements. This is, after all, a boat where male/male sex is not uncommon. Thus his beauty may be an issue sexually here. For example, some suggest that Claggart finds Billy's personal beauty too alluring awakening sexual desire that he has been conditioned to see a sinful. (in other words, Claggert could just be another self-hating homophobe). Note that Melville does reveal that Claggert's initial visceral dislike for Billy has something to do with his "personal beauty" but then suggests that Claggart feels some other kind of sentiment towards beauty other than hatred or envy.

There are a number of key themes within the first half of the novel. One of them is a beauty like all beauty though Billy has one serious flaw his stuttering in times of duress. On a simple level, there's another explanation Billy has clearly characterized as a pure innocent character. This kind of innocence is naturally opposed by elements in the cruel world. Claggart is the vehicle for this because he recognized the deep nature of Billy's innocence or purity. Captain Vere is being aligned with the forces of the intellect. His name "starry vere" suggests conflicting forces. In Latin the term 'Veritas' this means truth the term 'veer' can mean off-course. The starry element suggests a dream in his nature.

 Note that Claggart is being connected with the forces of the intellect. This can be seen especially in Chapter eight, but he's clearly a villain described as "naturally depraved". He uses reason to further irrational desires. It is even suggested that he's not sane maybe sufferings from some kind of monomania. Which is a focus on one thing that he can't get out of his mind, in this case Billy. This is the kind of affliction Poe's characters often suffered from. Issues of social class and social system stability are suggested throughout the novel. The whole issue of mutiny is the backdrop of the American and French Revolutions. The British elite was worried that this kind of social upheaval could hurt the elite in Britain if it spread. The mutinies of the sea were seen as a symptom of this spreading. Captain Vere sees this kind of Liberty( via the American and French Revolutions) as unsustainable because it can't be successfully institutionalized.

We're now going to talk about Chapters 18 through the end of the novel. There are many indications throughout the novel that Claggart is to be seen as evil. Note the references to him as a snake. It's very important to recognize that Vere never seriously believes Claggart's accusations against Billy. In fact, he calls Billy into his captain's room in order to clear Billy's name in a private setting, not in public where the higher ranking officer would just be given preference. After Claggart's death, Vere calls it a divine judgment on a liar. In other words, Vaere it's suggesting that Claggert dying was actually God's will because he had clearly lied about Billy seeking to engage in mutiny. Note how Billy stuttering is what leads to his demise. So often the tragic hero is felled by his fatal flaw.

Claggart is associated with the intellectual. Note that he struck in the forehead and he's been already associated with monomania. Note that the imagery about Billy in the second half of the novel shifts from merely focusing on his physical beauty to furthering images of him as pure. When Vere first indicates Billy's tragic fate he calls Billy an angel and we see that reference used a number of times as the novel continues. while Vere will not technically make the judgment he clearly leads the tribunal to his pre-established conclusion. At this point in the novel, veer is definitely associated with the mind, ignoring his heart. He clearly cares for Billy and yet he ultimately judges that he's going to be put to death that would go against his natural instincts of the heart.

Veer believes that Billy must be executed in order to maintain military order, but he ignores the usual military protocol that would have required turning Billy at the next British port. He does this because as much as he cares for Billy he ultimately fears mutiny among the crew and is afraid that any sort of leniency here would encourage the dangerous revolutionary spirit that he associated with the French and American revolutions. Note that Vere is a forceful advocate for finding Billy guilty and sentencing him to death, pushing the tribunal into it, even though he seems to care for Billy and thinks of him as innocent. Melville is setting up Veer as a crucial character here he trusts the mind over the hearts and that ultimately results in tragic consequences. Veer stands up for the law versus what is morally right. He sides with obedience to the rule of law and Kingdom rather than following the dictates of nature or even conscience.

In the end of the novel, Billy is being presented as a Christ-like figure, a figure of innocence that cannot persist in this cruel world. In this way, Billy is being presented as above religion even the chaplain recognizes Billy's innocence as something above religion and therefore suggests that a prayer would be inappropriate. Billy is also presented as unafraid of death connected to the barbaric world but in a good way. Melville's conveying the idea that civilization actually corrupts humanity's pure and better instincts as seen through Billy. Some read this story is Billy looking at veer as a father figure but ultimately being betrayed there's definitely an element of betrayal here. Note that Billy took direction from veer while he's being questioned, but this wasn't in his own interest.
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