Evaluation of the Novel Billy Budd
Billy Budd, a novel by Herman Melville, follows the setting of the eighteenth century. Most of the novels setting occurs on a ship named the Bellipotent where the main character Billy Budd started working at the beginning of the novel. The novel revolves around the simple and ambitious life of the young sailor, Billy Budd. However, the young sailor does not quit reach his ambitions but the events that led to his death made headlines across many regions. The novel takes us in in depth look at the war that was going on at that decade. The novel also looks at the injustices committed to innocent people who have no power or authority to defend themselves against their accusers. The novel also looks at homosexuality in the eighteenth century and its implications to those against it. The novel also discusses the setting of the drumhead courts created to serve justice but they actually followed the advice of a senior citizen or the words of a highly ranked official. Most critics agree to the fact that the novel is an evaluation of mans relation to the past.
The setting begins where a British marine warship, H.M.S. Bellipotent excites and reluctantly hires Billy Budd, a young seaman. The ship acquires Billy Budd from aboard a merchant ship, Rights of Man while on duty. The Captain of the merchant ship named Graveling hesitantly lets Billy go even though he had little or no choice over the demands of a superior ship. Billy packs up his stuff and follows Bellipotents boarding officer without hesitation across the passage to his new line of work. He proves to be useful and enthusiastic in his new role as the ships foretopman and earns the friendliness of the other experienced sailors.
However, Billys popularity among the crewmembers provokes the resentment of the Bellipotents Master-at-Arms, John Claggart (Melville 12). Billy notices that once a crewmember does not abide by the rules, the Master-at-Arms punishes them by giving them a lashing. This punishment affects the performance of Billy as he tries to avoid a similar lashing (Lee 37). Billy does this by accomplishing his obligations in a classical way but somehow finds himself under constant probes because of various trivial infringements appearing on the jobs. The occurrence of the persecution bewilders Billy, who seeks the advice of a more experienced sailor, Dansker (Melville 20). After serious discussions of the situation, Dansker determines that Claggart, the Master-at-Arms, resents against the actions of Billy. Dansker explains, Baby Budd, Jemmy Legs is down on you. Billy, however, rejects the views of Dansker but deeply wonders about his current situation. Melville quotes Billy in Chapter 9 saying, “Jemmy Legs! What for? Why, he calls me ‘the sweet and pleasant young fellow’ they tell me.” Billys good looks as described by the Captain as The young fellow who seems so popular with men or Billy the handsome sailor (Melville 54). The interpretations of this statement tend to create a homoerotic receptivity. The statement leads to the examination of the masculine and feminine neutrality in the novel. It also creates a question of the authors own homosexuality.
After some time during a lunchtime meal, Billy unintentionally spills his dish of soup while in the dining room after a sudden stagger. The contents of the dish Billy spilled dripped to the feet of Claggart (Melville 25). Claggart makes a relaxed and cheerful comment in regards to the spill in Chapter ten of the book. Claggart states that, “Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!” The comment stimulates an enforced laughter from the ships crew. Billy deduces that Claggart approves of his company from the trickling event. On the other hand, the accident offends Claggart, who finds the event as a sign of disrespect by Billy (Melville 31). Claggart makes a conclusion to the case as proof of antagonism from Billy. Claggart uses his assistants Squeak ideas to increase his furtive accusations against Billy as payback. Claggarts scientific and rational systems of thought oppose the character of Billy that is ambitious and seeks to pursue knowledge. Melville in chapter 11 explains the evil side of Claggart using this quote: For what can more partake of the mysterious than an antipathy spontaneous and profound such as is evoked in certain exceptional mortals by the mere aspect of some other mortal, however harmless he may be, if not called forth by this very harmlessness itself? Melville describes that the hatred Claggart has for Billy forms due to the harmlessness nature he possesses.
On one night, while Billy was asleep, an anonymous person awakes Billy on the upper deck and requests a hidden meeting at a remote part of the ship. Puzzled by the sudden call, Billy instinctively obeys (Melville 40). The rendezvous bewilders Billy, who after some unclear dialogue, the anonymous figure shows Billy two guineas to trade them for Billys promise of collaboration. He, unfortunately, does not fully understand the exact details of the meeting but realizes comprehends that something was wrong. Billy thus raises his stammering voice and intimidates the man with atypical ferocity (Melville 42). The schemer quickly creeps into the darkness, and two curious sailors confront Billys on the issue. Uncertain of a suitable explanation, Billy simply explains that he stumbled upon a fellow sailor who was in the wrong part of the ship (Melville 45). He stated that he pursued the sailor and returned him back to the proper posting with an angry scolding.
On the other hand, Claggart approaches the ships captain, Captain Vere after a short encounter with an enemy ship and tells the captain about the spread of rumors about a hostile takeover and titles Billy as the leader of the uprising (Melville 49). Vere then summons Billy to his compartment and instructs Claggart to repeat his allegations. The abrupt and unanticipated hearing of the allegations, the latter render Billy speechless (Melville 56). The captain then gives Billy a chance to explain his actions and defend himself against the allegations. Upon noticing that Billy started to stammer, Vere moderates his approach. With the lack of any other mode of justification, Billy becomes enraged at the despicable words of Claggart, strikes out in anger, and gives Claggart an unexpected and fast punch to the forehead (Louis Lo 3).
The punch proves strong enough to render Claggart unconscious who lain on the floor bleeding from the nose and ears as Billy and Vere try to help him in recuperating (Louis Lo 1). Vere then terminates Billy to a neighboring room until further notice. The ships surgeon announces that Claggart is dead after a short examination, which causes Vere to call upon a group of his senior officers to the cabin. In efforts of trying to validate the actions of Billy, Captain Vere summons a virtual court that consisted several high figures comprising of the captain of the marines, the first lieutenant, and the sailing master. Vere functions as the chief witness to the court and testifies to the related events to the jury (Louis Lo 4). During his period of inquiry, Billy remains silent but admits to giving Claggart a blow but maintains his innocence of intent and asserting his lack of intentions in planning a possible revolt. The court then dismisses Billy back to the stateroom to make an investigation into the matter.
During a tense period of discussions, Captain Vere alerts the jury who seemed to be uncertain and unable to reach a concrete decision. Vere makes a move and announces his opinion that stated that the rule of law surpasses the human conscience (Louis Lo 5). He completes his speech to the panel by maintaining that the jury should decide to free or convict Billy while following the rules on the letter of the military law. Melville quotes Vere as he seeks punishment of death by hanging on Billy, Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang! After further discussions, the jury found Billy Budd guilty as accused and sentenced him to death by hanging the following day. The captain converses with Billy, gives him news of the jurys decision against him and then leaves after further incoherent discussions with him. The dramatic exhibition of the paradoxes between the law requirements and the human conscience portrayed by Captain Veres speech to the jury shows a representation of the field of law and literature. The actual words of Captain Vere portrayed in Chapter 22 of Melvilles book were, “How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so? Arguments approve that Captain Vere is a good man trapped in the world of bad laws. His drive to follow the law caused him several injustices in the novel. In the novel, Vere plays the roles of witness, prosecutor, judge and executioner, took the matter in his own hands, and sentenced Billy to death by immediate hanging.
Later that evening, Captain Vere summons a quick meeting with the ships crew and discusses the events of the day to them (Melville 81). The crew then gives Claggart an official burial at sea with the whole crew preparing to witness the hanging of Billy early the next day. On the other hand, Billy spends his final moments in chains on board the ship on the upper gun deck with a guard posted beside him. The ships vicar tries to prepare Billy spiritually for his death, but he finds Billy in a state of perfect peace and harmony with himself (Lee 49). As the vicar withdraws from the presence of Billy, he kisses him lightly on the cheek as a sign of kindness.
At dawn, the main yard of the ship occurs the hanging of Billy. The crew watches him as his body strung up preparing to die. Melville captured Billys final words as, God bless Captain Vere! He then shockingly calms as his lifeless body still hanged at the ropes. After his death, officers disperse the crew to various tasks as they begun to murmur. There is a direct relationship between the hanging of Billy and the debate concerning capital punishment. On the return voyage, the Bellipotent falls into a French Warship where Captain Vere gets severe wounds and finally passes away (Lee 49). Melville in chapter 28 directly quotes the captains last words, Billy Budd, Billy Budd. The legend of Billy Budd spread through vast regions with various newspapers regarding him as the wicked assaulter of an innocent Claggart (Lee 52). The sailors who were on board the Bellipotent during the whole ordeal were among the first to respect the rising legend of Billy Budd. The sailors treated the pole present in his arms as a holy object. In addition, the crew composed a praising poetic verse in his honor. The poem does not reflect Billy Budd as the young innocent youth we knew in the previous chapters but brings him out as an adult and experienced man.
In conclusion, the novel Billy Budd by Herman Melville is a masterpiece. The novel defines the history of the past by making several scenarios that relate to past behavior and circumstances. The novel underwent several evaluations by different generations of evaluators who perceive it differently while some making arguments on differing opinions on the same subject. They all have different opinions about the book and all understood the book differently. The main aim of Herman Melville is not to present Billy as a hypocrite character who acts out of rage but as a Christian figure and an innocent person whose actions are unprovable and unjustified. However, Billy is not completely innocent in his actions since he struck a higher ranked official than him to death. This action proves that the punishment given by the jury was close to the deeds of the Billy. The historical feud between poets and philosophers is evident in the novel when the feud between Billy and Claggart arises.
“Billy Budd: A Synopsis”. Tempo -3.21 (1951): 12. Web.
Lee, B. “‘Billy Budd’ The American ‘Hard Times'”. English 32.142 (1983): 35-54. Web.
Louis Lo,. “Justice And Divine Violence In MelvilleS Billy Budd”. PS 5.4 (2015): n. pag. Web.
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue, 1924. Print.