- Billy Budd
infobox Book |
name = Billy Budd
country = flagicon|USA
language = English
release_date = 1924
media_type = Print (Hardback &
pages = 131
isbn = NA
"Billy Budd" is a
novellabegun 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.
It has an ignominious editorial history, as poor transcription and misinterpretation of Melville's notes on the manuscript marred the first published editions of the text. For example, early versions gave the book's title as "Billy Budd, Foretopman", while it now seems clear Melville intended "Billy Budd, Sailor: (An Inside Narrative)"; some versions wrongly included a chapter that Melville had excised as a preface (the correct text has no preface); some versions fail to correct the name of the ship to "Bellipotent" (from the
Latin"bella" war and "potens" power), from "Indomitable", as Melville called her in an earlier draft.
Harrison Hayfordand Merton M. Sealts, Jr.established what is now considered the correct text; it was published by the University of Chicago Press, and most editions printed since then follow the Hayford/Sealts text. Its adaptations include a black-and-white film adaptation (1962), as well as three made-for-television adaptations (1955, 1988, 1998). However, the best-known adaptation is the opera, "Billy Budd" with a score by Benjamin Brittenand a libretto by E. M. Forsterand Eric Crozier, which follows the earlier text as prepared for publication by Raymond Weaver in 1924. The opera has become a regular production at the Metropolitan Opera house in New York City and is generally well-known. Britten's distinct style has given the opera a unique perspective on the book, and the opera takes many creative liberties on the original book's plot.
The plot follows Billy Jeffs, a seaman impressed into service aboard the HMS "Bellipotent" in the year 1797, when the
Royal Navywas 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 Actand 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
yardarmat dawn the morning after the killing, Billy's final words are, "God bless Captain Vere!" The story may have been based on events onboard USS "Somers", an American naval vessel; one of the defendants in the later investigation was a distant relative of Melville.
Analysis and interpretations
A story ultimately about good and evil, "Billy Budd" has often been interpreted allegorically, with Billy interpreted typologically as
Christor the Biblical Adam, with Claggart (compared to a snake several times in the text) figured as Satan. 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. Vere is often associated with Pontius Pilate. This theory stems mainly from the characteristics attributed to each man. Billy is innocent, often compared to a barbarian or a child; while Claggart is a representation of evil with a "depravity according to nature," a phrase Melville borrows from Plato. Vere, without a doubt the most conflicted character in the novel, is torn between his compassion for the "Handsome Sailor" and his martial adherence to his own authority.
Some critics have conceptualized "Billy Budd" as an historical novel that attempts to evaluate man's relation to the past. Harold Schechter, a professor who has written a number of books on infamous American serial killers, has often pointed out that the author's description of Claggart could be considered to be a definition of a sociopath, although Melville was writing at a time before the word "sociopath" was used.
Thomas J. Scorza has written about the philosophical framework of the story and he understands the work as a comment on the historical feud between poets and philosophers. Melville, in this interpretation, is opposing the scientific, rational systems of thought, which Claggart's character represents, in favor of the more comprehensive poetic pursuit of knowledge embodied by Billy.
In the 1980s,
Richard Weisbergof Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Lawadvanced a reading of the novel based on his careful research into the history of the governing law. Based on his mining of statutory law and actual practice in the Royal Navy in the era in which the book takes place, Weisberg rejects the traditional reading of Captain Vere as a good man trapped by bad law and proposes instead that Vere deliberately distorted the applicable substantive and procedural law to bring about Billy's death. The most fully worked-out version of Weisberg's argument can be found in chapters 8 and 9 of his book "The Failure of the Word: The Lawyer as Protagonist in Modern Fiction" [orig. ed., 1984; expanded ed., 1989] . H. Bruce Franklinsees a direct connection between the hanging of Budd and the controversy around capital punishment. While Melville was writing Billy Budd between 1886 and 1891 the public's attention was focused on the issue. cite web|url=http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~hbf/bbcap.htm|title=Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Three Centuries|last=Franklin|first=H. Bruce|date=June 1997|publisher=American Literature|accessdate=2008-08-05]
Other critics interpret Budd's character as the antithesis of Claggart, the fallen angel. Like his peers, Budd is naturally good, but also has the courage and ability to believe in his goodness to the point that it is not accessible to him as a concept. Vere represents the good man with no courage or faith in his own goodness, and is therefore susceptible to evil. Claggart is the archetypal fallen angel, a man who has abandoned his goodness for ego, and, knowing this, ie his own cowardice, seeks to seduce the flawed Vere and destroy Budd.
*Herman Melville (1924) "Billy Budd, Sailor: An Inside Narrative -- The Definitive Text", Edited and Annotated by Harrison Hayford and Merton M Sealts Jr., University of Chicago Press
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---. "Melville's Snake on the Cross: Justice for John Claggart and Billy Budd." Christianity and Literature 43.2 (1994): 131-49.
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* [http://www.bibliomania.com/0/0/36/1006/frameset.html Online version of Billy Budd at Bibliomania]
* [http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~hbf/bbcap.htm Billy Budd and Capital Punishment] by H. Bruce Franklin
* [http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/bb/bb_main.html Hypertext version of Billy Budd]
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