“Billy Budd, Sailor” a Novella by Herman Melville

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Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor was the subject to a variety of inquiries and studies in the fields of not only literature but also psychology and philosophy. Some of the vivid themes discussed by Melville are still influential in the modern context. Floyd suggests that the reason for such popularity of the book lies in the fact that Melville analyzed both issues contemporary to him and problems that are always tangible for humankind (28).

Floyd makes a point that Billy Budd, Sailor is more than a portrayal of the historical circumstances, but it also has value outside the historical epoch described because the psychological state of Billy Budd is something typical for every era. The psychological autopsy of the main characters with all the reasons and dilemmas is the evidence of psychological problems that are inherent in people of different epochs. For example, such issues as Billy Budd’s psychological dependence, incapability to express anger or the way characters interact with each other are the problems that were not often discussed by Melville’s contemporaries but receive more attention now (Floyd 30).

Another important theme in the book is the question of capital punishment in relation to justice. Franklin points out that the author represents two different views on justice as two different characters, who are the opposites of each other on many levels (341). Franklin also supports his argument by saying that the world described in the novella is a historically different environment, and therefore, it is hard for contemporary readers to be objective in our position from the point of view of legal issues, different societal position on wars and death, and our values (341). However, we still can relate to the characters that represent the perspectives.

Beauchamp is more focused on discussing Claggart’s death as the major influential event of the book. However, in relation to the problem of capital punishment, Beauchamp agrees with Franklin but emphasizes that Captain Vere was responsible for results of the trial as a legal representative, despite the fact that he was involved ethically (8). The reasoning, in this case, relates more to anthropological perspective, and sees a variety of ethical issues in the novella, including the question of capital punishment, as something related to the personalities and their interactions. Beauchamp portrays Claggart’s relationships with Billy Budd as extremely complex, which in itself is the evidence of some implying interactions between different characters that are only understandable within their context (7).

Schiffman supports traditional interpretation of the status quo in the novella, namely the understanding, in which events concerned Billy Budd, Capitan Vere, and Claggart are merely a consequence of the conflict of personalities and flaws in the system of laws (129). The evidence suggested by Schiffman is the opposition between naivety of Billy Budd as one of the conflicting features, and Claggart’s “unreasoning hatred” as the other one (128).

Meanwhile, Hunt claims that there is some sense of dissonance in the book (273). The characters reveal themselves in unexpected ways, which is why dynamics of the books does not have status quo as such. For example, Billy Budd is struggling with understanding poetic things embodies natural morals and ethical elements of human nature. On the other hand, such changes in characters represent vividly the way real people demonstrate unexpected traits. Thus, Hunt supports the idea that, partly, such variety of interpretations of the books is due to the fact that it was unfinished.

Works Cited

Beauchamp, Gorman. “The Scorpion’s Suicide: Claggart’s Death in Billy Budd.” Melville Society Extracts 12.9 (2005): 7-10. Print.

Floyd, Nathaniel. “Billy Budd: A Psychological Autopsy.” American Imago 34.1 (1977): 28-49. Print.

Franklin, Bruce. “Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Three Centuries.” American Literature 69.2 (1997): 337-359. Print.

Hunt, Lester. “Billy Budd: Melville’s Dilemma.” Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2003): 273-295. Print.

Schiffman, Joseph. “Melville’s Final Stage, Irony: A Re-examination of Billy Budd Criticism.” American Literature 22.2 (1950): 128-136. Print.