Billy Budd by Herman Melville

Billy Budd, SailorBilly Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The ageless question of human nature pertains to the paradoxical mysteries of human personality shaped by our perception of the world, as reflected in ancient mythologies. Herman Melville saw this intricate irony in this representation of reality in connection with the development of complex human personality in the characters of Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Captain Vere in this nautical novella.

(1) Psychoanalytic perspective: The characters are emblematic of Freudian elements of personality. They are id represented by Billy (intuitive mind), ego (conscious mind) by Claggart, and superego by captain Vere (ethical consciousness). Billy’s ingenuousness, unalloyed beauty both in physical appearance and inner qualities, and young age symbolize the earliest phase of development of human personality. Hence the name “Budd” seems to betoken this emerging state of metamorphosis into early adulthood. When Dansker warns him of Claggart’s malicious intention to do harm on him, Billy dismisses the advice and insists on Claggart’s friendly treatment of him. In Billy’s representation of reality, Claggart exists as what he sees: a kind officer who does not give him a hard time. In fact, it is this innocent child-man like quality that becomes Billy’s fatal flaw.

Billy Budd is doomed to be ruthlessly crushed when he is transferred as a foretopman to the naval ship HMS Indomitable. Here he meets his Valkyrie John Claggart, Master-at-Arms equivalent of Chief Police Office or discipline officer, who is always down upon Billy, for a reason indicated none other than his being divinely beautiful and angelically kind. It is the old veteran sailor named Dansker who regards Billy as his little child and informs him of Claggart’s devious motive. All these characters are at the helm of Captain Vere (whose name is derived from the Latin word Verite, meaning truth. Here the vessel is a model of representation of reality surrounded by seas, which is the world it anchors in.

Claggart’s reason for his hatred of Billy is clandestine. He appears to act according to his ego, the conscious mind which Socrates considers as spirit. It seems that Claggart’s loathing of Billy becomes inflamed when Billy accidentally spills pea soup on his feet because he believes it to be Billy’s intentional effrontery. Claggart seems to act by his emotions based on the purely abstract reasoning of the mind. Therefore, Claggart’s model of reality is a result of his own way of interpreting the situation with his faulty assessment of the character that defiles his mind with dangerous antipathy toward the youth.

Captain Vere, a figure of authority that convenes both Billy and Claggart on the subject of alleged mutiny as instigated by Billy, represents the ethical mind, the superego, the reason. He acts as an executor of justice to gird up the loins of discipline among his crew amid the revolutionary wars on the sea. Vere feels that Billy is innocent; however, when Billy hits Claggart to death at his false accusation of him as a mutiny leader, Vere is convinced of Billy’s alleged guilt and orders his execution by hanging. In a way, Vere represents an amoral authority figure dealing with individual citizens or subjects according to law and order minus spirits and appetites.

(2) Mythological perspective: It is also interesting to look at this story of Billy Budd as folklore tinged with a mythological undertone of heroism akin to Norse mythology. The figure of Billy Budd reminds the reader of an ideal hero dying young; the hero can prove his nobility of character by death because often heroism depends on lost causes. The young welkin-eyed Billy Budd’s death gives rise to the high concept of this Nordic hero because the real power of good is shown by continuing to resist evil while facing certain death as the legacy of Billy Budd is immortalized in the seaman’s ballad. In my opinion, this story of the welkin-eyed young hero reflects Melville’s model of a heroic individual whom he once envisioned in his sailing days. Or perhaps, Billy Bud could be what Melville wished his two sons lost in unfortunate occasions (Malcolm, the eldest, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1867 and another Stanwix, who died in 1886 in San Francisco) to be like. It would have been Melville’s mournful tribute to the deaths of his sons as enshrined in the mythological figure of Billy Budd.

The book is written in an intricate prose style with the literary vocabulary used in the 19th century and historical allusions to the revolutionary wars and the great Admiral Nelson’s naval wars to give to the story a more realistic setting. Melville, who was a seaman himself in his youth and later settled as a customs inspector in New York City, wrote this novella in 1891, the time of his death. It was actually his postmortem work, published in 1924, 33 years after this death. And it was this work that kindled widespread interest in Melville’s works.

Reading this tale of an angelic sailor will give the reader a sense of reading a Norse mythological tale because the protagonist of the story is evocative of pathos flowing from the complex human nature that is sublimated into heroic triumph over the face of the harsh reality of the world.

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