Melville and the Social Injustices of His Day

Billy budd shows how we see heroes villains and war

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Billy Budd shows how we see heroes, villains, and war today, but in reality it is best when you understand the context. Billy Budd was written in the late nineteenth century (1888-1891). America had expanded from sea to shining sea. The frontier had been closed in 1890, and America could no longer expand. The Pioneer's days were over. The country did not have a great navy. In fact it was struggling to rebuild itself after the bloody Civil War. The United States was attempting to rise above its beginnings, but America was stuck in a paradox. H. Bruce Franklin talks
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about America's problem: To become a world power, America would need both overseas colonies and a large peacetime navy. Indeed, these two were inseparable, for a military fleet was necessary to seize and hold colonies, and these colonies provided bases indispensable to maintaining such a fleet. The crucial question being debated was this: what were the consequences for the American republic and its democratic ideology, both founded in a revolution against imperialism and the standing armies indispensable to imperialism, if the nation were to rule overseas colonies and maintain a large, permanent, peacetime navy? (200) This debate is waged symbolically between Billy Budd and Captain Vere. Billy symbolizes the belief that doing the right thing is all that is needed while Captain Vere believes that doing right was secondary to maintaining the control and sanctity of the Queen's Navy. In essence, Melville uses Billy as an allegory for the young United States trying to do what was right, while Captain Vere has all the characteristics of imperialism that Melville had detested all his life. Vere lives his life in fear of anyone going outside of the "rules" on which he has based his life. The story foresees the consequences of unbridled militarism and imperialism, which ignores the rules of man not only in colonized lands, but also among the people forced to do the fighting and the colonizing. By going into the past to explore the consequences of the triumph of militarism and imperialism in England, it foreshadows the future, with the consequences of the triumph of militarism and imperialism in America. The story shows how a country can often be blinded by current events and not see the consequences of its actions. Wendell Glick talks about the repercussions of Vere's decision: Having decided upon the absolute necessity for maintaining unweakened the strength of the social fabric, Melville shudders when he contemplates the price exacted in terms of human values; and Billy Budd became the balance-sheet upon which he reckoned the price men have to pay for the ordered society which they have to have. The most obvious price was the destruction of "Nature's Nobleman," the superlatively innocent person: every Billy Budd impressed by an Indomitable is forced to leave his Rights-of-Man behind. To the destruction of innocent persons, moreover, it was necessary to add the mental suffering of the individual forced to make moral judgements. (107)
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