Course Hero. "Billy Budd, Sailor Study Guide." Course Hero. 11 Dec. 2017. Web. 5 June 2020. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Billy-Budd-Sailor/>.
Course Hero. (2017, December 11). Billy Budd, Sailor Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Billy-Budd-Sailor/
(Course Hero, 2017)
Course Hero. "Billy Budd, Sailor Study Guide." December 11, 2017. Accessed June 5, 2020. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Billy-Budd-Sailor/.
Course Hero, "Billy Budd, Sailor Study Guide," December 11, 2017, accessed June 5, 2020, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Billy-Budd-Sailor/.
Billy Budd takes place during the 18th century, when England and France fought battles over who would have naval supremacy. Between 1688 and 1763 they fought in four major wars, most of which were won by the British. These victories were a key factor in England's later important victories over French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, who sought to conquer England. Instead Napoleon was defeated in 1805 by Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. These battles gave the British control of the sea and initiated a period of peace, known as the Pax Britannica, which lasted through the 19th century.
The British navy of the 18th century solved its manpower shortage by a type of kidnapping, called impressment, as was the case with Budd. Voluntary enlistment was low, and officers frequently boarded merchant vessels, seized unwilling sailors, and forced them onto warships to serve in the British navy. Sometimes violent gangs were used to impress into service lower-class civilian men who lived in English port cities. Men were seized from pubs, brothels, and boardinghouses. Vagrants were picked up off the streets. As one might expect, unsavory characters were often impressed into service, and they sometimes made shipboard a dangerous place for other sailors. The frequent brutality and inhumanity of impressment eventually led to laws moderating its use.
American ships were common targets of British vessels seeking to impress sailors. It's estimated that between 1793 and 1812 more than 15,000 American sailors were impressed into the British navy. This so outraged the United States that it became a key factor in the outbreak of the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain.
A sailor's life aboard an 18th-century British warship was harsh. Strict discipline was enforced by punishment for the slightest infraction of the rules. Sailors who shirked their duties or didn't follow orders were severely punished. Flogging with a cat o' nine tails was a common tool of punishment. Flogging was always carried out in public before the entire crew.
Mutinies were an ever-present threat. Impressed sailors resented their harsh treatment and dreadful living conditions. Sailors were poorly paid, and shipboard food was very bad (and there was often too little of it). Sailors sometimes mutinied against a particularly harsh and unjust commander.
The narrator recounts something that happened long ago and therefore has no direct knowledge of what actually occurred. The narrator admits this but speculates on the thoughts, motives, and actions of the key characters. Yet the narrator fails to divulge some important information, such as exactly why Claggart hates Budd so much or what was said when Captain Vere told Budd of his upcoming execution. The reader should be alert to those parts of the narrative that are presented as truthful (even if they're unsubstantiated) and those that are made up or even seemingly omitted. The narrator claims to be objective, and thus truthful, but that is not always the case.
The narrator compensates for his inability to tell the complete truth of the story by elevating his language to make himself seem more "upper class" and more educated, trustworthy, and "civilized." Melville exploits the assumption that a well-educated man of the upper classes would naturally tell a more truthful story than a lower-class narrator. The reader might better understand the story by rewording some of the more complicated language and "translating" it into plain English. For example, "Something less unpleasingly oracular he tried to extract" might be reworded as "he tried to get a simpler answer."
The narrator goes off on a tangent to discuss some historical or cultural event or person. Although this might seem out of place, a careful reading reveals most digressions shed more light on the action taking place or about to take place. Additionally the narrator frequently includes allusions to historical figures or events and makes numerous references to the Bible.
There are two camps among literary critics interpreting Billy Budd. One group insists the story—and especially the ending (Budd's death)—indicates the world-weary Melville's resignation to the power of authority. Budd is executed because civilization is based on laws that must be carried out to the letter; what Melville calls "measured forms" are necessary to maintain social order. Melville writes, "With mankind ... forms, measured forms, are everything ... [and] the disruption of forms [leads to what is] going on across the Channel and the consequences thereof." Here Melville states disruption or compromising of forms (authoritarian laws) undermines society and leads to anarchy, such as the chaos and bloodshed of the French Revolution. These critics assert Melville accepts "that the rule of law is a condition of civilization and is prior to justice and mercy," as scholar William Bartley puts it.
Other critics insist Melville—a staunch supporter of freedom whose grandfather was a hero at the Battle of Bunker Hill—cannot possibly be taking the side of Captain Vere in carrying out an unjust law to condemn Budd. They assert Melville is using irony—words and situations that convey the opposite of their literal meaning—to undermine what on the surface appears to be an educated man's recounting of actual events. There is situational irony in characters: Budd is portrayed as superhumanly mild, peaceful, and innocent—until he murders Claggart. Claggart, the villain of the story, ends up being a sympathetic victim of Budd's violence. Nothing is as it seems, and the fate of these characters is the exact opposite of what their inner natures would produce. The innocent is guilty; the villain is martyred.
The narrator uses verbal irony as well. His high-brow language puts the narrator in league with the defenders of harsh, uncompromising law. The narrator uses erudite language to describe Captain Vere as a good and fair man. The Latin root ver means "truth." He uses the same style to show Vere's willingness to condemn Budd based on the uncorroborated rumor (Budd's planned mutiny) Claggart whispers in Vere's ear. What some critics call Melville's "high diction" is used to suggest his narrator's objectivity and reliability. At the same time that language is used to attack the values (laws) of those born into the upper echelons of British society. For these critics the style is built on verbal irony. The narrator seems to support the unjust application of the law, yet he also undermines the law by using the language of the upholders of the unjust law. Melville therefore emphasizes the terrible cost of enforcing merciless laws that underpin civilization. The reader should note, however, that the verbal irony in no way detracts from the poetry and the rhythm of Melville's writing.
Melville lived and wrote during the Romantic period in American literature, which emphasized the human connection with nature, an idealized view of the individual, and belief in the power of human imagination and intuition. Melville shared this literary approach with other great writers of the Romantic era, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. American Romanticism in literature has been defined by A Handbook to Literature as "a literary and philosophical theory that tends to see the individual at the center of all life, and it places the individual, therefore, at the center of art ... Although romanticism tends at times to regard nature as alien, it more often sees in nature a revelation of Truth ... and a more suitable subject for art than those aspects of the world sullied by artifice. Romanticism seeks to find the Absolute, the ideal, by transcending the actual."
In Billy Budd the "center of the art" is a focus on Budd, the individual and his "unique" qualities. Budd is the "ideal" that transcends the "actual" real life. However, he is presented as a type of "Truth" that is in fact sullied by the artifice or malicious rumor mongering and lying of Claggart and even the strict adherence to the law of Vere. The story told in Billy Budd may or may not be true. It is certainly "incomplete" in its telling and meaning, and in this way it exemplifies a Romantic work of literature.
An allegory imposes symbolic meaning on fictional characters and events to illuminate some truth of human nature and experience. Billy Budd is often interpreted as a biblical allegory based on Christ and the crucifixion. The narrator quotes or liberally references the Bible to shape the allegory. Budd is often likened to Jesus in his otherworldly characteristics—his purity and innocence. As a Christ-like figure Budd's execution reveals modern society and its laws are no better than the ancient laws that led to Jesus's crucifixion. Budd is also compared to Adam, the first man, who is without sin in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. By comparing Budd to Adam the author connects knowledge (from the Garden's Tree of Knowledge as well as in modern human society) to sinfulness. Budd cannot comprehend the baseness of human nature just as Adam in the Garden did not know he was naked until he ate from the Tree of Knowledge.
The text alludes to people and events from literature (mainly ancient classics), history (mainly British military), and the Bible.