Billy Budd, Sailor, by Herman Melville

I originally read Billy Budd in high school, which mostly served to ruin my taste in 19th century literature in general and Melville in particular for the next couple of decades. This has helped me be a latecomer to Hardy, Kate Chopin, Hugo, and other incredible writers … and even Moby Dick. If you haven’t read Melville, have a dictionary nearby and prime yourself for language as stiff and thick as month-old pudding.

The book, as short as it is, is interesting and complex. It’s the last work by Melville and was left unfinished at his death. It was reconstructed and published in London in 1924, which may be one of the reasons that Melville is generally appreciated more in England than his home country. As evidence I offer that D.H Lawrence as the first to claim the book was a masterpiece, British composer Benjamin Britten turned it into an opera, and the film version was produced by Sir Peter Ustinov.

The story revolves around the title character, a beautiful young man who is impressed into service on a British warship in 1797. Impressment was something like the draft but more abusive and random. “Press-gangs” would cruise England and grab men to be part of the Royal Navy, dragging them against their wills to ships needing sailors. Something like the stories of being “Shanghai’d” but with more of a legal authority.

Despite the involuntary service, Billy is cheerful about being on a ship. He says he was a foundling so he has no family to miss. He’s dedicated and careful in his work, friendly to everyone. He has one fault in that if he’s frightened or angry he begins to stutter. Otherwise he’s loved by most of the crew and Melville offers more than one comparison to Billy as resembling a statue of a Greek god.

The one person on the ship who doesn’t like Billy is the ship’s master-at-arms Claggart, a position something like the military police, who is envious of Billy’s appearance and popularity. At a time when there have already been bloody mutinies by impressed sailors on other ships Claggart goes to the captain and falsely accuses Billy of conspiring to form a mutiny. When Billy is brought in and hears the accusation he becomes completely tongue-tied and hits Claggart so hard that he kills him.

There’s a brief court-martial on the ship and one of the judges argues that while a civilian court might offer leniency this is something that can’t happen on a ship during war time. Billy has committed mutiny by killing a superior officer. To maintain discipline on the ship Billy must hang.

The execution is held quickly. Billy’s last words are “God bless Captain Vere.”

There are probably as many interpretations to the story as there are readers. The book has Biblical overtones. A sacrificial lamb to satisfy justice, the sins of envy and false witness … after all, envy led to the Bible’s first murder. At a political level there’s a sense of an inflexible system destroying an innocent life. Like all enduring books the story leaves the reader with more questions than answers and lingers for days or weeks after the last page. The last chapters of the book are even more unsettling. Captain Vere is mortally wounded during a battle with a French ship called the Athée (the Atheist) and his last words are “Billy Budd, Billy Budd”. The two final chapters include a distorted story in a shipping newspaper and a ballad about Billy written by sailors that distorts the story in a different way.

There are mysteries to be carved away here, but you’ll need to scale some language that is often overly ornate and rarely direct.