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Billy Budd: Highlight the social injustices of the time

Melville and the Social Injustices of His Day Herman Melville was a common man. He never went to college, and he never had the things that most writers of his day had; for in that time, writing alone was not normally enough to sustain you. While his contemporaries were lawyers, doctors, clerks, businessmen, politicians, and other white-collar workers, Melville learned to write while working on a number of different ships as a crewmember. On ships, it was a great skill to be able to tell stories of land and sea, to be able to transport the people on board to another time and place.

Melville first learned to tell a story here. He would talk of epic sea battles. He would talk about brave sailors and dastardly villains. It was from this time that his great talent for allegories would arise. But it was not until his final novel, which was not printed until after his death, that he wrote his masterpiece. In the novella Billy Budd, Melville uses the ordinary people of his day to highlight the social injustices of the time. 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 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) The author is saying that Vere decided to sacrifice the good of humankind for the good of the military. Vere believes that the Naval Code is more important than the concepts of right and wrong. The names of the ships that Billy serves on are both allegories. The Indomitable is an allegory for something that is huge and awe inspiring. The Rights-of-Man symbolizes the smaller, more moral decision people often forget about.

Billy journeys from ship to ship. The machinery of the Royal Navy traps Billy; he becomes a cog rather than a thinking human being. When Billy places his faith completely in the royal Navy his fate is sealed. No one must agree with everything that the country does. There should always be philosophical debate about current events. The leaders of a country will do whatever they want unless the common people watch out for their rights. Franklin writes, ” Vere’s action, and his entire argument to his drumhead court, is based on a fear of an imminent mutiny.

But we the readers of this ‘inside narrative’ never see the faintest hint of any such possibility. Discipline is only breached after Billy’s execution” (204-205). Much like the character of Captain Queeg in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, Vere’s rigid adherence to the letter of the Naval Code as he sees it is what ultimately leads to what he most fears: a mutiny. His very reliance on the rules dooms him. After Claggart accuses Billy of attempted mutiny, Vere decides to confront the two men with each other in his cabin. There Billy, angered by the charge, confused and frustrated by his stammer, kills Claggart.

Apparently Vere’s purpose in bringing them together is to find out the truth. This plan does not make sense. Claggart would have accused, and Billy would have denied. Vere’s decision is a result of his fear of mutiny. Vere calls a court martial. During the trial the members of the court seem reluctant to hang Billy, and the Captain has to talk them into it. But it is hard to understand why Vere calls the court at all. What purpose does it serve? Is it called to guide him to a right decision? But Vere has already made his decision. In any case the court does not guide him; he guides the court.

Perhaps he thinks the court will overrule him and release Billy. But Vere has reserved for himself the right of supervising the proceedings. Obviously all Vere wanted is to have on record a trial agreeing with his decision. Withim talks about the psyche of Captain Vere: Stripped of verbiage, Vere is saying that men cannot think for themselves, that form and habit can control men as if they were no more than beasts. Vere, in an earlier passage, had thought to himself that Billy was a “‘Kings Bargain,’ that is to say, His Britannic Majesty’s navy a capital investment at small outlay or none at all”.

In this light, Vere, far from being a wise man, balanced in his judgements and fair in his attitudes, is discovered to be narrow, literal, prejudiced, completely circumscribed by the needs of the navy, less compassionate than his officers, and lastly, guilty of that worst of naval sins, over-prudence. (84) Vere’s fear of losing control shapes his actions throughout the book. Vere shows that he would rather sacrifice innocence than give up control. Franklin questions, “There is only one ambiguity about Vere: is he sane or mad?

Insofar as the story focuses on Vere, it is the study of an apparently rational, humane man who can argue with learning, calm, and some plausibility that the most ethical course of action is to kill the most innocent and beloved person in your world to preserve the military law and order necessary for monarchy and empire” (207). Melville shows throughout the book that Vere is a careful man and that he is well read, well mannered, and basically a gentleman. Yet, slowly through the course of the story we see that sanity is a faade; twisted into Vere’s thought patterns are the Naval Code–that archaic code that prizes obedience over all else.

The very crew he is worried about mutinying is the same that holds Billy in such high regard. None except Claggart, whom he kills, had ever said anything unbecoming about Billy Budd. So by his actions, the “gentle” captain shows himself to be quite insane. This was obviously what Melville thought. He had always prized the heart over the head. Captain Vere is of two minds throughout the story. His evil side is represented by the spectre of war in his communications with Claggart, and Billy represents his good side. Good and evil are always two sides of the same coin.

Melville uses poetic concepts to illustrate humankind’s values and morals. It is a tragedy that in the end Vere upholds Claggart’s ideals and ignores Billy’s values (Schiffman 53). Vere attempts to be portrayed as a just and moral man. But when it is not the easy way out, he chooses his duty over his heart. Melville’s prevailing style throughout his life was one of allegory and satire. He eschewed the straight narratives of many of his contemporaries. Yet Billy Budd shows a change in style. His weapon for his final attack on the social injustices of the time is his use of irony.

In all other respects it is similar to his earlier works. It is a sea story, which was Melville’s favorite genre. It is rich in historical detail and dealt with the “everyman. ” There is no upper class portrayed in his book, although the irony often lands in that same group. In Billy Budd his barbed comments often find their mark. Melville often relates the common man to that of a savage and that of the ruling class to that of civilized men. The author portends that the “noble” savages have a better value system than so-called civilized society.

When Billy utters his final phrase “God bless Captain Vere,” he shows that with his simple faith he has a greater understanding of the world than Captain Vere ever will. Again the “savage” has shown that through pure instinct he is the better man. Captain Vere, upon hearing the words, is shocked. He addresses the crowd. But the Captain’s words no longer have the ability to sway the sailors. The sailors have decided to go with the “heart” of the noble savage rather than the “mind” of the civilized man. The character of Billy Budd is one of simplicity itself.

Billy wants nothing more than to live his days in a virtuous way. Ironically, it is his saintly virtue that sets him apart from his seafaring comrades for most of the novella. At the end of the story, that which had set Billy apart from his shipmates in life bonds them indelibly at the moment of his death. By then, the sympathy of the men is not with the Captain, but with the virtuous Billy. Joseph Schiffman put it best when he said, “In Billy Budd, Melville presents a picture of depravity subduing virtue, but not silencing it. Billy is sacrificed, but his ballad-singing mates seize upon this as a symbol of their lives.

They never accepted natural depravity and victor, and they lived to see the end of the impressment” (49). Billy accepts his fate without question. Joyce Adler talks about his position: Billy accepts his impressment without complaint. Like the crew of the Pequod and all but a few of the sailors on the Neversink he is incapable of saying “no” to anyone in authority, or indeed of speaking at all when he most needs to defend himself. His “imperfection” is concretized in an actual “defect”, a tongue-tie or “more or less of a stutter or even worse” (p53; Ch. ii).

The reverse of this “organic hesitancy”-the ability to speak with authority-is possessed by no one in Billy Budd, but the dedication to Jack Chase, whose outstanding quality in White-Jacket is his willingness to be a spokesman, points to the contrast. There is no one resembling him on the Bellipotent-a rereading of the dedication after the novel is read will remind one-no independent spirit to speak up firmly for Billy. (165) The character of Billy shows how Melville felt about the sailors in the Royal Navy during this time (the novella takes place shortly after the French/Indian War) and about the common man in general.

He felt overall that man was virtuous, as is evident in the basic good nature of the crew on both ships in the novel. Sure, there are always a few bad seeds like Claggart or men subverted from their original intentions like Captain Vere. Yet most men are, like Billy, not extraordinary, and lack the courage to stick up for themselves even when the case is clear that they are right. The character of Vere shows not just the tendency of those in power to attempt to keep the status quo but the tendency of those in the military to fall in love with war.

Though every military man would say that the ultimate goal of the armed services is peace, how many sailors (or soldiers) are happy during peacetime? Vere, although shown to be a “thoughtful” man, only acts quickly during time of violence. Adler had this to say on the matter: “Vere’s devotion to war — his “madness”– is not sudden; it is his constant state of mind. But the peculiar circumstances of Billy’s killing of Claggart bring his obsession into sharper focus” (163-164). Claggart is the obvious villain of the story. Melville gives him no redeeming qualities.

In fact, Melville talks of his “pasty white complexion” to show the outward sign of his evil. It is interesting to note that Melville made Moby Dick and Claggart, his two most evil creations, both white instead of black. The character of Claggart is so unrealistic and so uncompromisingly evil that his only purpose is to expose the morality of the other major players (Captain Vere and Billy Budd). His character eventually shows the unwavering faith of Billy and the underlying madness of Captain Vere. Melville goes to great length to show the differences in his characters.

Billy is a novice; Claggart is civilized and evil. Barbara Johnson has this to say about the characters: “Innocence and guilt, criminal and victim, change places through the mute expressiveness of Billy’s inability to speak”(51). What she means by this is that when Billy kills Claggart, although he is the innocent, in the eyes of the system he has now become the villain. Indeed, in the only scene in the entire book when Billy (the common man) finally stands up for what he believes, he is found guilty by the very system he has put his faith in from day one.

By this turn of events, Melville shows irony to be a double-edged sword. Is Billy as pure as he would seem? Can Billy Budd be a veritable babe in the world? His character seems to exist mainly on avoiding everything that would be considered “bad” by civilized society. When Billy is told to join the crew of a man-of-war, he does not complain. Yet when Billy is asked by a shady character to go to a secret meeting, he responds with an unequivocal “no. ” This is one of the few times in the story Billy does say “no. ” He does not tell his superiors of the encounter because he does not want to look like a “snitch. Billy goes along with everything that people in authority tell him to do, but he will avoid getting in trouble with his shipmates. He seems to choose cognitively his decisions by making the ones that will upset no one (Johnson 56). He is like a politician in the way he avoids getting anyone angry, but he lacks the politician’s drive to further his or her own position. Billy seems to have no purpose other than to stay as “pure” as possible. Morality is one of Melville’s favorite themes. Repeatedly he shows his characters to be immoral, moral, or amoral. His characters all have a strong sense of morality.

But what is his definition of moral? William York Tindall states, “As I shall use it and as I think Melville did, morality implies not only action but motive, attitude, and being. It involves a sense of obligation to self, community, and the absolute, which provide a frame by conscience, law, tradition, or revelation. If we demand a single equivalent, Melville’s ‘responsibility’ will do” (35-36). Captain Vere is, through two-thirds of the book, a model Naval Officer. He seems at first glance to be the naval archetype, if you will. He loves to read about “real men” and “real events” according to Melville.

Is it this very trait that sends him on his trip towards madness? Phil Withim states, “Does he suggest here that the only result of Vere’s reading is that his mind becomes more and more firmly fixed on his earliest opinions, that no author can ever modify them, either because he will not let their ideas penetrate or because he never reads books that do not agree with him” (80)? I believe he has the right idea. It is a common axiom that you can teach people only about things they already believe. Vere only believes in his own rigid ideals and in the end, they overtake him. Vere learns his lessons from the past.

Vere uses what had happened during the bloody French Revolution as a gauge of things to come. Like many naval men, he chooses to try to keep a stable society or at least one under his control. What is his price to pay for keeping the sailors in line? The destruction of the stammering innocent and ultimately the human value cost Vere more than he gained by executing Billy. Wendell Glick reflects on this, “Billy was too good for this world; he properly belonged to another, not to this; and the moral principles from which he acted were appropriate enough for the world to which he belonged.

But in a society composed of men, not angels –in a society in which even Claggarts are to be found –an inferior standard, that of expediency, is the only workable one” (111). The allegories in Billy Budd are often of the biblical kind. Melville compares Billy throughout the book to biblical characters, often Adam or Jesus. Melville relates Billy’s innocence to that of Adam’s before the fall. He compares him to Jesus because both are “peacemakers. ” Indeed, Billy is destined for a metaphorical crucifixion. When Billy hangs, his death becomes an ascension (Tindale 39).

It is interesting that Melville refers to the living Billy as Adam. The author is implying that he is without evil. Billy, once confronted by evil, reacts quickly. He is, from that point on, no longer an innocent. He has stood up for what he believed, and it will cost him his life. But in doing so, he gives the passive crew back their spirit. After Billy’s death, he becomes a martyr for the crewmembers. He becomes an inspiring symbol. This symbol allows sailors to overcome their timid nature and change the world around them.

The tale of Billy Budd is the tale of three men in a boat, but that subject is just the beginning of the story. At its heart it is Herman Melville’s last stand against social injustice and the hypocrisy of his times. Melville, in his many years working on sailing vessels, came up with a strong idea of right and wrong. His belief system, steeped in allegory, permeated his earlier works. In his last major work, Melville uses his own experiences and irony to highlight the moral deficiencies in the modern naval world. Billy is undone by his very virtue.

By being unable to speak up, or when he does, stuttering and speaking impotently, he is a symbol of the masses: virtuous but without a voice. He lacks the fire that transforms people into something more. Only by his death does Billy become more than he was in life. Vere is the consummate naval officer. He reads, he writes, and he seems to have compassion. Yet, like many officers in positions of power, Vere sees only how to keep order and not the bigger picture. Ultimately, his shortsightedness does him in. Melville shows that there must be a balance between innocence and the rigidity of order if a country is to survive.

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