The Color White in Moby Dick and Billy Budd
Herman Melville is the author behind one of the most infamous books of all time, Moby Dick. Arguably one of the most talented writers of all time, Herman Melville (1819-1891) was born and raised in a wealthy middle class family in New York City and was the son of a merchant. However, after one of his father’s business speculations failed and his father’s early death, the debt left behind notably diminished the family’s fortune. Although Melville had to begin working early to help support the household, he studied classical literature in school and began writing in the 1830s. In the early 1840s, he left for a series of whaling voyages and gained experiences from which he would draw from to write his short stories, novels, and poems. Much of his works were also influenced by his religion and Dark Romanticism which stemmed from the writing period at the time, Romanticism. In contrast to Romanticism which placed emphasis on human benevolence, Dark Romanticism focused heavily on human fallibility and natural evil. As a Calvinist, Melville struggled with his faith. In 1850, one year before Moby Dick was published, he visited Jerusalem in hopes of recovering his religious faith but returned disappointed. Moby Dick, Melville’s most famous work, was published in 1851 but caused him to fall out of favor with the public. Although Melville had previous successes with his works such as Typee, which was the first novel written after his whaling voyages and sold about 16,000 copies in the United Kingdom and the United States, only about 3,700 copies of Moby Dick were sold. While the sudden decrease in popularity of Melville’s works was due in part to how different Moby Dick’s writing style was from his first novel, it also had to do with Melville’s conflicted exploration of Christianity in his new novel. Billy Budd was written during the last few years of his life, and it was not published until after his death in 1924. Billy Budd sparked a renewed interest in Melville’s works and finally led to the reevaluation and recognition of Moby Dick. Although written years apart, Moby Dick and Billy Budd both have a common theme of exploring the truth and use various symbols such as fog, nature, and the color white as the cloak for the truth.
In Moby Dick, white is used to disguise the truth, so it would only make sense that in addition to being fascinated what the truth is, the narrator of Moby Dick, Ishmael, also explores the meaning behind the color white. In fact, Moby Dick has an entire chapter dedicated to the color white and is called, “The Whiteness of the Whale” which explores the concept of the color white or what white means if taken at a face value. Melville or rather the narrator Ishmael, notes that in most cultures, white is used to represent “the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power” (Melville 190). In general, white does, indeed, represent holiness and all that is good. However, to Ishmael, white has a deeper meaning behind it. According to Ishmael, the color is elusive and “strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.” (Melville 190) “Elusive” is used, because it describes white as part of the truth and something that is used to conceal the truth which makes the truth hard to grasp or pursue. Ishmael says the fear of white is greater than the fear of mortality. The given reason for it is that when the honorable symbolism attached to the color is removed, white is found is horrid things such as the polar bear and the white shark. The symbolism of goodness associated with white is nothing more than a cloak for something more underneath, the truth — if you will. Most notably, white is also something that has the potential to hide evil. While Ishmael acknowledges that many things that are white are not necessarily bad, Ishmael cannot help but also mention that white often shows in unfavorable situations. Ishmael uses the example of a sailor whose fear of “the shrouded phantom of whitened waters is horrible to him as a real ghost” (Melville 195), because the fog hides dangers such as sharp rocks which could sink ships. Ishmael stresses the fog’s color, white, and he also uses the adjectives “shrouded” and whitened” further highlights the color’s ability to manipulate and disguise.
This example of fog is not only limited to Moby Dick, and a similar idea is referred to in Billy Budd in Billy Budd’s social blunder: Whereat the fortopman looked a little foolish, recalling that it was only one person, Board-Her-in-the-Smoke, who had suggested what to him was the smoky idea that this master-at-arms was in any peculiar way hostile to him (27). In this awkward situation, Board-Her-in-the-Smoke refers to the old Dansker whose wisdom is respected on the ship. He had warned Billy Budd of Claggart’s evil nature which is hidden under his appearance. Claggart’s appearance itself is described as hinting “of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood” (Melville, 20). Melville also explicitly states this when he says that Claggart was born containing “the mania of an evil nature” (Melville, 30). However, his general appearance is deceiving and suggests that he was a man or high social and moral quality, again perpetuating the idea that appearances deceive and hide the truth.
Board-Her-in-the-Smoke is a nickname derived from the scar on Dansker’s face that resulted from one of the Dansker’s boarding of another ship, and the name could represent his conventional wisdom and his ability to see some part of the truth through the veil of what goes on around him. The Dansker is the first to anticipate Billy Budd’s downfall, and his expression while observing Billy Budd is often one of “speculative query as to what might befall a nature like that” (Melville, 25) when Billy is initially introduced to the hostile environment of Bellipotent. He is also the one who warns Billy of Claggart’s ill-willed personality, which Billy remembers as a “smoky idea.” While “smoky idea” can be interpreted as a murky memory, there can also be a deeper meaning to underscore the Dansker’s ability to see past the facade and identify the truth — in this case, Claggart’s real nature. As previously mentioned, Moby Dick’s Ishmael is also interested in the truth behind the color white’s meaning. Ishmael offers several other explanations for the color white that is closely connected to what is more subtly stated in Billy Budd. Referring back to the chapter, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael ponders further upon what white means: Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all- color of atheism from which we shrink? (Melville, 196)
While Ishmael acknowledges earlier in the chapter that white is not the sole reason that amplifies the fear of terrible things, he now speculates the truth hidden within the reason why white is the “very veil of the Christian Deity” (Melville, 196) despite the fact that white is often is the amplifier of awful things. According to this quote, white could mean two things: everything and nothing. White is the visual lack of colors but through a scientific definition, the combination of all colors. If the definition of white is taken to be “the concrete of all colors,” then what’s hidden in white represents the truth, because the truth is composed of everything, including both good and evil. In this way, white could also be interpreted as a symbol of the divine or even God Himself, because God is the creator of these things. On the other hand, white could also be interpreted as the representation of nothing or in other words, atheism. Melville seems to be leaning in that direction, because in the following passage, Ishmael says: …all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, … (Melville 196)
Even nature, Ishmael claims, does nothing but deceive. Her beauty covers up the inevitable death, and light is made up of all colors is white or colorless. Ishmael suggests that perhaps there is no meaning in the color, and this idea could even imply that there is no God or a truth behind the universe.
Ironically, at the end of Billy Budd, after Billy Budd’s death and his final words, “God bless Captain Vere!” (Melville, 70), the warship that Billy died on, Bellipotent, is attacked by the ship Athee, meaning atheist. The ending could potentially criticize the lack of meaning behind God during times of war, because Christianity is also used to justify Billy’s death sentence. It could also suggest the idea of a lack of God, because Billy Budd’s death may have been caused by a lack of God’s justice.
Interestingly enough, in Moby Dick, the whale is not described a fully white. Similar to other Sperm Whales, he has a “peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high, pyramidical white hump,” yet “the rest of his body was so streaked, and spotted, and marbled with the same shrouded hue” (Melville 184). The only justification for Moby Dick’s other name, White Whale, is the sea foam that Moby leaves in the wake of his gliding through the sea which may cause the illusion of a white whale. The sea acts a cloak for Moby Dick. Furthermore, Ishmael later describes the front of a Sperm Whale as a “dead, blind wall” (Melville 326). This indicates that Moby Dick may represent the truth behind God or even God. The “dead, blind wall” is also described earlier as the “peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead” which could imply that the innocent white that Moby Dick hides behind is a facade for Moby’s wrongdoings and mutilation if not death of all those who have tried to pursue him. If Moby Dick represents the truth, then the ocean serves as a veil for the truth. This idea is again reiterated in Billy Budd. Captain Vere whose name means “truth,” is given the nickname “Starry Vere.” His character is not only representative of the truth through being one of the only ones who could actually vouch for Billy Budd’s innocence but the meaning of his name is also obsereved through his personality. Captain Vere is an intellect. Despite being more practical than most on the ship, Captain Vere “would at times betray a certain dreaminess of mood” and “would absently gaze off at the blank sea” (Melville 17), hence the adjective, “starry” in his nickname, “Starry Vere.” Given the fact that Vere is known to be an intellectual person, Captain Vere may be searching for the truth or something more in the sea. On the other hand, the sea’s surface also acts as a barrier for what is underneath. It is also the same sea in which Billy Budd who is a representation of white is discarded. Moby Dick and Billy Budd both observe the truth in two different ways. In Moby Dick, the whale is seen as the truth, and according to Ishmael, “For unless you own the whate, you are but a provincial and sentimentalist in the Truth” (Melville 327). Through finality of the Pequod’s relentless pursuit of the truth or Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, is allowed direct confrontation to the whale but ultimately dies and also leads to the demise of the entire ship, with Ishmael as the lone survivor and the one who will live to tell the story. Perhaps Ahab’s failure to actually grapple the meaning of the truth was due to the size of the truth too, because “clear Truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter; how small the chances for the provincials then” (Melville, 327). Salamander giants, mysterious and conservative creatures, are the only ones who will ever know the truth, so what is the chance that a mere peasant will come to know the truth? Referring back to the meaning of white, if Moby Dick is a representation of God, then the whale could represent an evil God or a lack of God’s benevolence. It could be also be argued that the Moby Dick represents nothing at all and that the meaning of the encounter was a useless chase after the absence of a truth. In contrast to the way that Melville confronts the overarching concealed truth in Moby Dick, Billy Budd takes on a different approach:The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact. Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial. (Melville 75)
Billy Budd, oddly, is narrated through the third person, an omniscient speaker or perhaps another sailer on the ship. “The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact.” suggests that the narrator is telling some version of the truth. However, the truth is not completely clear at all times, because the “[t]ruth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.” The truth is not only difficult to understand but often times does not clean up nicely like a story does but rather, had “ragged edges.” The same could be applied to Moby Dick. Ishmael’s story is nothing but another version of the truth, but since Ishmael is the only one to survive, his truth is the only existing version of what happened.
Captain Ahab seeks the overarching truth behind God and ultimately perishes in his encounter with the truth or the lack of meaning in the truth. Moby Dick serves as a vessel for the truth but is often hidden under the veil of white. The color white serves as a cloak for the truth, whatever it may be. In Billy Budd, the color serves as a symbol of innocence but the final truth is when Billy Budd is buried at sea, another disguise for the truth, because only the surface of the sea is ever seen. What goes on in the sea is a mystery and acts as a shroud for the truth.
The Fall of Billy Budd in Billy Budd, Sailor
Herman Melville passed away in 1891 before finishing his final novel. Melville’s granddaughter had the unfinished work published in 1924 over thirty years after he had last worked on it. His work entitled Billy Budd, Sailor has been widely recognized as a great success and a riveting story. Critical interpretations may vary, but a common view on the inspiration behind Billy Budd is an unexpected allegorical meaning drawn from the story of creation and the fall of man. After the Publication of Melville’s most famous work, Moby Dick, Melville turned to a darker side of story writing that expressed a deeper meaning than what lies on the surface often questioning the nature of good and evil. Whether or not intended, Melville’s story is quite reflective of the story of man’s fall from grace.
Even though the book of Genesis and Billy Budd are two stories not normally thought to be similar, Melville was known to draw inspiration from such books and stories and incorporate them into his novels. Such interpretations can bring a new meaning to this timeless tale. “The ground common to most discussion of Billy Budd is the assumption that the story is allegorical-a narrative representation of some universal truth or law or balance of contraries, a parable of Good and Evil.” (Berthoff, 32) There is plenty of evidence that suggests that Billy is the prelapsarian of his story, or the Adam. Both young men are kindhearted, innocent, and unfortunately drawn into a scheme which endangers their livelihood. Both Adam and Billy never had any ill intentions, but were blindly falling into a plot of their demise. “In chapter 2, rife with references marking Billy as prelapsarian, Melville makes clear that elements of Billy Budd echo the biblical story of the fall.” (Sterling, 266) Similarly, as in the book of Genesis, the story begins by introducing the main character as an innocent and naïve young man tempted by someone who only means him harm and misfortune. Billy is just a young boy unexperienced with the reality of the world, just like the biblical Adam.
The tale begins as Billy is taken away from his simple happy life on the merchant ship, “The Rights of Man.” He is described as a handsome sailor with “masculine beauty” and almost perfect except for an occasional stutter which will help to propel him into the trap that is set for him by the antagonist. The innocent boy is pressed into military service on the navy ship the Bellipotent and thrown into the middle of the Napoleonic war. He is a good sailor, but quite inexperienced in such a strict and unfamiliar environment. Although his innocence causes him difficulties with regulation, it seems to make him more likable to his fellow crewmembers and especially the captain who takes a special liking to him. This warship is a small confined space where it’s difficult to avoid conflict when Claggart out of his deep jealousy of Billy decides he does not like him and becomes determined to destroy his innocence. This concept coincides with the serpent’s temptations in the Garden of Eden.
Besides Billy Budd, the other characters in the story are quite allegorical as well. The story of the fall would be incomplete without the almighty and powerful one, and the tempting serpent. “It is shortly after this Eden reference that Melville introduces into the narrative the other main characters, both of whom recall their counterparts in Genesis.” (Kirby, 49-50) Captain Vere and Claggart both represent something allegorical. Captain Vere presides over the crew as a godlike figure, distant from the action. Claggart falls under the category of a serpent, tempting Billy and being the ultimate cause of his downfall. “The narrator’s language and symbolism make it clear that Billy is aligned with Adam, Claggart with the serpent, and Vere with God.” (Kelley, 308)
Captain Edward Fairfax Vere is a noble and just leader who has compassion for his crewmembers. He takes special notice of Billy most likely because of his innocence and naiveté. He seems to have a fatherly affection for him. Although he understood why Billy did what he did, he had to adhere to military rule to keep from making a dangerous precedent. Much in the same manner that God loves mankind, but there is a price to pay for sin. Claggart on the other hand had the outwardly demeanor of a calm and composed individual, but would later prove to be the ever clichéd, “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” He showed these characteristics by his underhanded actions against Billy. His poisonous schemes rival those of the serpent himself.
Another point where Melville shadows the fall in the Garden is when Claggart accuses Billy of being the ringleader of an attempted mutiny and conspiring against the captain. Billy is unable to defend himself. He is dumbfounded at this confrontation and is unable to speak properly, only stammering. This is where the character of Claggart has pulled Billy in his web of hate and angers him to the point that he lashes out at him in a manner uncharacteristic to Billy, but very much so present in the personality of Claggart. As in the Garden when Adam is confronted and could not accept the blame, in both these instances the once cherished protagonist stands accused as a malefactor and consequences follow.
The biggest takeaway from Billy Budd that links it to an allegorical meaning is the loss of innocence by the protagonist himself. “Billy’s action carries the double burden of the lessons of scripture and modem political history. Consider its biblical background: if Adam’s act of disobedience in eating of the Tree of Knowledge resulted in his expulsion from Eden, it also led to his loss of innocence, his acquisition of moral knowledge and acceptance of the existence of evil.” (Goodheart, 82) Billy Budd is likely the most innocent of the crew and it is only when Claggart claims mutiny that Billy loses his temper and strikes out against him losing his innocence. However, after the ensuing trial and ultimate conviction, Billy accepts his punishment as the consequences of his actions. No grudge is held as the last thing Billy does is forgive the captain proclaiming, “God bless Captain Vere.” Similarly, Adam accepted that it was his disobedience which led to his fall. “The symbolic resonances of the novel do not depend upon strict correspondence. Characters may depart from as well as reenact their symbolic roles—otherwise allegory would be mechanical and uninteresting.” (Goodheart, 82)
All of these points make a brilliant case for the allegorical meaning behind Billy Budd. “While all these factors may have played a role, the writing of Billy Budd was undoubtedly also based on Melville’s obsessive preoccupation with the problem of evil and the Judeo-Christian tradition of the fall.” (Cook, 178) Melville may have died before Billy Budd, Sailor was published, but he most likely would greatly appreciate the intense studies, numerous essays, and countless theories all surrounding one of his greatest works.
The Vanity of the Pursuit of Justice in Billy Budd
The course Herman Melville charts in his novella, Billy Budd, Sailor, is long and convoluted, perhaps surpassing even that of Captain Ahab and his crazed pursuit of the white whale. Published nearly three decades after Melville’s death, the author’s last work of prose is set aboard H.M.S. Bellipotent in the wake of The Great Mutiny at Nore. Due to the gravity of this particular insurrection, the vessel’s cramped atmosphere is thick with the paranoia of its commanding officers, who fear the same plight. It is an inopportune moment for master-at-arms John Claggart to falsely accuse a simple sailor named Billy Budd of mutiny, saddling Captain Vere with an agonizing legal and moral decision. The entirety of this novella is told through the eyes of an unknown narrator, granting the reader an excellent perch from which he can observe how Captain Vere makes his judgment. In Billy Budd, Sailor the flawed omniscience of the narrator is shared by Captain Vere, emphasizing the limitations of narration, which Melville argues produce a negative effect on the passage of justice.
If a reader were to examine the cover of Billy Budd, Sailor he would soon find the subtitle, ‘An Inside Narrative’ housed in parentheses below the true title (Melville 1). The presence of this lesser title manufactures a sense of intimacy that is soon bolstered by the third-person narrator, who classifies the novella as a tale concerning the “inner life of one particular ship and the career of an individual sailor’ (12). With all this in mind, a reader might reasonably expect Billy Budd, Sailor to be told in a bold, personal style much like the “Call me Ishmael” that opens Moby-Dick (1). This judgment, however, is inaccurate, for the narrator remains oddly distanced from the story which he claims to be so close to. Building the expanse between the teller of the novella and his reader is the fact that he says virtually nothing about himself or how he came to know Billy’s story in the first place. Yet despite his foggy background, the novella’s obscure narrator claims an extraordinary access to the minds of the characters in his narrative. For instance, early in the story, when Billy witnesses a shipmate’s flogging, the narrator knows that he “was horrified” and as a consequence ‘resolved that never through remissness would he make himself liable to such a visitation’ (25). Later in the story, after Billy declines an afterguardsman’s request for assistance in plotting a mutiny, the narrator miraculously knows that “it never entered his [Billy’s] mind that here was a matter which, from its extreme questionableness, it was his duty as a loyal blue-jacket to report’ (40). What is so unusual about the content of these passages is how an unknown third-person narrator has access to Billy’s present thoughts as well as those which are not yet available to the sailor himself.
In a similar fashion, the thoughts of Captain Vere lie exposed to the narrator’s prying eyes. After Claggart falsely accuses Billy of plotting a mutiny, Vere is so astonished that for a moment he becomes mute. Instead of speaking, the Captain contemplates images of Billy’s time aboard the warship, doubting Claggart’s claim. It is only ‘after a brief pause, during which the reminiscences above mentioned passed vividly through his mind’ that Vere’s lips issue a response (50). The events of the story at this time are presented in an interesting manner. There is a “brief pause” during which the reader experiences a difference in the actual time the events of the story occur and their representation in the narrative. This impressive display of omniscience, however, does not remain consistent.
The reader first sees a shift in the narrator’s omniscience during a scene in which Billy unintentionally spills soup on a portion of deck occupied by Claggart’s feet. In the surprisingly calm aftermath of this incident, the narrator describes Claggart’s temperament as “protectively secretive, which is as much as to say it is self-contained, so that when, moreover, most active it is to the average mind not distinguishable” (32). At the words “secretive,” “self-contained,” and “not distinguishable” it is clearly evident that the narrator has lost his power to freely enter the minds of other characters. In other words, the thorough mental evaluations that the reader has become accustomed to are done away with and replaced with the foreign tongue of conjecture. However, the most complete lapse in omniscience occurs at precisely the moment during which a thorough documentation of events is crucial: when Captain Vere himself delivers the sentence of the Drumhead Court to Billy. It is in the tension of this moment that the narrator finally notifies the reader of his present blindness, that ‘beyond the communication of the sentence, what took place at this interview was never known’ (68). How strange it is for readers to find the narrator who otherwise enjoys a complete access to both Billy and Vere’s thoughts unable to eavesdrop on a simple conversation where privacy is not explicitly enforced. This moment is especially frustrating, because as Walter L. Reed observes, the hungry reader is not satisfied; rather he is left to starve on meager scraps sourced from a insufficient grasp of basic events (233). How then could one begin to understand the narrator’s inconsistency?
Perhaps one might reason that the narrator occupies the same space as his characters and is thus forced by the confines of his setting to theorize about words he could not possibly overhear. However, this supposition is incorrect, because in scenes where characters enforce privacy, the narrator continues to practice omniscience. When Vere arranges for Billy and Claggart to discuss the rumored mutiny for example, he transfers them to “a place less exposed to observation than the broad quarter-deck’ (51). Yet Vere’s attempt to ensure confidentiality fails because it does not inhibit the narrator from recording the events that transpire in this “less exposed” place. This presents a question about how the narrator’s ability to overstep the bounds of privacy is reconciled with its failure during the interview between Captain Vere and Billy in which the events were “never known”. Benjamin Britten suggests that this inconsistency is a deliberate attempt to make the narrative feel more realistic by varying the methods through which it is reported (175). Alternatively, Wayne Booth proposes that these fluctuations in narrator omniscience may simply constitute a gap in Melville’s technique (284). In a more productive mode of speculation however, one can explore how these jarring shifts in narrative representation are similar to Vere’s dilemma between legal and moral judgement, which also seems to echo the narrator’s inconsistency.
When Captain Vere first appears in the novella, he is described as a man who “loved books, never going to sea without a newly replenished library’ (19). In a literal sense, Vere is a reader. It is a quality that alienates him from his officers and crew, earning him the nickname “Starry Vere”. Yet the Captain also presents himself as a reader in other senses than the literal. During chapter nineteen when Vere simply commands Billy to “Speak” so that he might defend himself from Claggart’s mutinous charges, the Captain chances upon a case of unintentional mutiny, when the sailor’s stutter renders its owner mute (53). Fortunately, Vere understands the nature of Billy’s silence and does not interpret it as a true sign of defiance. The Captain demonstrates an ability to read the psychology of his crew in a way similar to the narrator practicing omniscience on the minds of his characters: ‘Though at the time Captain Vere was quite ignorant of Billy’s liability to vocal impediment, he now immediately divined it, since vividly Billy’s aspect recalled to him that of a bright young schoolmate of his whom he had once seen struck by much the same startling impotence’ (53). In this moment of understanding between Vere and Billy, the Captain also presents himself as a competent judge in that he draws reasoning from the similar case of the ‘bright young schoolmate’ and applies it to the welkin-eyed sailor who shares his same “vocal impediment”. Moreover, Vere divines the meaning of Billy’s silence and communication still transpires. The Captain reads Billy’s silence as a rejection of Claggart’s charges, shifting from his harsh ordering of “Speak, man!” to a gentle consoling of “There is no hurry, my boy. Take your time, take your time” (53). The former addresses a “man” who is held fully accountable for his actions, whereas the latter addresses a “boy” who is not held fully accountable for his actions. In this scene, Vere and the narrator are symmetrical — Vere reads Billy’s predicament at the same moment the narrator reads Vere’s thoughts. In other words, the judge shares the narrator’s omniscience and is subject to it at the same time. On the very next page however, the reader watches this beautiful symmetry devolve into chaos. Although Vere can read Billy, Billy is unable to reciprocate, which prompts him to feel so overwhelmed by the false accusation that he strikes Claggart dead. Then at Billy’s subsequent trial under the Drumhead Court, Vere argues against lessening his sentence, reasoning that ‘However pitilessly the law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it’ (64). So, although Vere believes Billy not to be fully responsible for the killing, he issues a sentence that suggests the opposite. This behavior is intriguing because despite his ability to read and understand Billy, Vere claims that he cannot incorporate his understanding into the basis for his judgment.
The ruling at Billy’s trial seems to belong to a man who embodies the complete opposite of a man who is “no lover of authority for mere authority’s sake’. Indeed at first glance, Vere seems to cling to the law even in situations where enforcing it becomes unjust. The Captain’s almost religious observance of a legal system void of natural and spiritual connections, as Robert Ferguson claims, provides the plot’s central conflict. Similarly, Michael Rogin finds in Vere the image of a legal system drained of religious meaning and opportunities for redemption (316). However, with a closer examination of Vere’s argument, its more subtle complexities begin to surface. The first of these is the image that Vere, as Captain, must present his crew. Vere’s concern about his image is most apparent in his observation that “The people (meaning the ship’s company) have a native sense; most of them are familiar with our naval usage and tradition” of the law (66). Vere then questions how these sailors would react to the quarterdeck mitigating Billy’s sentence, saying that “Even could you explain to them — which our official position forbids — they, long molded on arbitrary discipline, have not that kind of intelligent responsiveness that might qualify them to comprehend and discriminate’ (66). The purpose of Vere’s rather cynical speech is to further convince other judges on the Drumhead Court that any attempt to communicate to the crew the need for leniency is doomed to fail. Due to how well versed the crew is on matters of discipline in the British navy, they would interpret a single lenient punishment amongst a sea of harsh punishments as weakness and, to the fear of the court, incite a larger insurrection in response. Additionally, regardless of how well-worded a lenient sentence might be, the crew would distrust it when it is announced because they are ‘Molded on arbitrary discipline’ (66). Essentially, Billy and his shipmates have learned from Captain Vere and his officers that the language of the law is unchanging. Indeed, Vere reminds the officers on the Drumhead Court that the very nature of their ‘official position forbids’ them from attempting to speak with the crew since it would produce a myriad of misinterpretations because an officer choosing to associate himself with those of lower rank is almost unheard of and therefore suspicious. The act would go against the intimidating and distanced reputation that Captain Vere and his officers have worked hard to build, and to which the crew has become accustomed. Here, the similarities between Captain Vere and Billy’s predicaments are readily apparent: Billy, who is forced to act instead of speak, effectively robs the quarterdeck of its strength, forcing it to execute a partially innocent man so that it does not look weak. Vere, as a member of that quarterdeck, finds himself trapped by his own authority and must also act instead of speak in order to follow the law and preserve his authority. As Lawrence Douglas laments, Vere is barred from using words to bridge the great moat between the judge and his subject (150). The story that Vere then tells to legitimize his unjust use of force serves as a cautionary tale about the limitations on communication that are latent in the law and its courts.
With the common thread of communication between narration and judgement, Billy Budd, Sailor weaves a tapestry in which the vulnerabilities of judgement, performed by Captain Vere, and narration, performed by the narrator, are depicted in a similar manner. Both men play a central role within the novella yet remain distanced from the reader and their fellow characters. The narrator reveals nothing about his identity to the reader, preventing himself from being classified as an officer or a member of the crew. Meanwhile, Captain Vere is so occupied by his interest in literature that the small fraction of men aboard the Bellipotent whom his rank deems appropriate to socialize with, find him a “dry and bookish gentleman…lacking the companionable quality” (20). Although Vere and the narrator are capable readers, who demonstrate an ability to peruse the thoughts of their subjects with an omniscience described as ‘divine,’ they both encounter limits upon their omniscience that prevent their extensive knowledge from becoming part of the narrative. Lastly, both men claim the ability to ‘read’ and judge the motives of other characters. However, the content of their judgements ultimately does not matter since “justice” aboard the Bellipotent during a time of mutiny is unchangeable, because all outcomes conform to a single mold that anticipates and prevents the feared collapse of authoritative control. The sentences, therefore, are always the same regardless of what the Captain and the narrator know.
Of course, there is one sizeable difference between the narrator and Captain Vere. The narrator’s predicament appears to be a crisis of omniscience, a conflict between his total knowledge of events at some points in the story and his total lack of knowledge at other points in the story. In essence, the narrator grapples with what he knows and what he doesn’t know about his own story. Vere’s predicament, however, seems to be rooted in the conflict between knowing and saying. The Captain wrestles with what he alone knows about the events surrounding Claggart’s death, and the manner through which he would attempt at presenting Billy’s mitigated sentence to the crew in a language they would understand. By planing away at the knots in these dilemmas, it is possible for one to glean a new understanding of the narrative hole that spans Captain Vere’s conversation with Billy about his sentencing under the Drumhead Court. After the narrator confesses that ‘what took place at this interview was never known’, he tries to make up for his lack of knowledge by cultivating various conjectures about what Billy and Vere might have said to each other (68). For instance, the narrator makes the observation that Vere was ‘old enough to have been Billy’s father,’ a detail that is intended to evoke the image and sentiments of Abraham during his preparations to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, at God’s request (68). Yet the narrator’s conjectures prove merely to serve an aesthetic purpose because alluding to a Biblical father and son does not reveal anything about what Vere and Billy actually said to each other. Perhaps the presence of these conjectures serves to remind the reader about the impossibility of communication in this moment. With this in mind, the narrator’s silence becomes revealing because it indicates how the judge and his subject, in a sense, exist in separate spheres which no degree of communication is capable of uniting, since there will always be something that prevents the judge and the subject from sharing a united perspective. In Billy’s case, two items are responsible for this divide: what Captain Vere cannot communicate to his crew, and a court that is“forced” to rule against the him in order to maintain its authority over the masses. Or, as Robert Cover eloquently states, ‘The ‘interpretations’ or ‘conversations’ that are the preconditions for violent incarceration are themselves implements of violence’ (1608). In other words, total communication between the prisoner and the judge is impossible so “true justice” is unattainable. As a result of this imperfect communication, violence is usually inflicted upon the prisoner, who will lose his freedom or even his life, as in the case of Billy Budd. In a similar sense, the narrator, like Vere and Billy, also finds himself in an impossible situation. Up until the moment of Billy’s sentencing, the narrator has the capacity to trespass on the thoughts of both Billy and Vere. However, the very act of Vere passing his judgement onto Billy creates a dilemma in the structure of the narrative. Just as Vere finally understands that his words cannot span the divide of power and rank, the narrator, in his failure to tell Vere’s thoughts is forced to recognize how his claimed omniscience is unattainable.
The Importance and Controversy of Moral Values in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd
“Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” Captain Vere, although having moral values, primarily focuses on the political correctness over the religious or moral correctness. Because of this belief, Vere does not trust himself alone to make the right decision, and instead puts together a small court to make the ultimate decision for Billy’s fate. However, although not directly taking blame for the decision, he does attempt to sway the court by giving his personal opinions, based entirely on the law.
In layman’s terms, the adjudicators want to nullify the law and set Billy go, similar to how courts can set guilty victims free for crimes they deem immoral or unlawful. To such a man as Vere, this path cannot be taken, as he values the law above all else. To prevent this outcome, he first gives the full, honest testimony of Billy’s murder, trying to deny all possible doubts the court may have. This may not seem like a big deal, but if Vere really wanted Billy to live, he could have lied, saying claggart attacked first. By giving the full testimony, here demonstrates his ability to lead a lawful life over a moral one.
But even Vere knows this won’t be enough to sway them. After Billy’s departure, Vere begins to really sway the officers. He begins by defining the situation they are in, saying they are “acting not as caustic or moralists, it is a case practical, and under martial law practically to be dealt with”. He portrays the situation not as a moral case of good vs evil, but a simple, no doubt, practical murder case of a superior officer for which the punishment is clear and the correct solution. Vere next characterizes Billy’s actions, stating that if “we are bound to regard the death of the master at arms as the prisoner’s deed, then does that deed constitute a capital crime whereof the penalty is a moral one”. Even more clearly to the court, Billy’s actions are indefensible under strict law that they all are here to judge.
Continuing on morality, Vere brings a religious context into the situation, understanding that they will feel morally obligated to set a man defending himself in the only way he could, who is “innocent before God”. To counter argue these thoughts, Vere states that they are not servants to Nature and God in this situation, but to the King and Justice.
After these arguments, one man brings up a point of convicting with a milder penalty. Seeing the reasoning and login in this thought, he counter argues it with more reasoning. If he were to set an example by setting free a suspected mutineer and higher officer murderer, the consequences could be unforeseeable. He again pits at the recent mutinies as proof that the situation they are in, and the decisions they make very soon could affect the entire future on this ship.
By accepting these logical arguments, you essentially put aside all your personal feelings on moral correctness and condemn and arguably innocent man to death. By giving up your rights to choose to a law system that only benefits those at the top, you give up some kind of right, to judge your laws your self. This case bears mind to the act of Jury Nullification, the act of setting a guilty man free despite the evident against him and the laws that must be followed. In American court systems, the Jury holds full responsibility for the laws. Lawyers want to get rid of such ideas, because this type of thinking strongly opposes the nature of laws and justice. However, in the case of Billy, nullification is a moral responsibility for the men, so accepting Vere’s arguments would go against many moral statues society obeys.
“Now something such an one was Claggart, in whom was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short, ‘a depravity according to nature’.” Citing Plato, Melville uses this statement as a characterization of Claggart, mostly because no other description could fit. Claggart’s evil is rooted not for justifiable reasons. The narrator of Tell-Tale Heart claims that the old man “… has never wronged me. He had never given me insult.” So it goes with Billy and Claggart. Billy had never directly wronged Claggart, as the old man had never directly wronged the narrator. However, in both Claggart and the narrator’s minds, the indirect result of their being present is enough reason for the seeking of justice, except for Claggart it is the envious nature of his popularity and good looks, while the narrator simply hates the old man’s eye. Both of these could be considered an evil that lies beneath the character, which is what Melville refers. Natural depravity is the evil rooted within everyone, and the evil that Claggart cannot suppress.
Aside from the fact that they contradict such moral basis, Vere’s arguments are all valid and somewhat persuasive. However, finding myself in this situation, I would certainly acquit Billy on moral grounds. I do not value unjust laws over my own sense of morality, which is something Vere would disagree with on all accounts. He would rather see an angelic figure hang for an unjust law than see a defensibly innocent man walk free.
Three Sequels – Three Perspectives on the Story of Billy Budd
Each of the three sequels adds to the story in its own way. They shed a backdrop of light on the decisions of Vere and his guilt that follows him. They also portray the political decisions of Vere and the newspaper writers later who cover the story. Finally, they give the sailors a voice, ironically in their pursuit of silence after the murder. The three sequels give three new perspectives on what happened and how it should be dealt with.
“…this emphasized silence was gradually disturbed by a sound not easily to be verbally rendered.” The first sequel, occurring directly after Billy’s hanging, deals mostly with the immediate response to Billy’s death. The sailors try their best to maintain a silence in respect for Billy, but the sounds of the ship essentially render their effort futile. This demonstrates that they are truly sad to see Billy die, but the fact that they are sailors on a warship does not allow the to demonstrate their emotions. In the next moment, the leader’s whistles call men to continue work as normal, ending the possible emotions that they felt in the moment. When the men then lay Billy to rest a little while later, they begin to speak amongst themselves about presumably the hanging and if Billy’s death was justified. This new perspective shows Melville’s intentions that the sailors opinions don’t always match the authoritative opinions.
“Not long before death … [Vere] was heard to murmur words inexplicable to his attendant: ‘Billy Budd, Billy Budd’.” The second sequel acts primarily as out outlook on Vere’s response to his decision after the fact. Without this sequel, we would never quite know that Vere had the guilt of Billy’s death on his conscious literally until he died. Vere, although seeming relatively guilt free when he attempts to sway the other adjudicators, is iremensibly stunned when Billy shouts out his name in death. It is at this moment that Vere is stuck with the guilt of his terrible decision, and when he gains a sense of morals. Unfortunately, seconds afterward, Billy receives his punishment, and Vere is endowed with regret. This chapter also adds justice for Billy, as the primary factor for his death was killed by the very thing he was trying to protect: law and justice in wartime.
The final sequel is essentially a report of a newspaper on the incident, and is therefore the message that other ships and bases will receive as what happened. In this newspaper, Claggart is, apparently, “vindictively stabbed to the heart by the suddenly drawn sheath knife of Budd. This entire chapter essentially demonstrates how propaganda can ensue during martial law, especially in the circumstance where mutinies have occurred frequently. As Melville writes, this is the only historical record of the event, meaning that the plot to cover up the true story was successful and that Billy’s memory will forever be clouded by a lie devised to keep the military fighting. Assuming Vere had a large part in this decision, then this reflects upon Vere’s attitude by essentially stating that a misinformed army would be better than one informed, when the knowledge can lead to disruption in an otherwise orderly society under wartime law. Vere, again, puts the law and order decisions of a captain above the morally responsible actions of a leader of men.
In the end, this is a story of how war and martial law can influence political and moral decisions. Melville, therefore, gives the last words to the military newspaper writer, who tells of Billy’s death as the necessary outcome to a poor decision. This reflects on the story as a whole, where the government can make decisions on what is right and wrong during such a time, to the point of being able to cover up the story that may lead to any doubt in their system
Billy Budd Movie Analysis
Priorities are always difficult to manage. This theme is especially apparent in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. In this movie, the main character, Billy Buddy wants to save the world from itself, to enact social change, but Penny, the love of his life, is constantly a distraction. He struggles to balance his two desires, thus creating the movie’s plotline. Billy’s desires for love and social change create a conflict in order to prove that neither can survive when they exist in the same place.
Dr. Horrible wants to change the world. He wants to treat the problems that plague society. Dr. Horrible understands that change is necessary, and he wants to be the one to enact it. He is sickened by the “filth and lies” apparent in the world, and specifically in the façade Captain Hammer puts on. Because Hammerman takes Penny for himself only to anger Dr. Horrible, Billy realizes that the superhero, who is supposed to be the city’s symbol of goodness, is just a prideful, arrogant, and unintelligent jerk. These facts lead to Dr. Horrible’s desire to change the system that take precedence in the beginning, since they have the greatest effect on the world and Billy’s own reputational power.
This precedence is shifted to love once Dr. Horrible and Penny start to get to know each other. Because this happens at the same time that Penny and Captain Hammer meet, Billy’s jealousy and love grow stronger simultaneously. Billy’s personal life pushes his desire for social change aside once he decides that Captain Hammer must die. This shift of priorities is demonstrated in the song “Brand New Day,” in which Dr. Horrible throws away his morals and his attention to creativity to plot Captain Hammer’s death. This is purely a way to act on his jealousy and does not necessarily benefit humanity. Though Captain Hammer is not an ideal citizen, Billy did not want him to die before Penny became involved, which means that Billy did not originally think Captain Hammer was the source of humanity’s misery and is now serving his own motives. In “So They Say,” Dr. Horrible is busy building his death ray, while Penny is left alone at the Laundromat. Since Billy is ignoring Penny to confront Captain Hammer, he is avoiding both love and social change, which leads Dr. Horrible to something truly evil: jealousy. In that kind of environment, nothing beneficial can live.
In this environment of jealousy, Dr. Horrible becomes less merciful, though he still cannot justify murder. He prepares to kill Captain Hammer, but hesitates. He does not want to have blood on his hands, proving that he still cares about his morals. But, when Penny dies instead, he loses his love and feels that the good in the world is lost. In the final song, Dr. Horrible says sarcastically “you think justice has a voice.” In this statement, Billy assumes that there is no hope for justice, so he gives up on his hope for social change and takes on the traditional role of a super villain. Thus, neither love nor social change can survive when they are pitted against each other.
Throughout the movie, Dr. Horrible struggles with the things he wants, and in the end, he does not get either of them. Though he does get into the Evil League of Evil, he is not enacting the social change he wanted, and Penny is dead. With this outcome, it is apparent that love and desires for social change cannot work in conjunction with one another, especially if you are a super villain.
The Unreliable Narrator in The Turn of the Screw and Billy Budd
Narrators of questionable credibility are common in American literature, forcing readers to think for themselves and make decisions about what to believe. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd: Sailor contain multiple examples of how the unreliable narrator can be used and interpreted. This analysis suggests that while the unreliable narrator is not exclusive to American fiction, the qualities it brings to novels make it especially appealing to the American mind.From the opening lines of James’ novel, the credibility of the text is suspect. Relayed through the perspective of an unknown first-person narrator, the reader receives no information on the storyteller, other than the fact that he or she is in attendance at a Christmas party where stories are being told for entertainment. Coupled with the lack of information provided about the narrator, the atmosphere of the first scene creates questions. Because the party within James’ story revolves around tale-telling and ghost stories in particular, the reader has to wonder whether the story provided by Douglass that will consume the rest of the novel proper is being told merely as entertainment for the party or as a retelling of actual events. With an unknown narrator and a questionable party atmosphere, the story that is to be told for the remainder of the novel seems to have lost its credibility even before it began. Because so many questions are raised at the beginning of the novel, the physical description of the manuscript and the story that surrounds it need to be convincing before the reader can trust the story. To achieve this effect, James has the character of Douglass provide an extensive back-story for his tale. Douglass notes that the manuscript “is in old faded ink and in the most beautiful hand…. A woman’s. She has been dead these twenty years. She sent me the pages in question before she died” (James 24). This selection is provided to reestablish both Douglass’ credibility and that of the novel. This passage tells the reader that Douglass has in his possession a physical copy of the story, and that it was written by another person. By including the extensive physical description of the manuscript, James effectively establishes Douglass as a credible source. There is no doubt as to the origins of the manuscript, and Douglass’ refusal to tell the story from memory assures the audience (both within the text and those reading the novel as a whole) that he is accurately recounting the events of the story. While Douglass’ description and presentation of an actual manuscript attest to the validity of the story he is about to read, the structure of the novel has become convoluted by the time the novel even reaches Chapter I. Though the novel begins in first person, and the story that Douglass reads is told through first person, readers of The Turn of the Screw encounter several layers between themselves and the material. Rather than a straightforward account of events, the reader encounters an unknown narrator’s account of a man reading a woman’s diary. It is almost as though the reader is placed in a fifth-person perspective. This, again, creates credibility issues. Instead of experiencing the events of the novel and forming an opinion, readers are asked to form their interpretations based on the retelling of a retelling of one woman’s experience. From here the novel is narrated in first-person by the Governess, a simpler format to read. This simplification does not, however, eliminate the novel’s credibility questions. The Governess’ first-person account of the events at the Bly estate is the only information on which readers can base their judgments, and her credibility can be questioned early in her account. Upon meeting Flora, the young girl that would be in her care, the Governess is taken on a tour of the house in which she will be staying. On this tour, the Governess describes the house as “a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite,” but then as “a big ugly antique but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half-displaced and half-utilised” (James 32-3). The first images present a glorified portrait of the estate, while the second conveys a harsh reality. This scene warns readers that the Governess seems to slip seamlessly between fantasy and reality. As the Governess’ story progresses, she begins to believe that she sees ghosts within the estate. At the end of Chapter III, she tells of how she witnessed, from a considerable distance, a “man with no hat” inside the house (James 40). This encounter is her first mention of the ghost, but because the Governess and the apparition are “too far apart to call to each other,” there is some doubt as to what the Governess could have actually seen (James 40). The Governess waits until Chapter VI, which presumably occurs a couple weeks later, to disclose her encounter to the only other adult on the estate, Mrs. Grose. The discussion between these two women is strange to say the least. In this discussion, the Governess provides many more details about the man than she did in her account of the actual encounter. The lone detail of a hatless man remains constant, but the Governess seems to be taking her cues from the questions that Mrs. Grose asks. At one point, in response to Mrs. Grose’s question about the handsomeness of the ghost, the Governess writes, “I saw the way to help her. ‘Remarkably!’” (James 48). This one line, when read with the rest of the exchange between the two women, shows the Governess taking her description from information presented in Mrs. Grose questions. The Governess description to Mrs. Grose relies heavily on the powers of suggestion, and the event has become further exaggerated. The Governess’ reliability is tested further in her encounters with the children she has been hired to watch. Chapter XIV presents a conversation between Miles and the Governess which seems like a matching of wits. At one point in the discussion, the Governess admits, “I felt I might perhaps after all succeed in keeping my wits about me” (James 84). This passage suggests that the Governess could just as easily lose her sanity as she could keep it. A simple discussion about the behavior of a child has challenged the Governess’ sanity, and she has no problem reporting that fact. The case against the Governess’ reliability seems to be mounting, and the ghosts look increasingly to be figments of her imagination. Because the Governess is usually alone when she sees the apparitions, it is difficult to ascertain the truth about their existence. James uses the Governess’ questionable narration as well as the distance he has created between the reader and the material to generate a sense of mystery around the novel. By employing an unreliable narrator, James effectively destabilizes the narrative to force the reader to make judgments about the text. The Turn of the Screw allows readers to decide what to believe for themselves. Herman Melville’s Billy Budd: Sailor was published in 1924, some twenty-six years after the publication of James’ novel. The narrator is a seemingly omniscient combination of the first-person and the third-person. Throughout the story, the anonymous narrator seems to merely report the events that transpire, while also providing insight into the thoughts of the characters on which the story reports. Upon Billy Budd’s impressments in Chapter One, the narrator reports that the Lieutenant who had come to take Billy viewed Billy’s farewell salute as “a covert sally on the new recruit’s part, a sly slur at impressments in general, and that of himself in especial” (Melville 49). Of the same scene, the narrator also reports that Billy’s intentions were “by no means of a satirical turn” (Melville 49). This early exchange demonstrates what would seem to be an omniscient narrator. In this scene, the narrator is able to report the inner thoughts of two characters – a trait that is usually only available to the omniscient. The omniscience of this narrator soon manifests itself as self-awareness. The narrator directly addresses his audience at the end of Chapter Two when he says, “the story in which [Billy Budd] is the main figure is no romance” (Melville 53). In addressing the genre of the story that he is telling, the narrator has crossed into a different plane. This admission forces the reader to acknowledge that, though the story is not a romance, it is still a story which must be assigned a genre. In suggesting genre to the audience, the narrator acknowledges that his story must follow certain conventions. As the story progresses, the narrator seems to be building a melodrama by pitting goodness against evil. The narrator juxtaposes the pure goodness of Billy Budd with what he classifies as pure evil in John Claggart. Though the narrator does not come out in direct denouncement of Claggart, his initial description of the character is less than flattering. In Chapter Eight, the narrator introduces Claggart by saying that his complexion “seemed to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood” (Melville 64). The description of Claggart continues by creating an air of mystery surrounding his background. Though the narrator has not denounced Claggart outright, the sense of mystery surrounding the master-at-arms paired with the seeming defect in his constitution prejudices readers against Claggart. A seemingly impartial narrator has imparted a bias into the story being told, and this forces the reader to question the narrator’s motives for doing so.As the story progresses, the narrator continues to show Claggart scheming against Billy. These schemes all build to a final confrontation between the two in Captain Vere’s cabin. The report of the events within the Captain’s cabin as well as the events following create and interesting problem in the narration. In Chapter Nineteen, the narrator describes the scene in which Billy kills Claggart by stating that, “quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck,” (Melville 99). The only three characters present for this scene were Billy, Captain Vere, and Claggart. Now that Billy has killed Claggart, only Captain Vere and Billy remain as witnesses to the killing. However, the narrator still reports the events. This would not be a problem if it were not for a scene presented in Chapter Twenty-Two. In this chapter, Captain Vere and Billy are alone once again, but this time the narrator notes that “Beyond the communication of the sentence, what took place at this interview was never known” (Melville 114). The narrator has no problem reporting the events of Claggart’s murder at which only Billy and Captain Vere were present, but when it comes to the communication of the sentence at which Billy and Captain Vere are the only characters present yet again, the narrator mysteriously cannot provide details. This creates serious reliability issues. Either the narrator has chosen to leave details out about the scene in Chapter Twenty-Two, or the report of Claggart’s murder in Chapter Nineteen is pure speculation. As Billy Budd: Sailor creeps toward its conclusion, the narrator becomes less and less reliable. The novel’s second to last chapter, Chapter Twenty-Nine, provides a short newspaper article detailing the events of the novel. The narrator acknowledges that the article, “was doubtless for the most part written in good faith” (Melville 130). The article goes on to report a story in direct opposition to the one reported by the novel’s narrator, and the article is said to be the only surviving account of the incident. This final chapter contradicts the twenty-eight chapters that proceeded it, and it forces the reader to make choices about the text.While James’ unreliable narrators forced readers to make choices throughout the novel, the twist at the end of Melville’s story forces the reader to make a single choice at the end of the novel. The common thread between the narration of the two is that of reader choice. By presenting a narrator of questionable authority, authors compel their readers to decide whether or not they can accept the events of the presented fiction as an actuality inside of the fictional world. The unreliable narrator stimulates more engagement with the text and provides the reader with more freedom of interpretation than conventional narratives. It appeals to Americans’ strong sense of individuality and personal freedom, making it a particularly (but not exclusively) American literary device that James and Melville utilize with skill. Works CitedJames, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Bedford St. Martin’s, Boston, MA. 2004.Melville, Herman. Billy Budd: Sailor. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 1962.
Natural Law vs. Man-Made Law
To read Herman Melville’s Billy Budd is to experience feelings of intense agony and helpless injustice. Billy Budd, a “Handsome Sailor,” adored by his shipmates for his intrinsic goodness, is condemned to death by a seemingly formalistic and unfeeling legal system (279). Falsely accused of mutiny, Billy strikes the incriminating Claggart, and his single blow kills. As sole witness and Captain of the ship, Edward Vere must determine Billy’s fate. Privately sympathizing with Billy’s innocence, publicly Vere chooses naval duty over the morality of heart, condemning the young sailor to death according to the “Articles of War.” Vere’s painful dilemma reflects the invariable friction arising from natural man living in a society governed by man-made laws. The controversial decision to hang Billy “leaves us with a strong[ ] feeling that the formal demands of the legal system inevitably exclude some important aspect of human existence” (Thomas 53). The legal system’s failure to consider the natural law that impels Billy’s blow and his innocent intentions induces many readers to question the justice of Vere’s verdict and the justice system’s inherent flaws.In Billy Budd, man-made law is not merely the “general sense of order as opposed to chaos,” but rather codes that must judge Billy’s blow (Reich 128). Because the crime carries multifaceted implications, Billy’s trial tests man-made law’s ability to treat man as a flawed creature. Billy’s tragic execution exposes that man-made laws (society’s legal codes) often punish actions driven by natural laws, or laws instinctive to humans. When British warship Bellipotent’s envious officer John Claggart falsely and maliciously accuses the innocent foretopman of attempting mutiny, Billy deals a fatal blow “full upon the forehead of Claggart,” in self-defense impelled by natural law (331).Billy’s intention to protest this false incrimination is justified according to natural law. Although disagreement still abides, natural law is generally defined as a “system of right conduct or justice… common to all humans and derived from nature rather than from the rules of society” (“Natural”). Proposed by philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the theory’s core postulates declares that natural law condones man’s actions when he “behave[s] in a way that conforms to his rational nature,” in preserving one’s own good or fulfilling “those inclinations which nature has taught to all animals” (“Natural”). While determining man’s “true nature” is a tricky concept, most natural law theorists believe that murder to preserve own life, or by any other rational excuse, overrides society’s man-made and Divine commandments: “Thou shall not kill” (McElroy 110). Likewise, there are rational excuses for Billy’s blow, as he himself explains when testifying to the drum court:Could I have used my tongue I would not have struck him. But he foully lied to my face and in the presence of my captain, and I had to say something and I could only say it with a blow, God help me!” (338)Known to have a speech impediment when agitated, Billy stands “like one impaled and gagged” and could only dumbly “gesture[e] and gurgle[e]” (331). Obviously in a “convulsed tongue-tied,” the foretopman’s only natural instinct is to act (331). Any such defense to “preserve his own good” would be in accord with natural law, including his fatal blow.Captain Vere is now faced with an awful choice: uphold naval codes (man-made laws) or follow his conscience, siding with intuitive natural law. The British Articles of War XXII at the time states: “if any…person in the fleet shall strike any of his superior officers…[he] shall suffer death” (333). The Articles are exemplary of man-made laws, for they are rules imposed by society requiring or prohibiting certain actions (“Law”). However, the Articles are unique in that they make provisions for mandatory death penalties. While discretionary penalties allow courts to adjudicate the sentence’s severity based on mitigating factors and crime’s circumstances, mandatory death penalties narrow courts to consider only the “overt act” and its consequences. If convicted of committing the crime, the perpetrator must be sentenced to death, no matter what his motivation or compelling situation.Theoretically, summarily executing one life for murdering another life may appear just (or at least numerically balanced), but Melville pokes holes in the case for mandatory death penalties when he creates sympathy in readers for Billy and subsequently in his innocent intentions. Melville portrays Billy as embodying the “purity” of “Adam before the Fall,” with a “reposeful good nature” that somehow causes even the most cantankerous sailors to smile (286, 287). It is obvious to shipmates as well as Captain Vere that Billy is “incapable of malice” (361). Clearly, Billy did not intend to murder Claggart, only to defend himself from a life-threatening accusation, an intention consistent with natural law. Convening a drumhead court to try Billy, Vere’s insists on disregarding Billy’s intentions to his officers, whose surprised and saddened response further underscores the strained artificiality of Vere’s reasoning for man-made laws when it entails suppressing the heart’s conscience, one intrinsically schooled in natural law.Captain Vere and his drumhead officers are clearly torn between “military duty and moral scruple… vitalized by compassion.” Betraying “a suppressed emotion” in his voice, Vere reassures Billy that he knew the young sailor intended neither mutiny nor murder (337). Yet in an immediate turnabout during the drumhead court, the Captain resolves that his court must “confine its attention to the blow’s consequence,” for as proceeding under the Articles, “Budd’s intent or non-intent is nothing to the purpose (339, 343). Forcibly demanding the reluctant officers to assent to Billy’s execution, Vere assures them that he too feels “troubled hesitancy,” but reminds them that “but in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner’s overt act to be considered” (341). In other words, Vere fully understands that had natural law considered Billy’s intentions, it would have declared him innocent. Yet because he is Captain of a British warship, Vere has little choice but to reason:”Is our allegiance [to] Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval, though this be the element where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King’s officers lies our duty…” (342)His subsequent declaration on the incongruent natures of the ocean’s law and the King’s law almost suggests a lament at the incompatibility of man-made laws governing human actions. The British civilization is too far removed and different from the sphere of the ocean, perhaps symbolizing the natural in heart of man. Artificial laws originating from such a civilization seems insufficient and inadequate in addressing the issues encountered on the primitive ocean on which the story of Billy Budd and human nature unfolds. Criticism of Billy’s execution therefore should not be directed entirely at Vere, but more at the insensate, man-made Articles. When an execution provokes agony and sadness for both the adjudicators and the public (Bellipotent’s sailors whose murmurs reveal “sullen revocation”), such should all be indicative of some flaw in the legal mandate (356). In the early 19th century, a British intellectual movement denounced the Articles of War as “inflexible brutality and cruelty [of mandatory death penalty] codified into law” (Franklin, NA). Their protest signified man’s desire for man-made laws to encompass more natural laws. Similarly, when the United States established her own “Articles of War” modeled after Britain, an American anti-mandatory capital punishment movement sparked debates across the nation from 1830 to 1895 (Franklin, NA). Written in 1886 in New York, Billy Budd coincided with the crucial years when the majority of state criminal laws gradually shifted from mandatory to discretionary capital punishment, while military law refused to follow suit and still preserves its mandatory death penalty for espionage during wartime today (“Mens,” 1032). Although Melville’s general intention in writing Billy Budd may be much broader, his portrayal of Billy’s tragic death for the sake of an unfeeling legal mandate seems to express great disproval of laws that do not consider the prisoner’s mentality and circumstances.Although criticism of law’s inadequacy should, in principle, apply only to those special laws mandating capital punishment, in practice it aptly describes criminal law as well, both in Britain and the United States as countries with similar criminal laws. While court-martials under laws such as the Articles of War are not legally required to consider factors mitigating the crime’s severity, criminal courts in both countries are legally bound to consider the state of mind of a defendant during the crime and adjust the sentence accordingly (“Mens,” 1028). The legal term “mens reas” refers a “guilty mind,” where theoretically, a crime is defined only when the perpetrator commits it with a “guilty mind” or premeditated guilty intentions. Therefore, a “harmful action done by one honestly ignorant of its harmful quality ought not to be condemned and punished” (“Mens,” 1028). In this aspect, British and American laws have already made important strides to incorporate natural law in man-made law.However, in practice it appears that mens rea, ever since its establishment in the seventeenth century has been “primarily an explanatory construct, not a working rule of law” (“Mens,” 1029). A recent survey in 1970 revealed seventy-six different ways of expressing mens reas in US criminal law statutes (“Mens,” 1030). The “consequence of this chaos is the administrative burden that legal uncertainty causes” because lawyers “engage in full-dress battle on interpretative questions concerning mens rea” (“Mens,” 1030). At best, mens rea can only “differentiate between the seriousness of the crime,” which in the end, “may not matter,” and the crime’s sentence (“Mens,” 1029).Fundamentally similar to Billy’s story, an historical case substantiates the blatant disparity between justice by natural law and justice by man-made law, while highlighting the inconsistency of criminal law verdicts with mens rea. In 1884, two years before Melville began Billy Budd, a shipwreck cast three sailors and a boy of sixteen onto the open sea in a lifeboat off the Cape of Good Hope. Having drifted for eighteen days, they had not eaten or drunk during the last five days and the young boy was near death from starvation. With no rescue in sight, two of the sailors, Dudley and Stephens, decided to murder the boy. Four days after they ate the boy, the three sailors were rescued and sent back to England, whereupon Dudley and Stephens were promptly condemned to death (Reich 132).In delivering the verdict, England’s Chief Justice Lord Coleridge writes that “we are often compelled to set standards that we cannot reach ourselves” (Reich 133). This statement implies although certain crimes may be inherent in human nature, society does not tolerate them even though tolerance is legally required. Although Lord Coleridge acknowledged that all four would have died had they not eaten the boy, he still refused to accept the “necessity” of survival as an excuse for murder. Yet “necessity” to preserve one’s own life is exactly what mens rea, founded upon natural law, condones. Just as mens rea would absolve guilt for Claggart’s unpremeditated murder, mens rea also accepts “necessity” as a valid exoneration of the perpetrator (“Mens,” 1028). Yet if Dudley and Stephens are not judged by the “Articles of War” but rather by discretionary criminal law, why does Lord Coleridge refuse to abide by mens rea and absolve them from their crime? He defends the death sentence, saying that there is an:…awful danger of admitting the principle [of necessity]. Who is to be the judge of this sort of necessity? By what measure is the comparative value of lives to be measured? Such a principle once admitted might be made the legal cloak for unbridled passion and atrocious crime… there is no safe path for judges to tread…” (Reich 133)Because of mens rea’s elusive “measurement,” Lord Coleridge’s statement implies that mens rea (like natural law) would legally “condone” too many crimes, in which more crimes and chaos would ensue. He echoes the similar concerns of other judges who have delivered verdicts inconsistent with mens rea. It may seem Lord Coleridge’s criticism is directed at mens rea’s inadequacy, but one can turn his statement into a criticism of general law’s insufficiency.The verdicts for Dudley-Stephen and Billy seem to hinge on the judges’ acceptance that punishment for the sake of law may sacrifice innocence. Billy, Dudley, and Stephens acted as “natural men,” committing crimes when “overwhelmed with forces beyond their control,” namely natural self-defense and the primitive urges of hunger (Reich 139). Yet all three are guilty of committing a legal crime, because the courts completely ignore natural law and mens rea. This clear-cut standard for determining guilt and innocence seems inadequate in addressing the complexity of human nature. It seems that the human mind is too unknowable with its multifaceted motivations for present and past laws to properly gauge. As verdicts ignoring mens rea illustrate, even when society’s laws theoretically account for man’s complexity, this is difficult to implement in practice. Presently, it is seemingly impossible for even today’s comprehensive laws to mete the most appropriate punishment for every case.However, man-made laws do not always have detrimental effects on justice. Choosing the logic of man-made laws over the instincts of natural law derives from a long, complex history which reveales the advantages and disadvantages of a system of absolute standards. Several decades before the time of Billy Budd, the middle classes and nobility appealed to the authority of artificial, man-made laws to reduce the power and the authority of King James I, who had the power to adjudicate verdicts based on natural law or his own arbitrary whims, with the latter as a much more probable outcome (Thomas 59). England’s Chief Justice Lord Coleridge struggled to persuade the King that he could not personally adjudicate cases because verdicts are “not to be decided by natural reason [of the King’s untrained legal mind] but by the artificial reason and judgment of law, which… requires long study” (Thomas 57). In this historical context, society opting for the logic of man-made laws over the natural whims of the King seems to be a progressive milestone in civilized society. One can immediately see the benefits of a society ruled by absolute laws, not by the arbitrary inclinations of an absolute ruler, whose verdicts may or may not abide by natural laws.In Billy Budd’s time, man-made law shifts to ally with the King and his military. Man-made law becomes a formidable method of preserving the might of a military defending against the French invasions, whereupon it takes on its present role of demanding sacrifices of individual rights. Yet one may justly wonder, doesn’t the state have a right to impose stricter laws curbing individual rights during the wartime?The narrator in Billy Budd emphasizes the “pertinence of such forces to the individuals and events of his tale” (Franklin, NA). Making great effort to “situate the events of his story within a particular historical context,” the narrator evokes the historical events such as the mutinies at Spithead and Nore (320). Known as the “Great Mutiny,” sailors at Nore rebelled against the ship authorities and demanded equal wage increases. Although eventually quelled, the mutiny instilled a prevailing and legitimate fear in navy commanders of more rebellions from their sailors, many of whom were unhappily impressed into service. Billy’s “treason” in striking Claggart occurs only six months after the “Great Mutiny,” when “reasonable discontent growing out of practical grievances… had been ignited into irrational combustion” still proved “menacing” to the British Empire (293). When deciding Billy’s verdict, naturally Vere is largely concerned with its impressions on the crew. As the narrator imputes, “feeling that unless quick action was taken on it, the deed of the foretopman… would tend to awaken any slumbering embers of the Nore among the crew” and therefore a “sense of urgency of the case overruled in Captain Vere every other consideration” (336). Therefore, Vere adheres to the Articles and refuses to mitigate Billy’s sentence, reasoning:most of [the crew] is familiar with our naval tradition; how would they take it… to the people the foretopman’s deed… will be plain homicide committed in the flagrant act of mutiny. What penalty for that they know. It does not follow. Why? They will ruminate… will they not revert to the recent outbreak the Nore? (344)Since one goal of punishment should serve to deter future crimes, if Vere mitigates Billy’s sentence, then the crew will interpret this leniency as encouragement to mutiny. In turn, they would feel more encouraged to rebel. To not adhere to the Articles might be to fail in his duty as Captain and Vere has little choice but to act in the ship’s interest. In the clash between “desire for individual freedom and need for social order,” historical context often illuminates why society chooses one extreme over the other (Thomas 54). As Billy Budd demonstrates, the general welfare of society often necessitates a curtailment of individual rights.What makes Billy Budd so controversial is that Vere’s decision is completely legal, yet completely unnatural. It is the black and white dichotomy of innocence and guilt that troubles many. Vere must either “condemn or let go” and the gaping void in between seems to point to penal law’s inadequacy in reflecting and accommodating the different natures of the crime. When Vere pronounces Billy “innocent before God,” he acknowledges that the Articles of War is far from the “perfect” legal system that can comprehend man’s total humanity, rather than just the appearance of the crime. Yet Billy Budd’s tense, historical context also seems to suggest that in the clash between public duty and the freedom to follow natural law, justice is not simply a matter of man-made law versus natural law, but a factor espousing society’s general welfare.
Consequence of Choice: Faith Versus Rationality in ‘Billy Budd’
In the novel Billy Budd, Sailor, Herman Melville attempts to convey underlying truths regarding human nature through the people, whom grow to represent a larger aspect of society. The story revolves around the titular character, a virtuous and naïvely incorruptible young seaman who finds himself in a regrettable situation due to a flaw that surfaces when faced with threatening situations. The author employs an extended comparison dealing with the essence of faith versus circumstances and choosing between the two through the three main characters in the novel. Billy Budd’s moral purity is contrasted with the malicious character of John Claggart and the middle ground between the two ultimately becomes the intelligent and objective Captain Vere and his ethical dilemma. The outcome of the situation, arguably, represents society’s concept of “divine justice” and elucidates the archetypes of the good, the bad, and the balanced. Therefore, by juxtaposing the moral standards of Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Captain Vere, Melville is able to examine the constant battle between rationality and faith.
Billy Budd, from the very beginning of the story, is portrayed as the pinnacle of rectitude. His Rights of Man shipmates praise his ability to “[sugar] the sour ones” with virtue (6) and the author makes Billy Budd’s innocence very clear when he states that “to deal in double meanings and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to [Billy’s] nature”(9). Furthermore, through the narrator, Melville details his exceptional goodness when he declares that “his simple nature remained unsophisticated by those moral obliquities” (12). Through this implication that Billy Budd lacks the intelligence to formulate any sort of vindictive thought, the author reveals how someone who is such a paradigm of purity can assemble into the real world. If the Bellipotent is society, then Billy Budd represents the remaining naïveté and decency that ultimately becomes not his downfall, but his legacy. He is the personification of acting by faith, as he blindly accepts authority and never succumbs to his own will. His lack of personal courage is illustrated in his blatant acceptance of death and faith, shown even in his actions before the fatal moment. The ship’s chaplain, as expressed through the narrator, states how fearlessly committed Billy is to his own “dogma” (78) and the way in which he confronts death without abandon, even “bless[ing]” (80) Captain Vere upon the moment of his execution, disregarding ration and instinctively relying on his own belief in the moral integrity of Vere.
John Claggart, on the other hand, is the epitome of a malicious man whose motivations are cruel and vengeful. The author portrays him as “the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short ‘a depravity according to nature'” (34). His internal “depravity” confines him to live without faith, as everything Claggart does seems to spur solely from his own conscience and entirely distrusting of those around him. He acts by ration, but not by any defined set of rules. Instead, he relies entirely on his selfish desires and volition, vastly different from Billy Budd’s blind trust, in that his reasoning is that everyone is out to get him. Therefore, Claggart’s conscience is really “the lawyer to his will” (39) and he is unable to escape this “innate” evil because it is the basis for his rationale and decision-making. Claggart can justify his wrongdoings, such as framing Billy Budd, because his resentment and envy towards Billy translates to a necessity to be punished and he “[makes] ogres of trifles” (39).
Melville utilizes his character to portray the dangers of an overly self-reliant and one-sidedly rational mind, because Claggart’s inability to sympathize will be his fatal flaw. Melville utilizes the character of Captain Vere to form the perfect balance between Budd and Claggart as well as emphasizing the division between injustices and mistakes. Captain Vere is established as a heavy rule-follower since his introduction as the practical, intelligent philosopher of the ship. In deciding what to do with Billy Budd, Vere concludes that “he [is] not authorized to determine the matter on [a] primitive basis”(61). Nevertheless, he settles on the more “rational” option after debating with both himself and the court for quite some time. Vere declares that he will rule solely based on “the prisoner’s overt act,” (67) even though he “[believes]”(63) in Billy Budd. Melville uses Vere’s definitive decision, in which the captain settles on ration and ignores his “gut feeling” and natural justice, to elucidate the tangible struggle between law and belief, and Vere’s refusal to incorporate faith into his decision becomes his downfall as well. Despite his strong feelings against choosing the “[pitiless] law,” (68) he still hangs Billy Budd, yet cries before the trial that Claggart was “struck dead by an angel of God,” (59) acknowledging the sincerity of faith and even displaying signs of remorse. However, his disregard for instinctive belief will eventually kill him in battle. Melville employs the other ship in the conflict at the end of the novel (not coincidentally named “Atheist”) to indicate that Vere’s unwillingness to consult his faith is his most significant hamartia.
Melville creates these characters of Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Edward Vere in order to contrast the difference in principles between faith and rationality and how, ultimately, faith is the more honorable choice. Melville deliberately manifests Billy Budd as both the most morally sound character as well as the most faithfully reliant and driven by impulse. The implication that relying strictly on rules invokes some sort of cowardice is an interesting lesson taught by the narrator, if not Melville, and could even be interpreted as Melville following his own beliefs and disregarding “natural law” by writing this book.