Sunday, February 12, 2012
Thoughts: Billy Budd by Herman Melville
Billy Budd is, well, about an archetypal Handsome Sailor named Billy Budd. Right after two momentous mutinies, Billy Budd is impressed to serve on a Royal Navy ship. When a person is impressed, that basically means he’s taken right out of the commercial ship he’s on, and forced to serve in the navy. He doesn’t have any choice in the matter. Once on Bellipotent, Billy Budd makes friends with the other sailors, and, for some unexplained reason, makes an enemy out of the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart.
I was struck by John Claggart’s intense dislike for Billy Budd. The narrator points out that his dislike is more monstrous than anything Anne Radcliffe could have dreamed up in The Mysteries of Udolpho, because it is sudden and unexplainable. In fiction, a character always has to have a motive for everything he does, and Melville blurs the lines between reality and fiction by saying that he just can’t explain Claggart’s hatred, making it even more realistic.
I hate to say this, but, in real life, there are just people we don’t like on sight. Maybe they remind us of someone we hate, or maybe they have an annoying quirk. You can’t just pin down your dislike on a single thing, and, when you’re asked to explain yourself, you have no words. You just can’t elaborate on the fact that you do not like that person.
Billy Budd still makes me wonder until now. He is like a blank state, a character who lets you shape him depending on your own life experiences. His thoughts are never revealed, and you are just left guessing. Did he mean to do this or was it just an accident? Melville lets me decide a lot of things for myself.
Also, I just want to say that I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone even remotely like Melville, which is surprising considering that nothing seems new these days. He writes likes he’s telling you, just you, the story with a lot of digressions, and with tons of missing details. Due to these missing details, he’s really good at making the reader question previous assumptions about John Claggart, Billy Budd, and even the honorable Captain Vere.
The novella made me think about the true meaning of innocence, and how subjective deciding a person’s innocence can be. There really are certain situations where there is no black or white, and you’re left standing in an expanse of gray area. The characters in the book stick to the black and white rules. Melville leaves you to ponder their decisions in the end.