Sunday, February 12, 2012

Thoughts: Billy Budd by Herman Melville

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has been languishing in my shelves for the past couple of months. The sheer length of the book intimidates me, and I’ve been eyeing it warily, waiting for the right opportunity to tackle it. I thought reading one of Melville’s shorter works might prepare me, give me a taste of what his writing is like, so to speak.

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.

9 comments:

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

Hmm, I'm not sure I would appreciate just how much is left up to the reader.

And I feel the same way you do about Moby Dick. It's on my shelf staring at me and I want to read it, really I do, but it's just so LONG.

mooderino said...

I think Billy Budd is supposed to be a Christ metaphor. You should try Bartleby, which is really strange (but in a good way).

I'm going to read Moby Dick this year (I've decided).

mood

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I just read Moby Dick and that filled my Melville quota for the year (or for a few years), but I will have to check this one out once I'm in the mood for him again. I agree with mooderino too, Bartleby is super strange, but oddly fascinating.

Seth said...

Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street

Kailana said...

hm, reading this might lead to me reading Moby Dick in this century, too. Good idea!

Shelley said...

I have such bad memories of reading this in high school! It seemed so pointless then, but I think I would get more out of it reading it now. I just finished Moby Dick (along with Melissa), and I liked his writing enough that I would love to experience it in a much shorter format than MD!

Jillian said...

I love the way you describe what makes Melville unique. I have read the first section of Moby-Dick and highly recommend it based on what I've read thus far. I've been putting it off because I know I'll love it and I want to wait to read it until I'm in exactly the right mood. :D

Jillian said...

PS - I've read Bartleby the Scrivener and agree: weird but very good. :)

Stephanie M. Hasty said...

this is a solid review about a book that i have grown to love and definitely for all the reasons you've stated. i wonder if melville is in a class all his own because people nowadays know they have to hook the reader so quickly and some of that exposition is lost. i know that when we teach, we pretty much gloss over the first eight chapters so the kids won't get bored and stop reading.

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