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The Novella “Billy Budd, Sailor” by Herman Melville Essay

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Updated: Jul 27th, 2020


When Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Sailor was first presented to the world, critics received it with a great level of success. The work was published in 1924, and one of the reasons for its triumph in America and the United Kingdom was the precision, with which the author portrayed the historical and cultural context. Among the issues addressed by the author, there is the problem of capital punishment and the interpretations of its rejection or justification. The matter of capital sentences was in the center of the public debate when the book was written, and Melville managed to represent the cross-sectional public opinion towards it in his book.

Furthermore, the conflict between the characters of Billy Budd, Sailor is not limited to the issues contemporary to them. The plot of the novella derives within the philosophical framework. The conflicts between the different personalities in the book represent the symbolism of conflict between rational and poetic thinking. Moreover, such opposition also affects the perception of what a capital crime is and what actions can be justified. Thus, even though the setting of the plot of Billy Budd, Sailor takes place in the late eighteenth century, the author discusses the issues significant to his contemporaries and modern society. One of those issues is the question of capital punishment.

The story of Billy Budd in the historical and cultural context

The narrative form of a historical novel gives the author of Billy Budd, Sailor a number of certain advantages. Firstly, it helps him both to contrast and to draw parallels with contemporary society. If some aspects are criticized, the readers can themselves conclude whether society made any improvements. Thus, the connection with the past helps to analyze the present. Secondly, it is also important to underline the fact that a historical novel offers the reader the role of an observer. It was important for Melville because, otherwise, the novella could have been considered controversial because of the discussed issues of capital punishment. The novella focuses more on the historical development of justice rather than its status quo in the described epoch.

In terms of the cultural impact, there are multiple layers within the novella. In particular, it concerns the various interpretations of the characters, their relationships, and the representation of justice and law in literature. Melville is not sympathetic to the manner of legal proceedings and overall jurisdiction described in the novella. Special attention is focused on the Mutiny Act, according to which Billy Budd was convicted to the death penalty. At the same time, he projects the critique of the society that was contemporary to him. Moreover, even in the context of modern society, the ethical background of capital punishment can still be not entirely clear, whereas the legal regulations can sometimes fail.

Interpretations of the conflict between the characters

When analyzing the conflict between the characters of Billy Budd, Sailor, it is important to point out the fact that the fictional setting of the novella is a military ship. On one hand, it is a hermetic space where the number of people is limited, and there is little choice of the company. On the other hand, the military discipline imposes on the ship crew the demand for obedience and preservation. Hence, the disciplined environment and suppressed stress and anger result in the conflict outbursts. The confrontation between the characters brewed slowly but had the drastic consequences. As Melville himself points out, “there can exist no irritating juxtaposition of dissimilar personalities comparable to that which is possible aboard a great war-ship fully manned and at sea” (Melville 33).

Billy Budd is one side of the conflict of personalities, and Captain Vere and Claggart represent the other one. The origins of their personalities’ clash are not on the surface. Naturally, we can observe the intermediate causes of their opposition, but, in fact, they symbolically represent two sides of the human nature. According to Floyd, one interpretation suggests that the nature of the conflict is in the family background and effect of the upbringing on the personality (Floyd 35). In particular, Billy and Claggart, in the different ways, lacked the attention from their parents and the society in general.

It is merely a psychological, if not psychoanalytical, interpretation of the novella. However, in terms of its connection with the capital punishment, it can be used for analyzing the concepts of innocence and guilt. In the course of the events, Billy embodied the innocence in his character, while Claggart, in this case, perceived as guilty, was ‘attacking’ him. Notwithstanding foregoing, they changed their roles after Claggart’s accidental death. In a broader perspective, it means that the understanding of guilty and innocent parties can change in a moment. Moreover, regardless of the legal aspects, it is often perceived at the subjective emotional level.

Another interpretation of the personalities’ confrontation in the novella derived from the philosophical framework. According to Franklin, it concerns the opposition between two sides of the human nature (Franklin 340). Billy Budd symbolizes the irrational, emotional, and poetic sides of personality, whereas Claggart and Capitan Vere represent the embodiment of logic, common sense, and reason. They are the people who maintain the discipline aboard and do not hesitate to use the notorious Mutiny Act. Claggart’s suspicions about Billy partially raised out of not trusting his enthusiasm.

Such philosophical background is also important for analyzing the author’s understanding of justice. The Foretopman Billy is guilty in the eyes of the law in the context of that historical epoch. However, given the fact that when Claggart accused him of mutiny, he had no opportunity to defend himself, the case would have been different nowadays. The legal background changed, but the ethical dilemma of appropriate punishment stayed the same.

The portrayal of the system of justice and capital punishment

When we observe the portrayal of the trial and sentencing, the most evident question is whether to criticize or justify the decision of Capitan Vere. However, before coming to a conclusion about the justification of the public hanging in that particular historical context, it is important to analyze all the circumstances of the case. Hunt agrees with the assumption that the problematic aspect is that author directly suggests that Billy was wrongfully accused of mutiny and conspiracy (Hunt 290). This supposition is supported by the fact that the majority of the crewmembers did not believe his guilt when Claggart accused him of mutiny.

However, after Billy Budd unintentionally killed the master of arms, the opinions toward the accused divided. One of the problems was the fact that nobody apart from Capitan Vere saw how the incident happened. According to Beauchamp, it meant, that not only it made the captain responsible for the overall result of the trial as a legal representative, but also he was involved ethically (Beauchamp 8). Therefore, the personality of Capitan Vere, his principles and values played a significant role in the way the justice was carried out. Melville describes the captain as “always acquitting himself as an officer mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline” (Melville 19).

Because of his stuttering and emotional distress when Claggart accused him of conspiracy, Billy Budd was not capable of defending his perspective. Although the death of Claggart was accidental, since they were aboard the military vessel at war, the martial law considered any manslaughter a capital crime. There are two documents of the martial law, to which the characters referred at Billy’s trial. According to Schiffman, the author’s objective was to show that Articles of War and the Mutiny Act can also malfunction (Schiffman 129).

Eventually, despite all the doubts of his own and the crew, Captain Vere and the court-martial convicted Billy Budd to death by hanging. Such decision symbolized the triumph of the military discipline over the ethical considerations in the mind of Captain Vere. However, the author’s main point throughout the book was that justice in the eyes of law can change, but the moral perception of the capital punishment remained the same.


Overall, the author’s point was that the legal aspects of justice and especially capital punishment can change, but the ethical dilemmas stay the same over the years. For that reason, Melville encouraged the readers to concentrate on the humanistic and emotional aspects more. The author supports his reasoning from both the psychological and philosophical perspectives. The novella reflects on the development of justice rather than the historical status quo, which makes it available for the different generations of the readers.

Works Cited

Beauchamp, Gorman. “The Scorpion’s Suicide: Claggart’s Death in Billy Budd.” Melville Society Extracts 12.9 (2005): 7-10. Print.

Floyd, Nathaniel. “Billy Budd: A Psychological Autopsy.” American Imago 34.1 (1977): 28-49. Print.

Franklin, Bruce. “Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Three Centuries.” American Literature 69.2 (1997): 337-359. Print.

Hunt, Lester. “Billy Budd: Melville’s dilemma.” Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2003): 273-295. Print.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962. Print.

Schiffman, Joseph. “Melville’s Final Stage, Irony: A Re-examination of Billy Budd Criticism.” American Literature 22.2 (1950): 128-136. Print.

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