Book Review: Billy Budd

Billy Budd MelvilleHerman Melville’s last novel, Billy Budd, was set on an English ship in the late 1700s. Billy had worked on a merchant ship, but was impressed—forced—into the British navy. He went willingly and cheerfully, however. Billy was young, good-looking, well-liked, and basically a moral, upright man.

The master-at-arms on the ship, John Claggart, took an instant dislike to Billy. The biggest factor was probably envy, but Melville seems to attribute Claggart’s dislike to his own nature, which was bent toward evil.  Billy, bent toward good and a little naive, didn’t recognize the signs of Claggart’s dislike and didn’t believe it when told.

Billy accidentally kills Claggart. His captain is put in a hard position. He believes Billy was the better man and didn’t kill Claggart on purpose. But naval laws at that time were strict in the wake of a couple of severe mutinies. Justice had to be meted out swiftly and decisively to maintain order and serve as a warning.

Billy Budd was unfinished at Melville’s death, and his wife and biographer tried to piece his work and guess his intentions. Their attempts were largely considered inferior. A later biographer was given the original manuscript and notes and came up with a better version. But different versions are still circulating. I listened to the audio version at Libravox which didn’t identify which manuscript was used. But it must have been an older one, because it had a different name for the ship, and the online version includes a preface which Wikipedia says was cut in later versions.

Because Melville hadn’t finished the book, it’s hard to know his intent in writing it. Was it a basic good vs. evil conflict, in which the good doesn’t always win out in this life? Was it a reaction against naval laws, a warning that they needed clarification? It’s hard to say. it’s interesting that Billy’s old ship was named The Rights of Man, and as Billy leaves it, he calls out, “Goodbye to you, old Rights of Man.” Perhaps this is symbolic.

Billy is presented as innocent to the point that, when the chaplain calls on him, Billy listens out of politeness but doesn’t “receive” the message. The chaplain concludes that “innocence was even a better thing than religion wherewith to go to judgment”  and leaves off. But no man is so innocent that he can face judgement without Christ.

I chose this book for the Abandoned Classic category (one you started but never finished) of the Back to the Classics challenge. Reading Billy Budd was an assignment for a college class, but I never finished it—odd, since it’s a short book. I was docked points for not finishing the reading assignment, and have rarely thought about it since. But it was one of only two classics that I could remember not finishing.

It was an interesting story. Many consider it a masterpiece for Melville second only to Moby Dick. It’s not the type of story I’d generally gravitate to. But that’s one thing I like about the Back to the Classics challenge: it expands my reading horizons. I’m glad to be acquainted with Billy story which, as most classics do, provides much food for thought.

Have you ever read Billy Budd? What did you think.