Patrick's Reviews > Billy Budd, Sailor

Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville
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Oct 24, 09

Read in January, 2009

Herman Melville's novella "Billy Budd" recounts the tragic story of a young man impressed into service aboard the British man-of-war 'Bellipotent' in the late 1790's. Billy is called the 'Handsome Sailor' no less because of his angelic features than for his absolute moral purity and innocence. Initially aboard a merchantman, where he is revered by his fellows and treated accordingly, once aboard a warship, Billy is not greeted by such universal admiration. John Claggart, the master-at-arms, the policeman of the ship, fosters an intense homoerotic hatred of Billy, drawing the young man into the commerce of realistic human interaction.
Melville does a fantastic job in so short a work of characterization. From the main characters, Budd, Claggart, and the captain/philosopher Starry Vere, to minor characters of significance like the old Dansker, Melville gives carefully detailed and finely nuanced renderings of the players and their roles and responses to the events of the story.

Claggart's conflict with Budd takes on special urgency with the 1790's problem of mutinies aboard British sea-going vessels. Vere and his court must try to distinguish moral responsibility from legal necessity to judge the fatal interactions between Claggart and Budd. Melville is sensitive to late 18th century philosophical currents in regard to both American independence and the French Revolution - Discussions of rights and nature are scattered through the text. Complicating these strains are theological currents of good and evil, innocence and natural depravity. "Billy Budd" is a fine work, and wonderfully complex.

This excellent edition, compiled and edited by Hayford and Seals, is the appropriate one for the scholar or the completist. It includes extensive notes and critical interpretations (sadly only through the initial publication of this edition - 1962), photo reprints of Melville's manuscript, and textual commentary. Absolutely worth reading and rereading.
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