Billy Budd, Sailor ~ A Capsule Book Review

Billy Budd, Sailor ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

American author Herman Melville (1819-1891) wrote his last novel, Billy Budd, Sailor, toward the end of his life and it wasn’t published until more than thirty years after his death. As with his contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Melville wasn’t recognized as a literary genius until after he was in his grave.

Billy Budd, Sailor is set on board a British man-of-war (battleship) in the 1790s. It is a serious exploration of the ethics of capital punishment, the rights of the individual versus the good of the collective, and the what happens when a “decent” man is confronted with a situation where what he “feels” to be right (his conscience) is in conflict with what the law is saying must be done.

Billy Budd is twenty-one years old. He is “impressed” into naval service on a British man-of-war, the Bellipotent; this means he is forced to serve against his will as if he is a slave. (This was a common practice during these times.) Billy possesses great physical beauty, a child-like innocence, and charm; he is well-liked and even loved by most of the other sailors and also the officers on the Bellipotent. There is something about him that is almost noble. He is more than once likened to Christ. His only defect, as far as anybody can see, is a stutter that manifests itself at inopportune moments.

Naval commanders are more than usually aware of mutiny at the time of Billy Budd, Sailor, because a couple of mutinies have occurred that are still fresh in everyone’s minds. Enter John Claggart, the master-at-arms on board the Bellipotent. He is the snake in Billy Budd’s garden whose mission it is to corrupt innocence. He goes to the captain of the Bellipotent, Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, with stories that Billy Budd has been making remarks that could incite mutiny among the men. Anybody who knows Billy Budd knows this not to be true. Is it just that Claggart is envious of Billy Budd’s good looks and his popularity among the men and is out to “get” him?

When Captain Vere brings Billy Budd and John Claggart together and Billy Budd hears what Claggart is saying about him, he punches him once in the face; with just this one blow, Claggart falls to the floor dead. Now Captain Vere is faced with a dilemma. Will he follow the law, which calls for the execution of the offender, or will he allow his personal feelings for Billy Budd to stand in the way of his “duty?”

Billy Budd, Sailor is not an easy novel to read or comprehend. A great piece of writing though it may be, it’s not always “enjoyable” reading. Melville’s style of writing (the style of the time in which is was written) is wordy; he makes far too many digressions and parenthetical statements for the narrative to flow smoothly. Our interest is constantly challenged. How many readers just give up and don’t finish reading the book to the end? I doubt if Herman Melville cared or gave it much thought.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

2 thoughts on “Billy Budd, Sailor ~ A Capsule Book Review

  1. I think Melville had bigger fish to fry than worry about the casual reader. Billy Budd is one of the great books about the sea and an even greater book in exploring and testing theories of law. Excellent post. Thank you.

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