29 August 2007

17. Billy Budd by Herman Melville

You may have read this in high school. I did not, so I had no idea what was in store.

Set in the 1790s, Billy Budd is a sailor on a merchant ship who is impressed into service on a British warship. Impressment is a forced enlistment - basically warships would stop merchants and pick off some of the crew to serve in His/Her Majesty's service. In fact, the British warships didn't even care if the merchant was English. One of the causes of the War of 1812 was that Britain would not stop impressing American sailors.

So, Billy Budd accepts, even embraces, his service and becomes a foretop man, working one of the yardarms atop one of the masts. So impressed with Budd, Captain Vere has decided to promote him to captain of the mast he works. Billy Budd's meek. He's beautiful. And he's quite popular with the crew.

Except with Claggart, the Master-at-Arms (a sort of the ship's chief of police), who has it in for Billy Budd. No explanation is given except that Claggart has a "depravity" that makes him twisted and evil.

So Claggart falsely informs on Budd, accusing him of plotting a mutiny. This is an exceptional charge because there were two big mutinies in 1797. Normally, and obviously, paranoid about any potential threat of rebellion, commanders were especially sensitive to any hint of it after 1797.

So the captain brings Budd and Claggart to his stateroom to sort out the charge. When he hears it, Budd's is overwhelmed and, unable to answer. Out of frustration he strikes the Master-at-Arms at kills him. This is a crime, for Billy Budd is a mere sailor and Claggart outranks him.

So Vere has to decide - does Billy Budd swing for his crime, or does he (and the jury) consider the circumstances and the actors involved in the crisis? Should they consider the crew's reaction to a death sentence for the very popular Billy Budd for killing the not so popular Claggart? Should he wait and refer it to the admiral?

A good book with some excellent writing, but my intellect has bruises on it from being clubbed repeatedly with the Christ/Satan and Adam/Serpent symbols.

2 comments:

Crumbolst said...

Nice one! I mean the reading choice and the review.

Olman Feelyus said...

I want to like Melville. I read The Confidence Man. I've tried to read Moby Dick. I think your last paragraph sums up why he doesn't work for me. There's just too much other stuff other than the story itself going on that I'm not interested in.