Talk:Billy Budd

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Hi to you.

Are the RIGHTS OF MAN compatible with the BELLIPOTENT nature of the INDOMITABLE instinct for war in human kind?

Isn't this kind of question as appropriate for our time as it is for all time?

Although the nature of war has changed in our era with the development of superweapons (those which are capable of destroying BOTH parties to conflict, as opposed to the conventional weapons which can only eliminate the enemy), if we are to have a human nature, we must still consider our relationship to the question of human rights.

Does a person have the right to exist without war?

Does the human race?

BILLY BUDD is clearly one of the most important works of American literature. Reading it will change you.

posted on Jan 21, 2004 by (originally unsigned)

Here's my input on Billy Budd (sources noted)

Moral Dilemmas in Billy Budd Billy Budd, Sailor, the novel by Herman Melville, “is a story of innocence and evil, of crime and punishment, of rationality and insanity, of motives tainted and pure” (Goldstein 1). Throughout Billy Budd, Melville portrays Billy Budd as an honest individual who makes good decisions and possesses a strong character. However, these actions do not result from either a good moral foundation or his strong character. The actions of the characters throughout Herman Melville’s Billy Budd come from both deliberate decisions of choosing good or evil as well as those from naïveté and innocence.

Billy does not represent “goodness” but rather he represents “innocence.” He has the look of a hero, but not the personality. He lacks the strong moral character consistent with a hero, and “his defining characteristic is his naïveté” (Zink 2). Often in Billy Budd, Billy “is compared to Adam and Jesus” (Tindall 3). Melville depicts Billy as innocent, like the Biblical figures, and he seems destined to fall, as they did, and end “crucified.” After his death, Billy “is regarded as a saint and martyr, much like Christ” (Tindall 3).

Billy “is passive good, a comprehensive symbol of the sort of goodness” (Zink 4). However, the critic agrees that it “is in large part only the ignorance of evil” (Zink 5). The novel “is a moral and spiritual struggle. Billy and Claggart represent almost pure good and evil, and are simply too extreme to satisfy the demands of realism” (Tindall 4).

Billy’s actions against Claggart appear to be instinctive. Should characters be held accountable for these actions? Physical action “is not right or wrong in itself. The right or wrong is in the motive for choosing to move our muscles and bodies in a given situation” (Jepson 34). Billy’s actions do not come from a built up aggression. They did not spawn from an inner hate for Claggart. They simply reflect Billy’s split second reaction to Claggart’s accusation.

Billy dramatizes the awful power of blind impersonality to “forma.” Forma, defined by Zink, “is the potential for evil.” Claggart personifies evil and Billy remains oblivious to Claggart’s conniving and hate. Throughout the trial and leading up to the execution, Billy also remains oblivious to the injustice he is suffering from. His naïveté keeps him from him seeing the evil in others.

The crew of the Indomitable is another figure that warrants looking at in Billy Budd when discussing the morals and naïveté of the characters. They “are the mass of mankind” (Zink 1). The crew “is dominated easily, often brutally, by an authority they have learned to fear and respect (Zink 3). They recognize the injustice, unlike Billy. Prior to the execution, they seem unable to voice their opinions as one. However, as the crew witnesses Billy’s hanging, they sense the injustice. The crew reacts instinctively, as a mass, to the injustice. Their after-the-fact pathetic attempt to respond to the actions of Captain Vere fails miserably and the crew falls back into individuals once again. The crew’s error existed in their lack of resistance to the injustice. James 4:17 states “when a person knows the right thing to do, but does not do it, then he is sinning” (James 1045). The crew knew how they should act, but they sit and do nothing.

The sailors are more impressed by Billy Budd than by Vere. They understand his innocent naïveté. Billy holds steadfast to his innocence, and thus, with his death, becomes a “saint, martyr and his hanging [is] an omen” (Tindall 3). Billy’s martyrdom and naïveté lead to his execution being called a ‘ceremony of innocence’ by critics (Tindall 5).

Captain Vere also faces his own moral dilemma when he presides over the court-martial of Billy. Literary and legal critics “have often viewed Captain Vere as an honorable man and able administrator who was forced to perform a distasteful task” (Goldstein 2). Vere’s decision forces him to choose the law over his heart and conscience. He knows in his heart that Billy should not be executed because of the circumstances, but follows the letter of the law. The letter of the law “simplifies; it softens the sting to the conscience of disturbing moral considerations (Zink 1). Vere’s inner turmoil over Billy’s fate at first indicates a concern with making the right moral decision. However, Vere simply chooses what leads to the best results for him. He worried about mutiny. Mutinies “[were] an ever present threat to all naval authorities” (Zink 1).

Vere knows the right decision, but chooses not to make it. He knows Billy should not be executed, as the crew realized, and “when a person knows the right thing to do, but does not do it, then he is sinning (James 1045). Feelings, including Vere’s, “are not directly under moral obligation. They are not directly within our power of choice. For that reason, our moral character does not depend on how we feel. It does depend, though, on what we do with our feelings” (Jepson 35). Vere was pulled by two separate emotions. He possesses a part of him which knows that Billy should not be executed and another that tells him he must follow the law to protect himself, to avoid a mutiny. Vere’s error exists not in his feelings, but rather in his actions and not following his conscience. Romans states it this way: “If a person believes that something is wrong, then that thing is wrong for him” (Paul 973).

In Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor the author presents three different distinct moral dilemmas: Billy’s innocence, Vere’s decision and the crew of the Indomitable. At the instant “the choice is made in the heart, moral character is determined” (Jepson 34). Billy’s actions result from his naïveté, Vere goes against his conscience out of selfishness, and the crew does nothing and thus also sins. But now comes the big question: “to what does moral obligation directly apply? The answer is simple: Moral obligation applies directly to our ultimate motive, freely and knowingly determined by and within ourselves personally (Jepson 35).

Sources: Goldstein, Tom, "Once Again, Billy Budd Stands Trial," in The New York Times, June 10, 1988, p. 15, p. B9. DISCovering Authors. Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Student Resource Center. Thomson Gale. 10 February 2005 <>

Jepson, J.W. Don't Blame It All on Adam. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1984.

Assorted Authors. The Everyday Bible, New Century Version. 1st ed. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1988.

Tindall, William York, "The Ceremony of Innocence (Herman Melville: `Billy Budd')," in Great Moral Dilemmas in Literature, Past and Present, edited by R. M. MacIver, The Institute for Religious and Social Studies, 1956, pp. 73-81. DISCovering Authors. Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Student Resource Center. Thomson Gale. 10 February 2005 <>

Zink, Karl E. “Herman Melville and the Forms – Irony and Social Criticism in Billy Budd.” Accent: A Quartely of New Literature. 12 (Summer 1952): 131-139

posted on Feb 10, 2005 by (originally unsigned)


"Other works of the same name" to me implies that these are different works which coincidentally have the same name, rather than adaptations. I'm going to add a note about adapations at the bottom. DJ Clayworth 05:13, 30 Mar 2005 (UTC)

Sounds good to me. I was just trying to get away from having one article about all of the works. Your change is better than the boilerplate text in this case, you're right. --BaronLarf 13:53, Mar 30, 2005 (UTC)

1924 novels category[edit]

With a book like this, there might be those who argue that it properly belongs in the 1891 novels category, however the trend seems to be to categorize novels based upon the year of their first publication, never mind when they were written. Precedent includes the Margret Mitchell novella Lost Laysen which is listed in a 1990s category but was written around 1916 (but unpublished for 80 years), or more recently Octopussy and The Living Daylights, an Ian Fleming short story collection that was published in 1966 and categorized thus, even though Fleming died 2 years earlier. 23skidoo 05:21, 19 August 2006 (UTC)

Plot Summary and the last three chapters[edit]

I'm amazed that something is not mentioned of the last three chapters when Melville essentially inserts himself into the story and muddies the waters of good vs. evil from the story that has immediately preceded. I'm not likely to have time to get into this any time soon as it's getting to crunch time in the semester, but it ought to be addressed - particularly since the last chapters cause problems for the good vs. evil reading. If it's not been done by then maybe I'll get to it over the summer.

Deliberately Ambiguous[edit]

The article includes the entry:

A story ultimately about good and evil, Billy Budd has often been interpreted allegorically, with Billy interpreted typologically as Christ or the Biblical Adam, with Claggart (compared to a snake several times in the text) figured as Satan.

This is indeed one frequently heard interpretation. It seems though, that Melville wished to confront his readers with a some (fairly transparent) ambiguity, as we also encounter the complementary interpretation, in which the name 'Billy Budd' was chosen to stand for Beezelbub, with Claggart's desperate and rather erring actions (a la Jesus) being undermined behind the scenes by BB. (This is a well known critical interpretation, not original thinking, although I am momentarily at a loss to supply a reference). Perhaps it merits reference in the body of the article. What do you think?

--Philopedia 23:19, 8 August 2007 (UTC)


Any particular reason the interpretations precede the plot summary? A reader with no knowledge of the subject would be confused by the interpretation before the plot. I'll move it if there are no objections -- Vonfraginoff 13:21, 17 September 2007 (UTC)

You're right, I moved it up.--Cúchullain t/c 14:28, 17 September 2007 (UTC)

Added "unreferenced" tag[edit]

I added the "unreferenced" template to the page, as there are several statements that could use some referencing. Some examples:

  • "Vere claims to be following the letter of the Mutiny Act and the Articles of War, but recent scholarship suggests otherwise." (which is also extremely vague and tells the reader almost nothing)
  • "The story may have been based on events onboard USS Somers, an American naval vessel; one of the defendants in the later investigation was a distant relative of Melville."
  • The entire "popular interpretation" section.
  • The penultimate paragraph of the "other contemporary interpretations" section regarding "other critics".

Discuss, remove inaccurate or sourceless statements as necessary, change stuff around - whatever will improve the article. --V2Blast (talk) 02:10, 2 April 2008 (UTC)


I believe there was a film based on this book--I can't for the life of me remember when it was made or who was in it--but we should probably mention it in the article somewhere.


Shouldn't there be something about the fact that almost every page bears reference to the physical beauty of the Billy, commented on by the author and male characters? I'm not trolling - read it and see. (talk) 19:28, 4 August 2009 (UTC)

There should be... it's a matter of someone taking the time to find the standard sources and expanding the article.--Cúchullain t/c 19:40, 4 August 2009 (UTC)

I did research and added mention of this kind of interpretation about a year ago, but looking over the history I see that someone arbitrarily removed it entirely. I just put it back. --Asedzie —Preceding undated comment added 22:14, 12 May 2010 (UTC).

"We're talking about law not justice"[edit]

Where is this in the book? I can't find it, needs citation. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 21:04, 17 April 2013 (UTC)

External links modified[edit]

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