Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Billy Budd's character

I finished reading Matthew Selwyn's book last Wednesday. My initial plan was to read The Sympathiser next, but, as rules are made to be broken, plans are made to be changed- to be safe, I returned to the Melville book, and have been reading "Billy Budd, Sailor". 
What can we say about Billy, more formally William Budd, more tenderly Baby? 
Innocent and simple. The word attached to the character is innocence, innocence, innocence. 
Melville establishes and depicts Billy Budd's character through: 
I/ Telling
II/ Showing (his actions and reactions show naivete, simplicity and slowness)
III/ Imagery, metaphors and similes 
As one may expect, he's compared to a child: 
"In certain matters, some sailors even in mature life remain unsophisticated enough. But a young seafarer of the disposition of our athletic Foretopman, is much of a child-man." 
The narrator goes on to say: 
"And yet a child's utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and the innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes. But in Billy Budd intelligence, such as it was, had advanced, while yet his simplemindedness remained for the most part unaffected. Experience is a teacher indeed; yet did Billy's years make his experience small. Besides, he had none of that intuitive knowledge of the bad which in natures not good or incompletely so foreruns experience, and therefore may pertain, as in some instances it too clearly does pertain, even to youth."
Here is another thing "Billy Budd, Sailor" has in common with "Benito Cereno", besides the ship setting: the incapacity in some people to comprehend and acknowledge evil. 
I also notice that, unlike other characters, he's constantly compared to animals: 
"To the surprise of the ship's company, though much to the Lieutenant's satisfaction, Billy made no demur. But, indeed, any demur would have been as idle as the protest of a goldfinch popped into a cage."
"Like the animals, though no philosopher, he was, without knowing it, practically a fatalist." 
"The ear, small and shapely, the arch of the foot, the curve in mouth and nostril, even the indurated hand dyed to the orange-tawny of the toucan's bill, a hand telling alike of the halyards and tar-bucket..."
"Noble descent was as evident in him as in a blood horse."
"For the rest, with little or no sharpness of faculty or any trace of the wisdom of the serpent, nor yet quite a dove, he possessed that kind and degree of intelligence going along with the unconventional rectitude of a sound human creature, one to whom not yet has been proffered the questionable apple of knowledge. He was illiterate; he could not read, but he could sing, and like the illiterate nightingale was sometimes the composer of his own song.
Of self-consciousness he seemed to have little or none, or about as much as we may reasonably impute to a dog of Saint Bernard's breed."
"Now when the Master-at-arms noticed whence came that greasy fluid streaming before his feet, he must have taken it--to some extent wilfully, perhaps--not for the mere accident it assuredly was, but for the sly escape of a spontaneous feeling on Billy's part more or less answering to the antipathy on his own. In effect a foolish demonstration he must have thought, and very harmless, like the futile kick of a heifer, which yet were the heifer a shod stallion, would not be so harmless."
"In his disgustful recoil from an overture which tho' he but ill comprehended he instinctively knew must involve evil of some sort, Billy Budd was like a young horse fresh from the pasture suddenly inhaling a vile whiff from some chemical factory, and by repeated snortings tries to get it out of his nostrils and lungs."
"This utterance, the full significance of which it was not at all likely that Billy took in, nevertheless caused him to turn a wistful interrogative look toward the speaker, a look in its dumb expressiveness not unlike that which a dog of generous breed might turn upon his master seeking in his face some elucidation of a previous gesture ambiguous to the canine intelligence."
(emphasis mine)
I suppose this means: 1, Billy Budd's simplicity is the simplicity of animals, he neither has nor recognises the hypocrisy, cunning and deceit of people; 2, Billy Budd's position is like that of animals, with little freedom and few rights (the ship he says goodbye to is called Rights of Man). 
What I find intriguing is, do you see how feminine he is? Not only is Billy Budd extolled for his beauty and described as having rosy cheeks, he's compared to women: 
"As the Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd's position aboard the seventy-four was something analogous to that of a rustic beauty transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the highborn dames of the court."
And later: 
"Though our Handsome Sailor had as much of masculine beauty as one can expect anywhere to see; nevertheless, like the beautiful woman in one of Hawthorne 's minor tales, there was just one thing amiss in him. No visible blemish, indeed, as with the lady; no, but an occasional liability to a vocal defect."
(emphasis mine) 
What does it mean? That Billy Budd is, like women at the time, limited by nature and oppressed by society? 
Or that Billy is actually a female figure, who is only a man because the setting of Melville's work is a ship? 
Or perhaps the comparisons should be taken singly and have no general significance. 


  1. dynamite analysis and decipherment; an excellent post; i remember reading somewhere a brief history of a british sailor who spent forty years on a man of war brig and it was only when she died that they discovered she was female. i think that's happened several times, actually. as much as i admire Melville's writing i have to say that i often wonder where he's going in his plots and characterizations. sometimes i think he's more of a poet than a novelist... i think the fault may be more in myself than the stars, to paraphrase the bard...

    1. Thank you.
      I've heard of stories like that too.

    2. Is that a complaint about Melville's prose? I love his rhythmic prose!
      Regarding plots, I think "Billy Budd, Sailor" is a bit messy, not tightly structured, but saying that would be unfair because Melville died before completing it. "Benito Cereno", on the other hand, is perfect.
      But then, I'm 1 of those people who think Moby Dick doesn't need to be "more like a novel".

  2. I agree with Mudpuddle, Di. This is first-rate lit/crit. You make me realize how much I did not see when I read Melville's slim novella many years ago. Oddly enough, I read it as a professional development "assignment" when I was in the Navy; the department head insisted all officers read "Billy Budd" and participate in discussions.

    Responding to Mudpuddle, I think Melville was a product of his times when novelists' prose was so poetic because of the imported German Romanticism running through the writers' veins. A modern writer would never get such prose past the editors today.

    1. Haha. Thank you.
      The department head insisted so? That's interesting. Just a while ago I read of a law professor who gave his/her students the chapter of fast fish and loose fish in Moby Dick to read and discuss.

  3. Di,

    I see Billy Budd as the Holy Fool, an innocent as others have pointed out, a pre-Adamic man almost. Dostoyevsky's The Idiot is a similar character, and both have a physical defect to make them human--Budd's stuttering and The Idiot's epilepsy.

    Billy Budd is also in the tradition of the Handsome Sailor, see Joseph Conrad for other examples.

    It has frequently been suggested that the Handsome Sailor tradition includes homoerotic themes which couldn't be explicitly brought out back then. The pairing of Billy and feminine attractiveness is probably the most obvious signs of this. There are other references in the work which might be looked at closely with this in mind.

    1. In the work, Billy Budd is at least twice compared to Adam before the Fall.
      I did think of Dostoyevsky's idiot, but chose not to write about a book I hadn't read- what I knew of it only came from other sources.
      I don't know about the tradition of the handsome sailor. What does that mean?

    2. Di,

      It's rather ambiguous, at least as I understand it in Melville's and Conrad's works. He is sort of a natural leader, very charismatic, and the others all look up to him as he is supposed to be the Sailor. He usually has a following aboard ship.

      His physical characteristics are masculine, but very often presented with a feminine aura about them.

    3. Oh. Strange. In which works by Conrad?

  4. Di,

    The Handsome Sailor shows up in several of Conrad's works, but not as the focal character as he does in Billy Budd.

    One is _The Shadow Line_, often labeled as semi-autobiographical. In the novel, most of the crew become ill, except for the captain and Ransome, the cook.

    When the captain becomes exhausted and falls asleep: "And then I would know nothing till, some time between seven and eight, I would feel a touch on my shoulder and look up at Ransome's face, with its faint wistful smile and friendly gray eyes, as though he were tenderly amused at my slumbers."

    The captain again: "Even at a distance his well-proportioned figure (Ransome), something thoroughly sailor-like in his poise, made him noticeable. On nearer view the intelligent, quiet eyes, a well-bred face, the disciplined independence of his manner made up an attractive personality.

    Ransome flitted continually to and fro between the galley and the cabin. It was a pleasure to look at him. The man positively had grace."

    "Ransome's eyes gazed steadily into mine. We exchanges smiles. Ransome's a little wistful, as usual, mine no doubt grim."

    When Ransome leaves the ship, the captain says, "But Ransome..., I hate the idea of parting with you."


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