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Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 273-295

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Billy Budd:
Melville's Dilemma

Lester H. Hunt


THE CHAIN OF EVENTS NARRATED in Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative)—how Billy is falsely accused of plotting mutiny by his Master-at-Arms, John Claggart, how Billy accidentally kills Claggart and, finally, is executed at the urging of the Captain of the Ship, Edward Fairfax Vere, despite Vere's personal conviction that Billy does not deserve to be killed—is simple enough. The text itself, nonetheless, is troublesomely complex. It is a very difficult work to interpret with both honesty and confidence. Melville unflinchingly represents to us the moral horror of what Captain Vere does to Billy, and yet he also depicts Vere himself with a respect that borders on admiration. The attentive reader experiences a painful cognitive dissonance that can only be soothed by a coherent interpretation, and perhaps by a bit of philosophy.

Given the way in which the text of Billy Budd emerged—it was assembled by scholars, long after Melville's death, from a confusing collection of manuscript pages he had left behind when he died—it may well be an unfinished work. It is possible that ill health and death overtook Melville before he had a chance to iron out the inconsistencies that inevitably arise as a book is written, and it is therefore also possible that some of our sense of dissonance is produced by this brute fact. 1 Whether or not this is the case, this book is, according to the view I will present here, at least very close to being coherent. The point of view it represents is actually quite appropriate to an unfinished work, and little damaged by textual indeterminateness. Billy Budd is about the inescapably dilemmatic nature of certain choices. It alleges the impossibility of resolving them in any comfortable way. Melville beckons us to [End Page 273] look through the window of Billy Budd into an abyss of undecidability, and perhaps a text that contains some chaos within itself will better serve as such a window than one that does not.

The best way to begin trying to understand how we should take this work is to begin at its very beginning. The very beginning of a story is of course its title, and the title of this story, or more exactly its subtitle, tells quite literally what sort of story it is. It is an "inside" narrative. Of course, this immediately raises the question of what an inside narrative is. Inside what? Are we supposed to contrast it with an outside narrative? And what sort of story would that be?

Melville does not leave us entirely without an answer to this question. Billy Budd does contain another story, one that contrasts so sharply with the main narrative that it might well be described as its opposite: it is virtually an inverted version of the book's plot. In an "authorized weekly publication" quoted at some length at the end of the book, the events of Melville's tale are briefly recounted. In this version of the story, apparently the only officially sanctioned one, Billy Budd is depicted as the ringleader of a genuine mutiny, who "vindictively stabbed" Claggart for exposing him. Claggart is motivated only by a "strong patriotic impulse" and Billy Budd by "extreme depravity."

This account, Melville tells, us was written "for the most part" sincerely enough, "though the medium, partly rumor, through which the facts must have reached the writer served to deflect and in part falsify them" (1432.27-30). 2 It could be called an "outside" narrative in virtue of the fact that its author was not there and consequently was not in a position to know what actually happened. The most direct way to give literal meaning to the "inside" status of Melville's main narrative is simply to observe that it gives a view from inside the ship, from inside the Bellipotent. It represents things that were known by people who were there, and precisely because they were there.



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