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Melvilll s BillyBudd: 11 A Sort of Upright Barbarian"1 IRENE FRIEDMAN Confronted with the wealth of criticism surrounding Billy Budd, one feels somewhat reluctant to attempt yet another consideration of the work. Certainly it would appear that the II acceptance-versus-resistance" battle has been pursued as far as it would go, and attempts to reconcile the two have moreover been made by various critics. It seems, however, that the heat of the battle over the novel's central question has clouded other crucial statements Melville seems to be making. It is thus in the hope of shedding light on some of these issues that I offer one more reading of this controversial work. While I do not propose to examine previous criticism, some frequent conclusions of the proponents of the "acceptance" theory seem somewhat surprising and beg to be questioned. Beginning with Watson's article,2 these critics have asserted that Melville had undergone a profound change in the interval between the writing of Moby-Diclc and Billy Budd. The young man of wrath, they have claimed, had mellowd with years. F. 0. Matthiessen has stated the case as follows: 0 No longer does Melville feel the fear and dislike of Jehovah that were oppressing him through Moby-Dick and Pierre. He is no longer protesting against the determined laws as being savagely inexorable. He has come to respect necessity. 3 It seems likely that while writing Moby-Dick, Melville was indeed troubled with God's apparent indifference to the unhappy predicament of Man in his struggle wtih Evil. Is there, however, any evidence that he was any less troubled by it while writing Billy Budd? To say, as so many critics have, that the Melville writing Moby-Dick was a rebel while the older one writing Billy Budd a resigned reactionary implies an identification of the author with his characters: Ahab indeed dislikes and rebels against Jehovah, but Melville unquestionably shows his revolt to be an absurd one. Similarly, Billy Budd and Captain Vere certainly exemplify acceptance of -"necessity," and Melville himself may well, as Matthiessen states, 11 accept the existence 4 of both good and evil." But, does Melville accept the apparent triumph of Evil? I suspect no reader, not even the staunchest supporter of Captain Vere's decision, has ever THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. IV, NO. 1 1 SPRING 1973 finished Billy Budd without a feeling of indignation, if not revolt, at Billy's fate. Could Melville himself have remained acquiescent? It is true that Melville seems not only to sympathize with Captain Vere but to demand our identification with his dilemma. His obvious appreciation of this dilemma does not, however, change in any way the basic sense of wrong ultimately conveyed in relation to Billy's hanging. The intense participation that Melville has made possible for his readers may have resulted in the critics' partial projection of their own views, for the novel, as I shall attempt to show, brings into question Captain Vere's decision. This decision, however, can only be considered in the light of broader statements Melville makes which relate to his vision of Man's predicament in the universe. How does Melville view the condition of Man; what solution, if any, does Billy Budd point to? Contrary to Matthiessen's view quoted above, I should like to suggest that there is no real difference in Melville's perception of the dilemma of Man as expressed in MobyDick and later in Billy Budd, and, moreover, that Melville had possessed the germ of his idea for Billy Budd as early as when he was writing Moby-Dick. It would be difficult not to share Ahab's view in Moby-Diclc that the Gods are oblivious to Man's suffering. Indeed, the novel suggests the overwhelming rule of Chance and thus the precariousness of Man's existence. If Melville himself shares this view, and he certainly seems to, he also makes unquestionably clear that Ahab's way of coping with the problem is self-defeating, for Ahab becomes not only alienated from his fellow men, but from his own humanity. The novel's increasingly ominous tone and its apparently hopeless...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 87-95
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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