Five Reasons to Read “Billy Budd, Sailor” by Herman Melville
by a contributor
from Donna Vorreyer, author of this week’s Brief Encounter:
Billy. Never has there been a more innocent and likable character undone by an antagonist’s bullying and one fatal flaw: his emotional stutter. Even teenage readers I’ve taught have felt sorry for him, and that’s saying a lot.
Claggart. Evil and jealous and spiteful and vain and morally bankrupt and conflicted and multi-dimensional. But mostly evil, driven nearly mad by Billy’s goodness and attractiveness, both things he can never have.
Melville’s tangents. If you are familiar with Moby Dick, you know these well. In Billy Budd, Sailor, we get an education in mutiny on British ships, the machinery and politics of war (including the contradiction of placing chaplains on warships), naval values, the beauty of old ships, Admiral Nelson’s victories at Trafalgar and in the Nile, and metaphorical ruminations about sanity and insanity using rainbows.
Melville’s long, lovely sentences. Sentences like this, at the moment of Billy’s demise: “At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.” Sigh.
The phrase “the handsome sailor,” which refers to a person who is ethical, virtuous, upright, beautiful, strong, full of good humor, and adored by others around him. It is rare to find one of these people in the world and, if I do, I always think of this phrase.