Billy, who cannot understand ambiguity, who takes pleasant words at face value and then obliterates Claggart for suggesting that one could do otherwise, whose sudden blow is a violent denial of any discrepancy between his being and his doing, ends up radically illustrating the very discrepancy he denies.
– Barbara Johnson, p. 86
With Barbara Johnson’s splendid Critical Difference we are willy-nilly plunged into deconstruction. At the moment I shall not attempt to explain this radical and highly subversive critical mode, except to say that what you are about to see is an example of it. At the moment you may well ask (being, as you undoubtedly are, still very impressed by Dryden’s splendidly anti-naïve reading), “you mean it is possible to be even more intelligent about Melville’s story?” I remember asking myself the same thing when I first noticed the chapter in Barbara Johnson’s book on Billy Budd. But I began to read it anyway and I soon found myself in the throes of a critically different excitement! The first thing that truly grabbed my attention was a remark Johnson makes apropos of the following quotation from Melville’s story: “innocence and guilt personified by Claggart and Budd in effect changed places” (62). The narrator says this apropos of Billy having killed Claggart. This is what Barbara Johnson says apropos of the passage in question: “Interestingly enough, Melville both invites an allegorical reading and subverts the very terms of its consistency when he writes of the murder: ‘Innocence and guilt . . .'” (83). Now that’s deconstruction, folks! “Both invites . . . and subverts”? Wow!
Needless to say, ALL CLAIMS JOHNSON MAKES FOR HER READING ARE SUPPORTED BY MELVILLE’S TEXT. What does Johnson, then, claim? I shall try to be as brief as possible about this splendidly anti-naïve reading. Johnson’s first item on the agenda is to put into question Billy’s innocence. (Melville himself tells us that “innocence was [Billy’s] blinder” 49.) She asks us to consider Billy a kind of “reader” (Johnson calls him a “literal reader” 85). Billy is a “literal reader” in that he seems to take things at face value. He seems to believe, in fact, that things are what they seem to be. If Claggart appears to be nice to Billy (and he does) then Claggart must be nice to Billy (he isn’t, of course).
Billy Budd Essay: Comparing Christ to Billy
Comparing Christ to Billy of Billy Budd
“I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head!” wrote Herman Melville in his June 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne (Davis and Gilman 3). Yet, by the time he began writing Billy Budd, Sailor in 1888, Melville must have tempered this view, for Billy Budd depicts the inevitable destruction of a man who is all heart but who utterly lacks insight. Melville no doubt intends for his reader to connect this tale with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Billy Budd endures a persecution similar to Christ’s; he is executed for like reasons, and he eventually ascends, taking “the full rose of the dawn” (BB 376). Yet, in creating Billy Budd, Melville forms a character who is but a half-Christ, more like the Child than the Man. Indeed, a number of characteristics and circumstances sharply distinguish Billy Budd from the complete Christ. These differences ultimately work to support Melville’s (now refined) philosophy that innocence, unaccompanied by wisdom, must inevitably meet with destruction and that only when a man balances the “spontaneous impulses of [his] ‘heart'” against the experiential “wisdom of [his] ‘head'” (Howard 328) can he prevail in a fallen world.
Critics often connect Billy Budd with the Christ Child. Richard Chase, for instance, writes that Billy Budd is the realization of Melville’s “fresh commitment to the infantile Christ” (267), and Milton Stern claims that Billy’s behavior represents an “ideal Christliness” because he accepts “everything with animal insightlessness and the childlike faith of innocence” (216). Christ taught that to enter heaven, one must become like a little child (Matt. 18:2-3). Many have inferred from this that, from a Christian perspective, …
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…W.H. Gilman, eds. The Letters of Herman Melville. New Haven: Yale UP, 1960. Online. Internet. 29 July 1998. Available HTTP: www.melville.org
Howard, Leon. Herman Melville: A Biography. Berkley: U of California P, 1951.
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories. Ed. Frederick Busch. New York: Penguin, 1986.
– – -. Moby Dick. Ed. Charles Child Walcutt. New York: Bantam, 1981.
Richards, Lawrence O. The Bible Reader’s Companion. Wheaton: SP Publications, Inc., 1991.
Sten, Christopher W. “Vere’s Use of the ‘Forms’: Means and Ends in ‘Billy Budd.'” On Melville: The Best from American Literature. Ed. Louis J. Budd and Edwin H. Cady. Durham: Duke UP, 1988. 188-202.
Stern, Milton R. The Fine Hammered Steel of Herman Melville. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1968.
The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Dallas: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1979.