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Free Billy Budd Essays: A Structuralist Reading

A Structuralist Reading of Billy Budd

. . . truth is revealed only when formal order is destroyed. – Dryden, p. 209

Not on your life, says Edgar A. Dryden (though not in so many words, of course) to the above in his splendid Melville’s Thematics of Form. His argument is essentially to show that while most readers (erroneously) assume that Captain Vere is the story’s tragic hero, the fact of the matter is that a “better” reading will reveal him as Melville’s target, if you want to know the “truth.”

I want to emphasize at the outset is that EVERYTHING DRYDEN SAYS IS SUPPORTED BY THE TEXT he is analyzing. In other words, he cannot be accused of reading-into! Well, how does Dryden denormalize (as it were) the reading above? Rather simply even if rather spectacularly. Here’s as brief a version of Dryden’s argument as I can possibly give you: Captain Vere’s argument is very formally ordered and highly symmetrical. Furthermore, it is in keeping with this compassionate and wise man’s philosophy according to which (as Melville’s text tells us) “with mankind forms, . . . measured forms are everything” (84). Interestingly enough, Dryden points out, the published report concerning the whole Budd affair at the end of the story, which is taken from a “naval chronicle of the time,” and which thus represents an “authorized” version of the whole affair (85), is also formally ordered and highly symmetrical. The trouble is that this “authorized” account is totally false. According to this version Billy Budd was evil while John Claggart was good, etc. Perhaps, Dryden argues, we may find something in Melville’s text that would confirm a suspicion we may already be entertaining – namely, that formally ordered and highly symmetrical arguments may themselves be suspicious. Dryden finds the text in question very close to the one where Captain Vere makes his claim about “measured forms.” It reads as follows: “The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact. TRUTH UNCOMPROMISINGLY TOLD WILL ALWAYS HAVE ITS RAGGED EDGES” (84; capitals mine).

In contradistinction to Captain Vere’s argument or the naval chronicle’s “authorized” version, then, Dryden asks us to examine Melville’s own way of telling his story. Is it formally ordered and highly symmetrical?

A New Historical Reading of Billy Budd

New Historicism is heavily indebted to deconstruction. One of the most brilliant readings of Billy Budd along these lines is Brook Thomas’s reading in Cross Examination of Law and Literature. As its name implies, New Historicism combines an analysis of literary works with whatever historical backdrop is deemed relevant or important to our understanding. The “new” in this historicism has to do, among other things, with the recognition that history (or reality) is itself a kind of construct (or fiction, if you will, in the sense of something made rather than merely stumbled upon by humanity). What Brook Thomas does, then, is analyze Melville’s story in the context of certain legal questions in Melville’s lifetime, paying particular attention to Melville’s father-in-law as well, Lemuel Shaw, who may have been the model for Captain Vere. Like Vere, Shaw sacrificed his conscience rather than “violate” an unjust law (he felt that slavery was wrong, yet he upheld the law requiring the return of escaped slaves to their “rightful” owners).

In what follows I shall resort to a shortcut. Instead of reporting on Brook Thomas’s interpretation as a whole, I shall cite some of the most strikingly important and interesting passages. Given the foregoing (and your possible prior knowledge of Melville’s story), these quotations should speak for themselves.

“I do not mean to either excuse Vere’s technical errors or to argue that technicalities are unimportant. . . . [But] to base criticism of the legal order on procedural errors is to risk explaining injustice as the acts of corrupt, or even just well-intentioned but confused individuals in positions of authority. It avoids questioning the order to which the legal system is intricately related.

“One lesson that we might draw from our historical cases and from Billy Budd is that Vere, Shaw, and Parson are corrupt and hypocritical men, employing a rhetoric of strict adherence to the law in order to disguise their conscious manipulation of the law. Or, more generously, we might conclude that they are sincere men who are so concerned with fulfilling their duty that they unconsciously violate the very principles they claim to uphold. A more fruitful line of inquiry is to try to understand what it is about the logic of the legal order they have sworn to defend that causes three well-intentioned men seemingly to contradict their own most sacred principles.

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