by Herman Melville
The Handsome Sailor
Depending on which edition of Billy Budd you're using, you may have a good-looking Fabio type guy on the front cover with a red sash over his neck. If you check out our "Photo" links, then you should take a peek at the guys who play Billy Budd in the opera version of the book. The point is that they've got big muscles, that all the pieces are in the right place, and that we wouldn't want a girlfriend to drive cross country with them.
Early on in the book, the narrator is describing Billy Budd's physical features. He says, "the comeliness and power, always attractive in masculine conjunction, hardly could have drawn the sort of honest homage the Handsome Sailor in some examples received from his less gifted associates" (1.4). Later, he notes how "the rose had some ado visibly to flush through the tan" (2.2).
What's with all of the detailed comments on Billy's good looks? Billy's physical features may seem a trivial part of his character, but they get a whole lot of emphasis in the book. It's almost like the narrator himself is swept away by Billy's good looks. What's even stranger is that the narrator seems to link Billy's external features with his inner moral qualities. As the narrator paints the picture, we can observe Billy's virtue just by looking at the handsome smile on his face.
The entire drama of Billy Budd hinges on Claggart's hatred, which prompts him to make a false accusation against Billy. The narrator admits to us that he can't explain why Claggart hates Billy so much, but his first guess is that Claggart is envious of "his significant personal beauty" (12.2). Let's get this straight. The master-at-arms is angry that Billy is better looking than he is, so he tries to frame him for treason knowing full well that Billy could be killed based on his accusation? Either the narrator is giving us a really lame explanation or there is some weird aura surrounding Billy's good looks, something about his handsomeness that makes the other men respond to him differently than they would otherwise.
Captain Vere, when he first saw Billy Budd "had congratulated Lieutenant Ratcliffe upon his good fortune in lighting on such a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of a young Adam before the Fall" (18.17). Once again, the emphasis on Billy's physical beauty is over-the-top. If you're a Captain, it makes sense that you're concerned with how big and strong your sailors are, but what do you care if they have a zigzag scar across their face or if they could be a professional model? In general, when you think of good old sea yarns, you don't think about Captains imagining their sailors posing nude for a sculptor.
Now, a recent trend in Melville criticism is to read homoerotic themes into his work. We think that it's too simple to just argue that the narrator is gay or that Captain Vere has a secret sexual longing for Billy Budd. What we will point out, though, is that Billy's attractiveness is an extremely important part of his character. It affects how he is portrayed as a moral creature, and feeds into the ideas discussed below: that he is a "noble savage," and that he is somehow reminiscent of Christ.
The praise of Billy's handsomeness is one of many instances where we realize that in this story we aren't getting anything but other people's interpretations of Billy Budd – we're just getting others' ideas about Billy. The closer you examine the story, the more Billy Budd eludes your grasp, and the more you realize that the man himself is left to vanish among superlatives.
Noble Savage or Man-Child?
Billy Budd is a simple man. A very simple man. Let's just say that, if we were his mother, we'd still be packing him PBJs and pinning notes to the back of his shirt before sending him out on his sailing adventures.
Time and again, the narrator drives home the straightforward workings of Billy's mind. Early on, he says, "To deal in double meanings and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to his nature" (1.15). A bit later: "Of self-consciousness, he seemed to have little or none, or about as much as we may reasonably impute to a dog of Saint Bernard's breed" (2.11). The descriptions can't help but read like put-downs; the narrator is comparing Billy's intelligence to that of a dog. That said, the narrator's point is not to make fun of Billy Budd. In his bizarre way, he's actually praising Billy.
As the narrator portrays Billy, he's simply lacking a certain mental fold that is necessary for one to lie and to sin. Think for a moment about the cognitive operations (generally, we mean the mental difficulties) involved in telling a lie. First, you must remember the truth and all the details surrounding it. Second, you must be able to imagine how the person you're lying to would interpret the events without your lies. Third, you must make the details of your lie fit in with the other person's pre-existing interpretation. We often hear about people spinning "webs of lies." The point is that it takes a degree of intellectual firepower to spin such webs, and in the narrator's opinion, Billy doesn't have it.
The result is that he portrays Billy as completely good, through and through. As he says, "His simple nature remained unsophisticated by those moral obliquities which are not in every case incompatible with that manufacturable thing known as respectability" (2.12). The narrator seems to think that Billy is completely sincere, that evil simply does not make sense to him, and for these reasons the narrator romanticizes him to an absurd degree.
There are a couple key comparisons that the narrator makes. One is to the Biblical figure Adam. The narrator notes that the first time Vere sees Billy, it makes him think of "a young Adam before the Fall" (18.17). Here, the narrator emphasizes Billy's overwhelming innocence. It's like Billy is an example of a human being before we were corrupted by Knowledge, by the understanding of the distinction between good and evil. (Check out the Book of Genesis for more on the story of Adam, Eve, and the Fall.) To put it in more blunt terms, Billy is such a simpleton that he's living in his own imagined Garden of Eden.
The other comparison is to what might be termed the "Noble Savage." When the narrator is commenting on Billy's strength in the face of death, he notes how his attitude is like that of the Tahitian "savages" (24.7). As in the case of Adam, the narrator seems to be linking Billy with pre-civilized man, with a more natural and virtuous way of life. Check out our section on the idea of the "Noble Savage" in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" if you're interested in more on this idea.
The flipside to all these idealized depictions of Billy's simplicity is that the narrator also makes him seem like something of an idiot. Often, the narrator will compare him to animals, as when Billy first encounters the afterguard and is repelled by him, "like a young horse fresh from the pasture suddenly inhaling a vile whiff from some chemical factory, and by repeated snortings trying to get it out of his nostrils and lungs" (15.2). Later, the narrator compares Billy's fearlessness regarding death to "the way that children will refer to death in general, who yet among their other sports will play a funeral with hearse and mourners" (24.5).
The point is that the descriptions of Billy seem to see-saw back and forth between those that depict him as pure and incorruptible (which obviously is an exaggeration) and those that simply depict him as a man-child (which is probably an exaggeration as well). The difficult job of the reader is to try to navigate his way between these hyperbolic (or exaggerated) depictions of Billy and to seek some small sense of what he was really like.
18th-Century Christ Figure
Before we get rolling, note that there's a fair amount of overlap between this section and "Billy Budd, Christ Figure" in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory." Here, let's just sketch an outline of the argument that Billy is a sort of 18th-century Christ figure.
First, Billy, like Christ, has a distant and mysterious family. For Christ, this was God. For Billy, it's something simpler: his biological parents abandoned him. He does not know who his natural parents are, but heard only that he "was found in a pretty silk-lined basket hanging one morning from the knocker of a good man's door in Bristol" (2.7). Because he does not know his biological parents, he might be out looking for a spiritual father.
Second, Billy, like Christ, calms and inspires the men around him. One of the first descriptions we get of Billy is from his old shipmaster, Captain Graveling. Graveling says, "a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones" (1.10). He tries to explain to Lieutenant Ratcliffe that Billy is a special sailor, a peacemaker, and that his mere presence on a ship can soothe the other men and reduce the threat of mutiny.
Third, Billy, like Christ, is falsely accused and condemned to die. The men around sense that something is not right, but like Pontius Pilate (the prefect of the Roman province who oversaw Christ's trial and then symbolically "washed his hands" of it), they try to wash their hands of guilt. Billy shows little to no fear in the face of death, and his last words are "God bless Captain Vere!" (25.2). Just as Christ forgave his executors (Luke 23:34: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do"), Billy forgives Captain Vere and seems to wish him strength to overcome his guilt.
Fourth, at the moment of Billy's death, the narrator recalls, "a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision," just as the gospel of Matthew 27 says the weather turned after Christ was executed at Golgotha (25.5). After his death, the sailors begin to worship Billy. They keep track of the spar where he was hung, and "To them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross" (30.1).
Now, it's one thing to be able to sketch this outline. It wouldn't be too difficult to write a coherent paper arguing that the narrator imbues Billy's life with Christian symbolism, and that Billy functions as something of a Christ figure. But if you've watched a movie or read a book recently, you've probably noticed that Christ Figures are all over the place. What's more interesting is to ask why parallels are made between Billy and Christ and how the parallels affect the way that we see Billy.
Toward the end of the book, the narrator notes the sailors' tendency to romanticize and make myths from their memories. What becomes clear, as soon as he says it, is that the narrator himself has told the story in something of a sailorly spirit. He emphasizes his education to separate himself from the men, but he is given to the same sort of superstitions that they are. He clearly reads into the events that happened on the Bellipotent and imputes to them his own significance. The similarities to Christ are one way for the narrator to capture the fact that Billy Budd was an altogether remarkable man. A savior, in a way.
The problem, though, is that, the more the narrator compares Billy to Christ, the harder it is for the reader to see Billy as a human figure. The more incredible and faultless the narrator makes him out to be, the more distant and unattainable such a character seems. As we note in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," the depiction of Billy Budd is in many ways even more remarkable than the depiction of Christ. The parallels function as a sort of praise, but the major concern for the reader is: does so much praise simply serve to make Billy Budd superhuman?
The trick with Billy is to make his seeming divinity compatible with his humanity.