by Herman Melville
Billy Budd Theme of Truth
Billy Budd, sparse at is, is a story packed full of double meaning and nuance. The narrator constantly claims that he is giving a completely accurate portrayal of events. He also tells us that Billy himself is incapable of falsehood. From the reader's vantage point, however, such claims to honesty only make one more attuned as to where the little lies and falsehoods slip into the text. In the novel, truth operates not only at the level of characters and events, but also at the level of narration, which makes the story extremely complex.
Questions About Truth
- Is Billy Budd's simplicity and sincerity a sign that he is closer to the truth than the other characters, or farther from it?
- Is part of the reason we feel we don't know the truth about Billy and Claggart because we don't know where they came from? If we had more back-story would we understand their actions any better?
- Our narrator often makes a point of being straightforward with the reader and admitting what he does not know. To what extent does the narrator seem concerned with relating the tale in an honest manner? To what extent does he try to put his own spin on things?
- When trying to determine someone's guilt or innocence, can you just look at their actions, at what did and did not happen? Does intention have any role in determining the truth about someone's guilt?
Chew on This
As Billy is depicted, he is neither an honest nor a dishonest character. Truth and falsity do not exist for him as ideas because he is always sincere; he thinks that everything he says is true.
By constantly admitting to what he does not know, the narrator attempts to create the illusion that he is being totally honest with the reader. Yet, because he picks the times when he makes these admissions, it actually makes it even harder to tell when he is giving a true portrayal of events.