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Billy Budd

Billy Budd

by Herman Melville

Wisdom and Knowledge Theme

Many of the characters in Billy Budd make decisions that have awful consequences, despite the fact that they are extremely intelligent and well informed. Wisdom is not often explicitly discussed in the novel, but it is constantly there between the lines. The question is how one can attain wisdom, and to what degree it is related to awareness, intelligence, simplicity, and instinct. The reader is presented with the wise old Dansker, a typical figure for a tale of the sea, but even the Dansker's wisdom is cast in a questionable light. In Billy Budd, wisdom is something that is pursued rather than present, elusive rather than attainable.

Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

  1. In the story, Captain Vere is presented as being extremely well-educated. What is the relationship between wisdom and intelligence presented in Billy Budd?
  2. By contrast, Billy is presented as being simple and innocent. How about the relationship between wisdom and innocence?
  3. The wisest character in the novel seems to be the old Dansker. To what extent is the Dansker's wisdom simply a question of how he presents himself?
  4. The narrator of Billy Budd seems to have accumulated a lot of knowledge about the events that took place. Does he strike you as wise? Why or why not?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

In Billy Budd, wisdom is presented as being much closer to instinct than it is to knowledge. The characters that appear to have the best perspective on events are those who follow their impulses, rather than those who try to get a rational grip on what happened.

The main reason that the Dansker appears wise in the novel is that he presents himself as wise; the main way he does this is by speaking in an enigmatic fashion and refusing to clarify what he means for Billy.

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