August 11, 2022

#08-230: Billy Budd, Sailor

A British sailor during the Napoleonic Wars

Note: Herman Melville once again writes a moving story of life at sea, and the rough justice under which sailors must live.

Get Ready: Is an author's most popular work necessarily his or her best work?

Some authors write a book of such blinding brilliance that many of their lesser--but still great--works tend to be forgotten by the general public. Such is the case with Herman Melville and his Moby Dick. Aside from that book, Melville wrote many popular (if not great) books, some of them about the South Seas. And we have already discussed his short story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener."

But most Melville scholars consider his last, unfinished book, "Billy Budd, Sailor," to be his greatest after Moby Dick.

The story is simple enough: Billy Budd is a young, handsome sailor impressed into service on a British naval vessel in 1797, shortly after the Royal Navy had suffered two major mutinies and was under threat by the newly-formed and ambitious French Republic.

Young Billy is not just handsome, but charming--despite having a stutter--and his popularity with the men arouses the envy of John Claggart, the ship's master-at-arms. Claggart brings Billy before Captain Vere on a false charge of mutiny, and Billy--unable to defend himself because of the stutter--strikes Claggert in frustration, accidentally killing him.

The rules are firm: striking a superior officer--let alone delivering a fatal blow--is mutiny, and punishable by death. Because of the tense situation of the Royal Navy, the Captain insists that Billy receive the full punishment--death by hanging--despite his fondness for the boy and the fact that Vere and the other officers did not believe Claggart's original charge.

Before his execution, Billy says, "God bless Captain Vere!" and the gathered crew repeats it.

The unfinished novel ends with three confusing chapters, perhaps mistakenly added by later editors from Melville's notes. In one, a mortally wounded Captain Vere's last words are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd." Another presents an "official" version of Claggart's death, falsely describing Billy as an actual mutineer who stabbed Claggart to death. The last is a ballad written in tribute to Billy by one of his shipmates.

These "alternate endings" throw an intriguing shadow over the events of the story.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. ballad
  2. blinding
  3. fondness
  4. frustration
  5. impressed
  6. intriguing
  7. master-at-arms
  8. mortally
  9. mutiny
  10. stutter

  1. a poem or song that tells a story
  2. intense; dazzling
  3. the feeling when one can't accomplish a goal
  4. the inability to speak smoothly, instead repeating sounds
  5. an officer in charge of discipline
  6. forced into service
  7. fascinating
  8. a rebellion against a ship's authority
  9. liking; affection
  10. fatally; deadly

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for August 11, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. a; 2. b; 3. i; 4. c; 5. f; 6. g; 7. e; 8. j; 9. h; 10. d