Billy Budd -- a Tale Term Paper

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Frequent interception of American ships to impress American citizens was a major cause of the War of 1812. ("Impressments." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 10 Aug. 2005, (

The enforced and arbitrary nature of the fate of impressment, and Budd's fate of facing the code of military law, which was different from the life he was accustomed to, did not understand, and had not agreed to, was thus the result of Billy being forced to obey a social contract in an environment that necessitated individuals obey without question to fight an armed enemy. This differing social contract is not necessarily 'worse' than life upon a non-military ship. The problem is not necessarily the innocent civilian Billy is good and that the military men are bad, but that two orders of individualism and the collective good are clashing on a ship -- it is through impressment that this has occurred, not because it is wrong to ask men to obey in a military context.

Impressment forces men who do not understand the military, its order of discipline, or military justice on a ship to function in the claustrophobic environment at sea, in a way they are unaccustomed to -- Billy puts human loyalty above the military needs of the crown because that is what he understands -- and he never agreed to the social contract of military life in Her Majesty's navy, he was forced to 'take the queen's shilling.' In Billy's mind he is still an ordinary sailor and man. Not only does he does not understand the seriousness of the military order, he was forced into its social construct and contract rather than assumed it by choice. Impressment thus makes for an inefficient fighting force, as well as does an injustice to the rights of the human individual in abstract philosophical terms. (Yoder, 2000, pp.916-920)

Yoder, making a persuasive argument from Melville's own early notes in constructing the novel as well as from the novel's own text, argues that rather 'stapling' or spackling moral issues onto a sea novel about jealousy, Melville was used his own experiences at sea to ask why mutiny was so common, even amongst good soldiers. (Yoder, 2000, pp.615-616) Melville's drafts includes outlines of an early poem about mutiny at sea of an impressed sailor and notes about Melville's own admired first cousin, Guert Gansevoort, then a U.S. Naval officer.

Impressment: Budd must as a clash of two social ethical systems or cultures, not in literary or allegorical terms

Military ethics are different than civilian ethics. "Command authority requires" that a "lucid recognition that larger justice" in the interest of the state. (Yoder, 2000, p.619) The conditions of a military vessel may require that the needs of the many require "a more severe, indeed pitiless, brand of literal justice to the solitary defendant. Sacrifice is integral to warfare and the severest penalties for insubordination part of "the price of admiralty"; and for countless generations, in many societies, such has been the considered judgment of the necessities of military law." (Yoder, 2000, p.619)

Of course, there are tempting literary parallels one can draw between Budd and other stories from the past. Shakespeare's "Othello," as well as the passion narrative of the Bible seem to parallel the tales of Billy Budd. Billy, like Othello, is a rough and untamed but charismatic leader, whose barbaric and primitive innocence, guilelessness, and physical beauty are emphasized by the author's language and references. Billy is also an outsider like Othello. Billy is manipulated the designs of the jealous John Claggart. Shakespeare's Othello is a tragedy about fate and jealousy -- a lost handkerchief of Othello's wife Desdemona leads to his betrayal by the envious Iago, and so with Billy Budd. Othello, one could argue, is a tale about military men. Othello is a sailor, an outsider to the world of Venice.

However, the presence of literary parallels does not do sufficient justice "all the battles about the moral and political vision at the heart of the tale" that swirl around one question: Are we supposed to admire or condemn Captain Vere for his decision to sentence Billy Budd to death by public hanging, according to an ethical system that may be valid, but that Budd does not either understand nor agree to. In his essay "Billy Budd and Capital Punishment," like Yoder, Franklin sets forth the issue of how to contextualize Budd as a specific narrative of situation, not as a moral dilemma with allusions to Shakespeare and the Bible.

In contrast to Yoder, however, Franklin centers his drama on the nature of capital punishment. He states, there are those whom, of the 'New Critic' school of literary theory who simply say that Vere is right, Budd is tragic, but we must not read modern compunctions about capital punishment into a story written a century ago, and those who suggest Melville is defending the 'Rights of Man' in the form of Budd, or of the individual vs. The collective will enforced by Vere. (Posner, Cited in Franklin, 1997)

But to bring in the issues of injustice and impressments help to contextualize this polarizing way of viewing the novel. Impressment asks, how does one enter into a social contract -- even if the social contract is valid for the military, and a soldier can legitimately agree to live and die by its collective ethics, what about a policy that enforces a social contract upon a man. As Yoder observes, on a military ship, if it is 'every man for his own skin,' or even if men only act mainly with their own monetary interests at heart, the crew cannot combat an enemy vessel. Even a nation, however small, does not create a microcosm of personalities as oppressive as does the environment upon a ship. A clash of ethical norms, rather than the goodness or badness of Budd, Vere, or Claggart, is what is at stake at sea on a military vessel, brought to its zenith through the questionable ethical actions of impressment.

But should Billy Budd die? In other words, impressments might be wrong, but once impressed and in battle, a democracy is an intolerable way of governing a ship, even if the captains think the men have been solicited into service unfairly! Melville, in Chapter 3 of Billy Budd, describes the process of the mutiny like a painful vaccination. "Final suppression, however, there was; but only made possible perhaps by the unswerving loyalty of the marine corps and voluntary resumption of loyalty among influential sections of the crews. To some extent the Nore Mutiny may be regarded as analogous to the distempering irruption of contagious fever in a frame constitutionally sound, and which anon throws it off." This assumes, however, that the ship was a good body, and the mutiny an affliction, when one could argue that the affliction of impressments created an already weakened social ship's body that was destined to fail. On an already failing ship of justice, Vere may have had no choice but to condemn Budd, lest the entire ship become mutinous and fail as a functioning crew -- but the ultimate failure is not in the personalities of any one man, but in the larger policy of the social contract of the Crown.

Works Cited

Barbour, James. "All My Books Are Botches': Melville's Struggle with The Whale." Writing the American Classics. Ed. James Barbour and Tom Quirk. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Franklin, Bruce H. "Billy Budd and Capital Punishment." From American Literature. June 1997.

Impressment." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Fact Monster.

Pearson Education, publishing as Fact Monster.

10 Aug. 2005

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. 1924. Raymond Weaver Edition Online.

Melville, Moby Dick. 1851.

Shakespeare William. "Othello." MIT Shakespeare Online. 2004.

Yoder, Edwin. "Fated Boy: Billy Budd and the Laws of War." Journal of Maritime Law & Commerce.

Volume 31. No. 4. October 2000.

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