"Billy Budd"--Herman Melville

Many of you may have encountered this in high school.  Back before we all got canon-shy, it sat alongside Lord Jim as one of those books every junior or senior had to grapple with.  It's what got you those valuable AP credits in English (along with a lot of other works that most seniors in high school are not ready to understand). 

One of the disturbing failures of our educational system is the lack of understanding about what a junior or senior in high school can internalize from what they read.  Just because you can read the language does not mean that you can make any sense of the story, theme, or idea that drives the work.  "Billy Budd" is and always has been a work for a mature reader.  I remember blitzing through this in high school and wondering what all the fuss was about.  I also remember sitting through some sort of film version.  Neither made a lasting impression, unless a distaste for Melville and for being bludgeoned to death with "Christ symbols" counts.

I have to admit, that I'm not certain I'm ready to deal with "Billy Budd" today.  While I found the reading difficult and not nearly so captivating as "Bartleby the Scrivener," "The Piazza," and "Benito Cereno," that may be due to the relatively unfinished state of this work. (He died in 1891 leaving behind an uncollated manuscript which his wife preserved.  The story was ultimately published in 1924.) Part of the problem may have been the relatively heavy hand in both language and symbol.  Billy Budd is pure.  Pure beyond pure: likened at times to Jesus and at others to Adam.  Claggert is evil--he is Iago--so bent upon the destruction of innocence that he takes no count of the potential cost to himself.  Vere is ambiguous--neither evil or good--a man of intelligence but extreme prejudice.

Again, I don't wish to give away the plot to those who have not yet had the pleasure (and it is a difficult pleasure) of reading the work.  Suffice to say that within the pages is an elemental story of the battle between good and evil, and one is left wondering, to some extent, who has won. 

As with any fine work, there are any number of interpretations that can be brought to it--and I don't pretend to be scholar enough to have examined the stray thoughts that make up this series of impression in any detail.  But at least one theme I do see clearly in the work is the question of how we can know the truth when it is filtered through so many different lenses.  "Billy Budd" is narrated by someone who intrudes occasionally with necessary history or with an outside anecdote or with a demurral about what exactly was said and how it was phrased. This narrator certainly seems to have his preference about how one views the various characters.  It concludes with three short chapters, one of which flips the incidents of the narrative on their head and gives us an opposite reading of the incidents in the work.

As with any great work, there are as many ways of encountering it as there are readers to read it.  Make a decision today to encounter it for yourself, and then wrestle with it for a few days.  I think you will be glad that you have done so.

**** Recommended.


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