Billy Budd: The Plot Against The Story
Lee T. Lemon
[from The Practice of Criticism by Zitner, Kissane, and Liberman]

Billy Budd
rubs against the grain, and it rubs intensely and persistenently enough to be irritating. Our sympathies are all with the innocent Billy and we are accustomed to having authors exploit our sympathies directly. Most typically, a pattern of meaning emerges from a narrative because our responses to the pattern of values embodies in the hero and his story are reinforced by the thematic implications of the setting, characterization, tone, symbolism, authorial intrusions, and so on. If there is an ironic discrepancy between hero and theme, we expect the author to let us know what it is.

In a relatively simple novel like For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan seems to embody Hemingway's ethic, and Jordan's world is conveniently built to make that ethic appear acceptable. If I man simplify somewhat, we know that Jordan is good because he for Good Things and against Bad Things; and where the morality of the things is doubtful, we judge the world as he judges it. This, at least, is the way Hemingway's novel seems designed to work. Similarly, when we have a rogue hero, as in Fielding's Jonathan Wild, we know which way our sympathies are supposed to run because the hero's actions and fate are in accord with the context the author has created.

Even in much more complicated works like Light in August or Crime and Punishment, the context in which the hero acts out his drama still generally supports the value system implicit in that drama. Our responses to Raskolnikov may be more complex than our responses to Robert Jordan, but the pattern of value Dostoevsky provides for him and his world in the novel are compatible. If a generous spirituality is good in Sonia, it is also good in Raskolnikov; if progressivism is evil for Lebeziantnikov it is equally evil for Raskolnikov.

The Russian Formalist critic Vistor Shklovskij1 originated a distinction that may help explain my meaning. The distinction is between story and plot: the story is the sequence of events in their casual-temporal relationship; whatever falls outside that relationship or distorts it belongs to the plot. All literary narratives have both, and they can be roughly separated by reducing the narratives to its essential story pattern - that "happened, which caused B, which in turn caused C..." and so on. A novel may have two or more related stories, as in Light In August or Vanity Fair. Thus if one were telling Becky Sharp's "story," much of the detail about Amelia would be totally irrelevant in tracing Becky's fate. Likewise, much of the description of clothes, social customs, Thackeray's intrusions, and the like, would be irrelevant. All such irrelevancies would, however, be part of the plot.

My point is that in most narratives story and plot involve the same, or at least compatible, patterns and sympathy and revulsion. In Vanity Fair it seems clear that Thackeray wants us to be repelled by Becky's grasping ambition. The plot - including the material centering around Amelia - directly reinforces this theme. We know how bad Becky is partly because by the dictums of Thackeray's that "All is Vanity," and partly by the emptiness of her temporary success. Quite simply, the plot reinforces the thematic implications of the story.

I shall argue that in Billy Budd the thematic implications of the plot and those of the story are often in direct opposition and that this causes much of the confusion about the book. But I want to argue further that the opposition is itself functional and leads to a more subtle and more mature theme than could either aspect alone.

Put in the most general of terms, Billy Budd is the familiar story of a young man forced into strange circumstances who, having unintentionally incurred the enmity of a person more powerful than himself, is hounded until he strikes out in self-defense and is murdered by society. From the outline of the story, nothing could be clearer than that our sympathies are to be with Billy and against society. When society kills innocence, right thinking men bristle naturally, and authors make such natural responses the basis of their themes. Moreover, Melville goes to great lengths to impress his readers with Budd's innocence and society's guilt; parts of the plot, in other words, work conventionally to reinforce the sympathies and revulsions aroused by the story. Other works ambiguously, and still others work unconventionally - that is, against the story. I shall begin with what seem the most conventionally used elements of the plot and work through to the more unconventional.

For a number of reasons, Melville develops Claggart, the antagonist, least ambiguously. In the story he is unalloyed evil. he hates Billy for no reason, plots against him, and tries to destroy him; nothing in the cause and effect sequence of the story alleviates Claggart's evil - he even lacks all normal human motivation. In the plot, Melville goes out of his way to inform the reader that Claggart is born with "a depravity according to nature"; he is one of those "madmen... of the most dangerous sort" 2 whose very rationality is a threat. On the level of plot he assumes a specific symbolic identity that comes as much from what we do not know about him as from what we do know. He appears to be a man "who for reasons of his own keeping incog" (p.64). None of the crew's speculations on Claggart's origins reflects credit on him. he is possibly a swindler and certainly not a native Englishman; the only hint as to his nationality is the work chevalier, which suggests that he is French and therefore, in the context of Billy Budd, an enemy of the established social order. We know as little of Claggart's background "as an astronomer knows about a comet's travels prior to its first observable appearance in the sky." (p.67)

I am belaboring what we do not know about Claggart, because we lack the same information about Billy. Like Claggart, he has no antecedents, although he appears to be unalloyed English, with "a mother eminently favored by Love and the Graces" and a noble father. But a curious exchange occurs when Billy is questioned about his parents:

"...Who is your father?"
"God knows, Sir." (p.51)

On the strength of this I shall not attempt to make Billy into a Christ figure; at this point I merely want to emphasize that Melville is a great pains to hint that neither he nor Claggart is of this world, as if Melville were preparing us for a confrontation of a good and an evil whose purity is unalloyed by anything earthly.

The purity of Claggart's evil is so beyond the range of human experience that Melville cannot trust himself to present it dramatically; instead he stops the story at Chapter 11 to speculate on the natural depravity and to suggest a radical discontinuity between the moral and the social worlds. To understand Claggart, "to pass from a normal nature to him one must cross the 'deadly space between'" (p.74). Possibly "to know the world and to know human nature [are] ... two distinct branches of knowledge," so that one may know either and yet know "little or nothing of the other" (p.75). In fact, natural depravity or complete moral evil has so little to do with the everyday business of the world that society fosters the former and condemns the latter.

Symbolically (hence still on the level of plot) Claggart is linked with the serpent of the Garden of Eden. Claggart's henchman gains the attention of pre-lapsarian Billy by saying "Hist," and again, "Hist, hist!"(p.82) - the sound of the serpent. When Claggart himself confronts Billy, "the first mesmeristic glance was one of the serpent fascination" (p.98), when the sailors carry away the dead Claggart, "it was like handling a dead snake" (p.99). Both the narrative thread of the story and the supplementary details of the plot combine to condemn Claggart, as in any conventional narrative. The plot serves merely to specify symbolically the nature of Claggart's evil.

The same conventional plot-story relationship holds true for Billy, but only in part. The story requires that we sympathize with this example of hounded innocence, and the plot defines that sympathy by defining its object. I have already pointed out that Billy, like Claggart, is not of this world. "God knows" who his father is, and he is constantly referred to as a kind of noble savage. The "natural reality" (p.43) of his type specifically contrasts with Claggart's "natural depravity." His virtues are strength and beauty rather than the more civilized understanding and cunning. It should not be necessary to press the point that whenever Billy is compared to something, it is always something either before or beyond our civilization. Claggart, the narrator tells us is "intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd" understands that Billy is "nothing more than innocent" (p.78). If we try to make a Christ or an Adam of Billy, we attributing both too much and too little to him; symbols, even literary and mythic symbols, are seldom mutually convertible. At most we an Billy is Christ-like and Adam-like in his innocence and Christ-like in his role as victim.

Melville further specifies the innocence as both moral and social. His moral innocence makes the conflict with Claggart inevitable; his social innocence dooms him. He is, no matter how regrettably, "Baby Budd" in a social world that requires manhood. It is fitting that the world in which baby Budd is most at home is the world of the Rights-of-man which, Melville tells us, is named after Paine's book; the world of the rights of man is a "natural' world just as Budd is a "natural" man. On board the Rights-of-Man, discipline, which would seem to be social if anything is, is clearly and certainly presented as natural. It is not enforced by authority (the honest but rather ineffectual captain Graveling) but rather by Billy: " 'Not that he preached to them or said or did anything in particular, but a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones' " (p.47). Even when Billy quiets the last trouble maker, Red Whiskers, he does it naturally by instinctively striking out, not by civilized or social means. The natural world - or, if the oxymoron is permissible, natural society - is better for Billy's presence. Yet Billy himself leaves that world with no regrets, as if Melville were telling us that Billy himself knows that he is twenty-one and must become a man. Thus he has no complaints when he is separated from his rights and is impressed on board the Bellipotent, a warship in hostile waters and so a fitting symbol for society at it most organized and most authoritarian. As he changes ships he shouts, " ' And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man' " (p.49). He is, in fact, leaving the world of natural rights. The lieutenant, the representative of authority at this point, "roars," " 'Down, Sir!' "

All of this plot material functions quite conventionally, enlisting our sympathies with the hero and defining them. But a question about Billy should be taking form: can the natural man assume the responsibilities of the social man? The plot tells us that he cannot. Perhaps the most telling incident is his response to the temptation by Claggart's henchman4. Billy is utterly confused, for this is "the first time in his life that he had ever been personally approached in underhand intriguing fashion" (p.83). More important than his confusion, however, is his refusal to report the incident; because of his "novice magnanimity" he feels that informing "would savour overmuch of the dirty work of a telltale" (p.85). His attitude here is essentially adolescent; he neither understands the importance of the event nor conceives of a duty higher than that to his private moral code. Equally important, he lies to red Pepper, telling him that the tempter was only an afterguardsman on the prowl, and lies again at the court-martial. Both times, and this is significant, Billy lies deliberately, so deliberately that he even overcomes his speech impediment. On the second occasion,

The reply lingered ... the question immediately recalling to Billy's mind the interview with the afterguardsman in the forechains. But an innate repugnance to playing a part at all approaching that of an informer against ones' shipmates - the same erring sense of uninstructed honor which had stood in the way of his reporting the matter at the time, though as a loyal man-of-war's man it was incumbent on him, and failure so to do, if charged against him and proven, would have subjected him to the heaviest of penalties; this, with the blind feeling now his that nothing really was being hatched, prevailed with him. When the answer came it was a negative. (pp. 106-07)

I have quoted this passage at length because in it the narrator (whom we have no reason to distrust; I find the argument that the narrator is ironic singularly unconvincing) specifically accuses Billy if a crime punishable by death. The crime can thought of narrowly in terms of severe military justice; but it can also be thought of broadly as Billy's failure to protect the society he has joined. Billy is not only irresponsible, he is not responsible - in the sense which children and feeble-minded persons are not responsible.

I am being very hard on Billy because critics generally have been too easy on him. And with good reason, for as I have shown, the story and much of the plot material built around him are designed to make him appealing. To state the case somewhat more fairly, Baby Budd has morally and intellectually never left the world of the Rights-of-Man, although we are told that at twenty-one he bade the rights good-bye and cheerfully entered the world of social responsibility, of duties as contrasted with rights.

To put this in a way hinted at earlier, Melville is opposing two ethical systems, the natural and the social, and he makes the former as attractive as possible by his description of the relaxed informality aboard Captain Graveling's ship and by the "natural regality" of Billy, the representative of the natural. Unfortunately, Billy has outgrown the natural, although in his simplicity he does not understand that he has to make a choice - or better, that by the mere fact that he is twenty-one a choice has been made and that he has been placed in a social world where responsibilities must be accepted.

It might be instructive to compare the responses of students to both Billy Budd and Walden. I have found that students usually dislike Walden because (once we decide that Thoreau probably did not expect all mankind to settle by the pond) their good sense tells them that a society of individualists would be intolerable; if each man marches to his own drummer, each stumbles over the other. Yet they accept Billy Budd, failing to see that Billy instinctively follows Thoreau's advice - he settles issues that affect others on a purely personal basis. In a sense, we may read Billy Budd as Melville's final answer to Thoreau, Emerson, Paine, and in general to that whole strain of ultra-individualistic feeling that pervaded nineteenth-century American thought.

At the end Billy seems finally to accept his social responsibility, not passively (as is usually argued) but actively. Actually, for all his innocence, Billy is not a passive creature. When taunted loutishly on board the Rights, he strikes out at his tormentor; when accused falsely by Claggart, he again strikes out. He may not be subtle enough to detect covert harassment (as the incident of the bags and the episode at the mess show), but he is certainly a man who defends himself when he is unjustly imposed upon. Yet he does not lash out when Captain Vere tells him that he must hang. On the contrary, Melville does everything within his power to show that Billy accept's Vere's judgment, even to the point of guessing at what might have happened when Vere told Billy of his sentence after the court-martial: "Not without a sort of joy, indeed, he might have appreciated the brave opinion of him implied in his captain's making such a confidant of him" (p. 115). Does Billy's joy come from his natural and personal response to the meeting of the two individuals? Or does it come from his sensing that acceptance of Vere's jurisdiction has placed him within the social system? I do not know, and the sections of the text dealing with Billy help very little. Billy's final exclamation, "God bless Captain Vere" (p. 123), could support either alternative, although the fact that the crew echo it,and thereby their allegiance to the Captain and through him society, supports the second.

If I have been reading aright - in outline, if not all the details - what we have seen is a growing opposition of the values implicit in the story by those in the plot. The villain of the story is the naturally depraved Claggart, the hero the naturally good Billy; the action of the story is designed to arouse our natural responses towards villains and heroes. But as the plot thickens we find just enough emotional correspondence between it and the story to help the latter along and to keep the reader reminded of his natural emotional reactions; additional elements of the plot seem calculated to evoke an unnatural, a social, response. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the development of Captain Vere.

The story of Billy's hanging requires that Vere have certain characteristics, for not everyone has conviction enough to demand the death of an appealing and innocent young man. The story requires that Vere have a certain hardness, a certain stubbornness, and a quickness of judgment coupled with prudence. The plot gives Vere these qualities, but qualifies them in important ways. Vere is "always ... mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline" (p. 60). His convictions are "settled," yet settled against a floodtide of opinion "which carried away as in a torrent ... minds by nature not inferior to his own" (pp.62-63). He is also "resolute" (p. 60) and "bluff" (p. 63). If one reads the section on Vere quickly enough and wants to make a villain of him, one can conclude that Vere is a prejudiced, cowardly, and inhuman martinet - precisely the kind of man who would kill Billy. Yet each of the unfavorable traits is qualified. His prejudice is "disinterested" (p. 63) and comes from reading writers "free from cant and convention" (p. 62); an officer who keeps discipline, yet is "mindful of the welfare of his men" is, I believe, an exceptionally fine officer; I shall say more about the cowardice later.

The implied adverse criticism of Vere is - and I believe this point is crucial - just sufficient to substantiate the value system implicit in the story. It is there simply because without it Vere would not be the man to demand Billy's death; without it, the story would be unconvincing. What is far more interesting is the material that is irrelevant to the story, the material that qualifies and perhaps even reverses our attitude towards Vere's severity. Perhaps I can summarize briefly by noting that the story requires a Captain Vere and all the military sternness of that rank; the story does not require Starry Vere and all the intellectuality, dreaminess, and idealism suggested by Starry.

Actually, Melville works the plot very hard to make Starry Vere appealing; he must, because in terms of the story he is a villain. Since there is a great deal of controversy about the goodness or evil of Vere,I shall present the strongest evidence of Vere's essential goodness before taking up the more dubious. Most obvious is Vere's conversation with Billy after the court-martial - the scene that Melville, in a sense, did not write. The usual argument at this point, that Billy is Christ and Vere Pilate, fails because Vere's decision to confront the condemned is most un-Pilate like and because the specific biblical allusion is to Isaac and Abraham, the sacrificial son and father mournfully going about what he believes is God's will. The Pilate analogy probably carries over from the trial scene, in which Vere convinces the jury that Billy must hang by appealing to expediency, much as Pilate acted expediently when he turned Jesus over to the mob. Yet here the analogy breaks down quickly. Vere does not refuse to judge; he insists upon judging, and even forces a judgment against the will of the court. And furthermore, Melville explicitly shows that Vere's own decision is not based on expediency. Vere ignores naval custom, Melville tells us, by appointing an officer of the Marines to the court because he thinks the officer "a judicious person, thoughtful, and not altogether incapable of grappling with a difficult case unprecedented in his prior experience, " although Vere does have misgivings (pp. 104-105). Vere does understand that the case is beyond the experience of the usual officer, tries to choose the best court he can, but must settle for what he can get. When he argues his case, he is forced to present two distinct arguments. At first he tries to argue the moral issue, which, put bluntly, is the difference between natural justice and social justice and the necessity of accepting the latter within the framework of society. Vere argues from expediency only after noticing that "the three men moved in their seats, less convinced than agitated ... Perceiving which, the speaker paused for a moment; then abruptly changing his tone, went on" (p. 111). Vere clearly argues from expediency only as a last resort, only because his listens understand no other argument. If the officers could have understood Vere's moral argument, Billy's hanging would have been unnecessary - the moral universe would be the social universe.

A number of other elements, major and minor, seem clearly designed to make Vere appealing. He quickly recognizes Claggart's evil and is as repelled by it as the reader is; he is equally quick in recognizing Billy's moral innocence. Generally, he is described as an exceptional, as superior in all ways to his fellow officers.

With one exception, and with that exception we turn to the less obviously pro-Vere elements. The exception is the passage on Nelson, and the issue is whether Vere is compared or contrasted with the great admiral. The problem is an important one, because the whole section on Nelson is totally irrelevant to the story except, if the purpose is to contrast, to prepare for Vere as villain by showing that he is not the man that Nelson was. The telling passage is this: "it was thought that an officer like Nelson was the one, not indeed to terrorize the crew into base subjection, but to win them, by force of his mere presence and heroic personality, back to an allegiance if not as enthusiastic as his own yet as true" (p. 59). It would seem on the surface, that Vere does "terrorize the crew into base subjection," unless it be remembered that, with Billy in their hearts, they bless Vere after the hanging5. Furthermore, the quality that Melville seems to admire most in Nelson is his lack of "personal prudence" (p. 58), which Nelson proves by being shot down on the deck of his ship, just as Vere is. The obvious point, I believe, is that Vere compares favorably with "the greatest sailor since our world began." (p. 58)

At first sight, the fears of the surgeon concerning Vere's sanity would seem at least as damaging as the comparison with Nelson, but again the difficulties not only vanish when placed in the proper light, but the incident puts Vere in even a better position. The surgeon, who we are told is "as yet unappraised of the antecedents," was profoundly discomposed and wondered if Vere were "unhinged"(pp. 101-102). This seems damning, especially since a surgeon would be the most likely person to assess Vere's sanity; but Melville is at great pains to inform us that the surgeon is incapable of understanding. He, not Vere, is like Pilate, for despite his conviction of Vere's guilt he does not act. Immediately thereafter we learn that few dare to pronounce on a man's sanity except professional experts "for a fee" (p.102). The surgeon, clearly, is not a man to be trusted, Later the surgeon and the purser discuss Billy's stillness at the moment of the hanging; the surgeon doubts anything that is not scientific, which is another way of saying that he has no moral understanding, which is another way of saying that he is the person least qualified to express judgment on any moral issue. Actually, the whole tone of the conversation between the surgeon and the purser shows the latter's complete obtuseness and perhaps thereby insists on Vere's sanity, especially since Melville has told us that Vere and Billy share "in the rarest qualities of our nature - so rare indeed as to be all but incredible to average minds however much cultivated." (pp. 114-15)

Even though the bulk of the plot material relating to Vere either clearly or indirectly presents him as an ideal,the final meaning of Billy Budd is not the simple acceptance of Vere and the social morality he represents. To show the complexity both of Melville's acceptance and of his technique, I shall retell the story once more, and then repeat it, the second time emphasizing the elements of the plot. The story is that a young sailor, impressed aboard a British man-o'-war, incurs the unmotivated enmity of one of the crew, is falsely accused by him, kills him in a flash of instinctive anger, and is tried and hanged. The story, along with those elements of the plot which support it, especially the many allusions to Billy's natural innocence and Claggart's natural depravity, recognizes that evil exists in the world and that it is powerful enough to destroy the good; the story is bleakly pessimistic.

The plot though is a different matter. Baby Budd, who has just reached the age of manhood, is forced to go from the Rights-of-Man to His Majesty's Ship the Bellipotent, commanded by Edward (guardian of the realm) Fairfax (fair facts) Vere (truth, manliness). Baby Budd is tempted by the serpent; although he does not yield to the temptation, he does yield to his naive (primitive, natural) nature by refusing to act responsibly. he is accused of a crime of which he is not guilty (a formal, "social"mutiny; he is guilty of the private mutiny), and kills the accuser-tempter-serpent. The Captain forces a court-martial and accuses baby Budd of the right crime - failure to accept his social responsibilities - but is forced to punish him for the technical crime because of the limited understanding of his officers. Billy is eventually executed, and Vere is mortally wounded in a successful engagement with the Athe'e (the Atheist). Is it too much to suggest that the battle with the Athe'e is an externalization of Vere's personal engagement with Billy? Billy, after all, is a creature of the Rights-of-Man, a ship named after a book written in defense of the French Revolution. If so, then Billy, like the French Revolution, is an instance of the impossibility of translating an ideal morality into a less than ideal social world.

The opposition between the story and the major elements of the plot, then, embodies the conflict in Melville's own mind between the claims of natural moral law and social law; and further, the growing attention he gave Vere as the manuscript grew and the sheer bulk and importance of those plot elements that run counter to the thematic implications of the story show that Melville was forced - reluctantly, regretfully, and even painfully - to the realization that man, because he must live the social world, must abide by its laws.

. Razeryvanie sjuzheta and Tristram Shandy Stern'a i teorija i romana (Plot Development and Sterne's Tristram Shandy and the Theory of the Novel), published separately in Pterograd, 1921. These and other Russian Formalist essays have been translated into English by L. T. Lemon and M. J. Reis; their first printing in English will be by the University of Nebraska Press in 1965.
2. Herman Melville, Billy Budd: Sailor (An Inside Narrative), Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., eds. (Chicago, 1962). All references are to this text, the first definitive edition of Billy Budd.
3. Captain Vere, on the other hand, is earthly. As the novel's representative of social order it is appropriate that Melville tells us much about his background.
4. I would like to include the temptation scene as part of the plot rather than the story because it is inconsequential; Claggart does not refer to it when he accuses Billy and, on the level of the story, it results in no further action.
5. The difficulty here might result from the unfinished state of the manuscript of Billy Budd.

The The Practice of Criticism was a book I picked up from a pile of free books several years ago in the offices of the English department (back when I was an English major). So, now I finally get some use, other than enjoyable reading , from it.

Back Home