Billy Budd, 1888 (written), 1924 (published posthumously)

Author: Herman Melville

What do we know about the author?

We all wish we knew more about Herman Melville, and especially about the desires of his heart. Herman Melville wrote publicly with effusive praise about his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, leading some to believe that the two were lovers (Stein). However, Melville and Hawthorne were both married to women (Stein). There is no conclusive evidence that the two were indeed lovers (Stein). Admittedly, the letters that Melville wrote to Hawthorne reveal strong feelings for Hawthorne. Curiously, the letters from Hawthorne to Melville are mostly missing (Stein).

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Herman Melville

What is the plot of this book?

Billy Budd is an extremely handsome British sailor who is chosen to sail aboard a ship called the Indomitable as a foretopman. Billy is very popular among the other sailors. His only apparent flaw is a stutter that arises when Billy gets excited, anxious, or angry. Although the ship’s master-at-arms John Claggart is fairly attractive, he is jealous of Billy’s beauty. Because of his envy, Claggart falsely accuses Billy of trying to incite a mutiny on the ship.

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SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading at this point if you do not wish to know what happens at the end of the book.

Captain Vere allows Claggart to confront Billy with the accusations, and Vere requests a response from Billy. Out of nervousness and rage, Billy stutters and then delivers a single deadly punch to Claggart. Although Claggart’s murder is an accident, Billy must nevertheless endure a trial aboard the ship. While the court-martial believes in Billy’s innocence, they still decide to hang him to prevent future instances of mutiny.

How is this book queer?

From the opening scenes of this book, Billy Budd vividly describes male beauty. Melville writes that passersby on the dock of the seaport were “arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war’s men or merchant sailors in holiday attire ashore on liberty.” This description exemplifies the stereotype of handsome sailors stopping at ports to party and to make love. As he describes the sailors on the dock, he describes a black sailor attired in a way that is stereotypically queer by today’s standards: “The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head.”

Despite these descriptions of male beauty, the novel focuses on the astounding handsomeness of Billy Budd and the admiring gazes of the men of the Indomitable. In awe of Billy, Lieutenant Ratcliff immediately recruits him without knowing much about him. In fact, Ratcliff is “[p]lump upon Billy at first sight.” Billy also attracts “the Captain’s attention from the first.” Indeed, Captain Vere congratulates, “Lieutenant Ratcliff upon his good fortune in lighting on such a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.”

In contrast, Claggart’s admiration of Billy’s beauty turns into jealousy and insecurity about his own appearance. Even as Billy’s appearance saddens Claggart, Claggart surreptitiously loves and perhaps desires Billy: “… the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.” Claggart may ultimately strive to ruin Billy because he thinks that he cannot have him. Alternatively, Claggart may want the male gaze to focus on him instead of Billy. Either way, Claggart seems to be a frustrated queer man.

Readers know more about the thoughts and desires of the men aboard the ship than they do about Billy’s state of mind. Billy accepts the adulation, but he does not seem to appreciate the intensity of the men’s admiration or Claggart’s envy. However, Billy’s façade crumbles when Vere’s tender empathy exposes Billy’s vulnerability. Vere tries to calm Billy when Billy stutters in his response to the accusations made against him. The empathy infuriates Billy because the “fatherly” tone touches Billy’s “heart to the quick.” Billy does not seem comfortable with the intimacy of Vere’s empathy. On the Indomitable one cannot conquer the masculine sailor culture of emotional stoicism, even as homoeroticism slyly pervades the gazes and banter. When Vere’s concern for Billy shows a desire for sincere emotional intimacy between men, Billy’s homophobia and assertion for masculine self-sufficiency emerges. As a result, these feelings lead Billy to tragic violence.

Billy Budd
Billy stands ominously over Claggart, as Captain Vere observes in shock.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you are a patient reader, you may enjoy this book. The plot is simple, and most of the text addresses descriptions of setting and characters. In true Melville style, the pace is plodding, and the sentences are very long. You will definitely enjoy this book if you enjoy contemplating the psychology of men and homoerotic subtext.

Reference

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. Kindle ed., Plain Label Books, 2018.

Stein, Jordan A. “History’s Dick Jokes: On Melville and Hawthorne.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 15 Dec. 2015, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/historys-dick-jokes-on-melville-and-hawthorne. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.

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