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“Billy Budd” - A Critical Analysis of Symbolism

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Herman Melville's - "Billy Budd" - A Critical Analysis of Symbolism Outline Thesis statement: To better understand the nature of what Herman Melville was trying to convey to the audience, one must read deeper into the story and evaluate the symbolism surrounding the characters, the crime, and the punishment carried out. I. The characters A. Billy Budd. B. John Claggart. C. Captain Vere. II. The crime A. Billy Budd's intentions. B. Captain Vere's knowledge of Billy Budd's true intentions. III. The punishment A. Billy Budd's punishment and whether he deserved it. B. The symbolism surrounding the yardarm. C. Captain Vere's last words. "Billy Budd" - A Critical Analysis of Symbolism In "Billy Budd", Melville is trying to express his views and opinions to the reader through the repeated use of symbolism. Melville may also be challenging the reader to think about a specific moral dilemma or view about a controversial topic. To better understand the nature of what Herman Melville was trying to convey to the audience, one must read deeper into the story and evaluate the symbolism surrounding the characters, the crime, and the punishment carried out. The central character of this story is of course Billy Budd. At the beginning of the story Billy was on the Rights-of-Man, an English merchantman vessel, and was ordered to board and become foretopman on the H.M.S. ...read more.


In this story Vere acts as the judge or executioner although the decision was not all his. The reader will sense the inner conflict of Vere when the time comes to punish Billy for his crime. Vere's relationship with Billy becomes something more than just being his Captain, Vere has great admiration for Billy and seems to look at this "Handsome Sailor" as if he were his father. Melville seems to contrast the relationship between Vere and Billy to the Bible, Vere symbolizing God and Billy symbolizing Jesus. This argument can be supported by Bill Thompson who states, "The book is full of Biblical allusion which substantiates the symbolism. Just as God allowed his son to be sentenced to death and die, Capt. Vere sentences Billy (who I believe to be Capt. Vere's son) to die as well." (Billy Budd- symbolism) The crime in Billy Budd is simple, John Claggart the ships Master-at-arms accuses Billy Budd of mutiny in front of Captain Vere and Billy, absolutely flabbergasted and speechless, lashed out and struck Claggart in the forehead. The blow was so intense that it killed Claggart. Billy Budd is not charged with murder but with striking "'his superior in grade'"; "'Apart from its effect the blow itself is,'" as Captain Vere states, "'a capital crime'" under the Articles of War of the Georgian codes. ...read more.


(Billy Budd) At the close of the story Captain Vere is dying, his last words are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd." This would suggest that there is some sort of strong connection between Billy and Captain Vere. This connection goes way beyond friendship or personal respect. Melville creates this obvious connection to urge the reader to think about everything that has happened in this story. He urges us to think about the symbolism in this story and how this symbolism may also turn out to be literal. This obvious connection may suggest that Billy was actually Vere's son, again contrasting Jesus being God's son. Vere showed great personal remorse for Billy's death, far beyond what he would have felt had another member of his crew been in this situation. This opinion is shared among others as well as me, Monica writes, referring to Vere's last words and why he said them, "I think it was because Billy was supposed to be his son..." (Capt. Vere's last words) "Billy Budd" is one of the best stories I have ever read. I have never had to really think about what I was reading until I started reading classic literature. Classic literature is extremely fascinating and thought provoking. "Billy Budd" will be a story I will remember and truly appreciate for life. ...read more.

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