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Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville

Billy Budd, Sailor (1924)

by Herman Melville

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When a friend of mine from high school couldn't sell this book back at the end of the year and threatened to throw it out instead, I happily offered to take it off of his hands and save it from the bin. I mean, I have always been a fan of free books and I prided myself on being able to read and enjoy literature that frustrated and bored others. It turns out I should have let him throw the book in the trash can no matter how free it was. If Ahab had been real (and yes, I know that this is not Moby-Dick, which I, in fact, read long ago, and Ahab plays no part here), I would have begged him to take off his wooden leg and beat Melville around the head until he was too insensible to write any more of his dreadfully boring and tormenting works. In case I'm being too subtle, this is a roundabout way of admitting that I loathed this novella and short story collection and it took me well over a year to work my way through it, forcing myself all the way, unwilling to let it defeat me.

The longest section of the book is the novella, Billy Budd. The story of a sweet, comely, exceedingly strong, and perfect sailor who in a moment of passion, accidently kills his accuser and therefore must be condemned to hang as per naval law, the tale is full of digressions and philosophical weavings and quite honestly, I was ready to hang this paragon of virtue myself by the end of it all just to be finished. Interpreting Billy as Adam, sinning through no fault of his own but doomed to be punished heavily for that sin or as a Christ figure, making the ultimate sacrifice in order that goodness might triumph over evil, did nothing to make the story more appealing or enjoyable. Perhaps I just don't like allegories, having had this visceral reaction to others as well. But the other stories in the collection were almost as tedious as Billy Budd with the slight advantage that they were shorter. And while I fully appreciate Melville's place in the American literature canon, I'd be happy to be the one to light the fuse and blow him away over the yardarm. (And yes, before any smug and pretentious defenders of literature come out of the woodwork, I do know the difference between canon and cannon and made a deliberate choice here.) ( )
1 vote whitreidtan | Feb 12, 2014 |
Billy Budd is a short novel by Herman Melville. It was written towards the end of his life and was unfinished at the time of his death, being discovered amidst his papers and published by his biographer. It is a gem of writing. It is compact in the telling of the central elements of its story but rich in its use of language to give the reader a sense of being physically present as the story unfolds.

There are three principal characters and just one brief moment when they are all together. Suspense builds as the pivotal moment approaches, and the way in which it unfolds is completely unexpected. I found this story to be compelling and thought-provoking. ( )
  BradKautz | Nov 27, 2013 |
I like this book though, like "Lord Jim", that I recently read, I had to get used to the writing style all over again. The sentences are long, and need concentration in order to understand. Yet, in this book, they convey an almost lyrical, poetic quality to the story, and you feel the emotion and the atmosphere of the scenes that Melville creates.

The tragedy of Billy Budd does stay on - an abandoned child, illiterate, good-looking, almost innocent in his persona, condemned to death for one mistake made in panic, over a charge that was patently false, and made with malicious intent.

Is this an allegory on life as well? As an old coach once said, 'Life is not fair. Neither is it fair. It is what it is'.

Having said that, innocent die and the world forgets those who are not in positions of power. This is clearly demonstrated in the epilogue.

The book could have been written in a style that is angry and bitter. Yet, the lyrical quality of the writing makes the tale even more poignant. ( )
  RajivC | Nov 11, 2013 |
Slightly handicapped by its being over 40 years since I read this book, but there's a reason it's a classic and has even been made into an opera. Much to say about evil and innocence. Highly recommended. ( )
  auntieknickers | Jun 8, 2013 |
I felt ambivalent about Moby Dick; I loved the grandeur of some of the language and beauty of some of the prose, but hated the lengthy digressions. With Billy Budd, a novella published after Melville's death, I also feel ambivalent, but here my problems are more integral, not just a matter of cutting away what I see as blubber.

I've seen this described as allegory: like allegory, it often can come across as all too heavy handed. Billy Budd is the Christ-figure of almost pure good; Claggart is painted very much as a Satanic figure who hates Billy for his virtues. Captain Vere is a more complex figure. Given his position in this drama it would be easy to see him as Jehovah, as God the father, yet Melville speaks of his "mental disturbance." The narrator is intrusive--and he does things like say "for a literary sin then divergence will be"--and then goes on digressing. The narrator has a tone of omniscience, relates things only an omniscient narrator would know--then demurs he has complete knowledge and presents things as his guesses. The narration often struck me as ponderous, high-strung, melodramatic, and in describing Billy (described every several paragraphs as the "Handsome Sailor") so very, very gay.

And yet there are some piercing psychological insights--and some really beautiful touches. (In the context of what was happening, the simple sentence "Billy ascended" was powerful and chilling.) Not a story I'd call a favorite, but worth reading. ( )
1 vote LisaMaria_C | Oct 6, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (50 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Herman Melvilleprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Freeman, Frederic BarronEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hayford, HarrisonEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Palm, Johan M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Plomer, WilliamIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sealts, Merton M., Jr.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Wherever that great heart may now be
Here on Earth or harbored in Paradise

Captain of the Maintop
in the year 1843
in the U.S. Frigate
United States
First words
In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a stroller along the docks of any considerable seaport would occasionally have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war's men or merchant sailors in holiday attire, ahore on liberty.
The Chaplain is the minister of the Prince of Peace, serving in the host of the God of War - Ares.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226321320, Paperback)

Hayford and Sealts's text was the first accurate version of Melville's final novel. Based on a close analysis of the manuscript, thoroughly annotated, and packaged with a history of the text and perspectives for its criticism, this edition will remain the definitive version of a profoundly suggestive story.

"The texts are impeccably accurate. . . . The collection is accompanied by an unobtrusive but expert annotation. . . . Probably Melville's finest short work, the incomplete 'Billy Budd,' [is] a striking reworking of the crucifixion set in the English maritime service of the Revolutionary period."—John Sutherland, The Los Angeles Times

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:40:26 -0400)

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Herman Melville's classic novel "Billy Budd, Sailor," with introduction, chronology of the author's life, timeline of events, critical analysis, explanatory and textual notes, and discussion questions.

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