Billy Budd (Or How I Learned That I Do Not Actually Hate Melville)

I get that it is a good idea to have kids read books they would otherwise not have read. I get that the classics are important to a well-rounded, quality education, even accounting for the narrow and kyriarchal way “classic” is defined. But man, can you turn off a kid from reading an author when they are set loose with an obscure text and no guide to at least rise to the level of appreciation. That is exactly how I came to loathe Melville. But I have been redeemed!I first read Billy Budd my junior year of high school. It was the American Literature year, and I had my favorite teacher. In fact, I had specifically <humblebrag> decided not to take the Gifted & Talented English class that I was supposed to be in, </humblebrag> because I had heard she was such a good teacher. We read a host of different books that year, but the only two I remember are Billy Budd, because I hated it so so so so so much, and Native Son, because it changed my life.

I can guess I probably hated it, because the language was so dense and inaccessible to a 15 year old. But I was not supposed to be the average 15 year old (see humblebrag, supra). I was supposed to “get” it on a first read, without trying. I got the plot, of course. That was easy enough. I hated that it was 75 percent exposition and then rushed to the end. And that the characters were out of reach. Fiction was supposed to let me live other people’s lives, not keep them at bay and rush through their crises. My 15 year old self was having none of it.

This rereading would not have happened but for my Law & Literature class (which, although I don’t think it meant to, is much functioning as an indictment of the systemic issues in our “rule of law” that enact injustice on oppressed persons. I am pleased). Billy was the first book.

Quick Plot Summary: Billy is a sailor conscripted into the British Navy. He is the innocent, pretty boy who is accused by Claggart of being part of a mutiny plot. Billy punches Claggart once, and the blow kills his accuser. Captain Vere rushes his trial and pushes the panel of judges to convict by the letter of the law. Billy hangs for the crime of killing a superior officer.

It’s not my favorite book, but I don’t hate it anymore. Melville crafted it to keep the reader as juror, rather than empathetic participant. We are supposed to struggle with who was right, what is right, and how do we do justice. The characters needed to remain at bay, and they needed to be archetypes: Billy the Innocent, Claggart the Villian, Vere the Impartial Judge.

But they are not only archetypes. We know that Billy is capable of deadly violence when he cannot find words to answer an accusation. We know that Claggart worked himself from nothing to his position and something about Billy unsettles his mind (my personal theory: he has the hots for Billy (like everyone else on the boat)). Vere is essentially the nerd among captains and out of place personality-wise with that circle.

What is justice? Billy lacks the intent to kill, which under modern jurisprudence would mitigate his crime. But he did kill. He killed someone that the crew mostly did not like. Should a law that does not look to intent still forgive Billy his crime because his victim is unsympathetic? (No.) Vere knows that justice in this case would not lead to Billy’s hanging, but he steadfastly insists on adhering to the letter of the law, because there is no other option. Is a law without mercy just? (No.) This book though challenges where those lines need to be drawn, and questions whether we as a society have drawn them.

So, I don’t hate Melville. I might even be willing to give Moby Dick a go (but after law school, and definitely after The Bar). I am glad to have had another opportunity to engage with this book, and this is another piece of evidence that supports my theory: when you hate a book, read it again at least one more time but at a different age. Maybe you still hate it. But maybe you needed to be someone slightly different in order to let that story in.

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