Critical Essays Moral of Billy Budd


To extract the story from the mode of Greek tragedy and place it in the realm of reality, Melville adds three short chapters and a ballad. These final chapters simultaneously carry Billy's story forward and serve as a moral. The first of these chapters records the death of Captain Vere some days after the capture of the Athée. His dying words are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd." The second chapter records the ironic reversal of character and fact which was preserved in a weekly naval chronicle under the heading "News from the Mediterranean." The last chapter traces the history of the yardarm from which Billy was hanged, reveals how chips of it were as cherished as pieces of the Cross, and records the composition of the ballad printed at Portsmouth.

Melville appears to have added the last three chapters to square the story with reality. They also serve as a completion of the myth. It is the memory of Billy rather than of Claggart or Vere that survives. The poem reads as though it takes place in Billy's mind both before and after his death. His death softens into a peaceful sleep amid the twining seaweed that comprises his final resting place.

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