Study Help Essay Questions


1. Contrast Billy Budd with other innocents from literature, such as Lenny Small in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men or Benjy in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

2. Discuss the sources of major allusions in the novel.

3. Explain possible reasons for Claggart's animosity toward Billy.

4. Determine the forces which lead to Billy's execution.

5. Explain why impressment is a key issue in the novel.

6. Describe and evaluate the tableau of the execution.

7. Explain why Billy Budd may be read as a tragedy, morality play, or fable.

8. Discuss Melville's use of names for people and ships.

9. Explain how the novel reveals Melville's own acquiescence to the mystery of life.

10. Explain the chain of command which ensnares Billy.

11. Discuss elements of Melville's fiction which demonstrate his insider's knowledge of ships and seagoing men.

12. Using Billy Budd as an example, define the following literary terms: point of view irony, paradox, dilemma, symbol, tragic flaw, and theme.

13. Explain how history serves as a backdrop for the story.

14. Analyze why Melville follows his three characters to their deaths.

15. Explain why Melville might be included in a study of great transcendentalists.

16. Compare Melville's grasp of evil with that of Hawthorne.

17. Analyze the imagery of "Billy in the Darbies."

18. Discuss possible symbolic interpretations for these events: The Bellipotent's failure to overtake the enemy ship, Vere's death from a musket ball shot from a porthole, the chaplain's kissing Billy's cheek, the newspaper's allegation that Billy was not English, and the twining of seaweed around Billy's corpse.

19. Contrast Melville's other seafarers and journeymen with Billy Budd.

20. Explain why a posthumous work like Billy Budd requires special critical handling.

21. Explain why not a single critique of Billy Budd can exhaust all the possibilities of its complexity.

22. Analyze a selection of similes from the novel which compares human behavior to something in nature.

23. Explain the role of minor figures in the plot, particularly Squeak, Ratcliffe, Mr. Mordant, the chaplain, the surgeon, Graveling, and the old Dansker.

24. Discuss the texture of Billy Budd in terms of straightforward narrative interposed alongside digression and commentary.

25. Explain why Melville, nearing the end of his life, would spend his final days writing Billy Budd.

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