Written last, read only posthumously (except by his wife), almost certainly unfinished, more than any other work of Herman Melville's brilliant, troubled, and mysterious career, Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) has served as a screen onto which successive generations of commentators have projected their personal obsessions.
The short work--at once deceptively simple (particularly stylistically in contrast to the dizzy soaring prose of Melville's younger years) and surprisingly dense for a piece of such un-Melvillian directness and proportions (only 130 pages in the definitive text prepared by Hayford and Sealts)--has alternatively been described as "Melville's testament of acceptance", as a Christian allegory, as a veiled portrait of the ambivalent way in which Herman's father in law, Massachusetts chief justice Lemuel Shaw, an abolitionist, mercilessly enforced the fugitive slave laws, and as a not so veiled story of self-loathing homosexuality.
There might be some truth to all of these things. Certainly it's an old man's book in which strangely inert characters submit with little protestation to the roles that the Fates, or at least the author, has proscribed for them in a manner that is unquestionably Greek in it's relentless inevitability ("Fated boy" Vere says to Billy when Billy kills Claggart, giving Vere's later moral hand wringing an air of powerless sophistry) and darn fatalistic. There's no doubt of the parallels to Biblical themes of the fall of man and the sacrifice of Jesus in Billy's more than preternatural innocence and the explicitly heavenly description of the beatified skies at the moment of Billy's death, as well as in Billy's final blessing of the man who condemns him to die. I can buy the notion that Shaw served as something of a model for Vere's almost self righteous rush to impose martial law as if no other choice were before him given not only what we know of Shaw's career but also what we can't help but read into what must have been Melville's resentment towards yet another towering family father in whose shadow he lived and on whose financial support he relied. And there's no question that Claggart's attraction/repulsion to "the Handsome Sailor" is pregnant with sexual envy and conflict.
But most of all I think Billy Budd, which I've just read again for the first time in some years, is about the same things that all of Melville's greatest work is about--the malleability of truth, the sad ways in which the social conventions of the civilized world alienate people from their true natures, and the doomed hopelessness of all human striving to understand anything about the world, the universe and the meaning of life.
At the heart of the book is a kind of switcheroo, a moral Freaky Friday trading places act. Claggart, an almost supernaturally depraved bad actor who falsely accuses Billy of planning a mutiny, whose only motive--whatever psychological motives we modern readers ascribe to him--is described as arising from his being "depraved according to nature" becomes the hapless victim while Billy--so naive he doesn't even understand that such depravity exists--becomes not only the necessary example of guilt to the rest of the crewmen (for whom his hanging is intended as lesson by Vere) but a simple of depravity, vindictiveness and alienation.'
Melville tells his readers outright what has gone on at the moment that Billy mutely strikes Claggart dead:
In the jugglery of circumstances preceding and attending the event onboard the Bellipotent, and in the light of that martial code whereby it was formally to be judged, innocence and guilt personified in Claggart and Budd in effect changed places.
But Melville goes a step farther, in a book uncharacteristically (for Melville) devoid, or mostly devoid, of pre-modernist multitextuality, Melville offers only a few touches of such stuff near the end of his tale, one in the form of a news report from an "authorized" weekly naval chronicle, written in good faith, Melville assures us, but nonetheless gathered from rumor and innuendo resulting in an official account, an outside narrative, of events that our author has just laid before us, so completely at odds with Melville's inside narrative as to represent an utter reversal. In the official account, Budd's no beloved innocent lashing out in mute passion against a man who has wronged him. No, he's an armed assassin and mutineer so vindictive and sneaky he must not even have been an Englishman who has committed a crime of "extreme depravity" against the "respectable," "discrete," and "patriotic" Claggart.
Beyond all the narrator's declarations of the unknowability of Claggart's character, the conspicuous absence of any backstory for either Claggart or Budd, and the invitations to readers to decide for themselves whether Vere has done the right thing or the wrong thing in ensuring that Billy hangs and quickly, or even whether or not Vere has become unhinged, this news report undermines the sense that we as readers know whether or not anything is true.
It's a subtler handling of the inadequacy of human knowledge then Meville gives us in Moby Dick with Ahab's obsessive, fatal, failing compulsion to "pierce the veil" but in it's modernity it's perhaps more disorienting.
Melville then pushes farther yet again into myth making, including at the narrative the short poem from which the whole piece sprang (Melville first wrote the poem Billy In the Darbies, a kind of folk ballad of a mutineer in a brig at night awaiting his execution in the morning--an old tar, not a symbol of innocence like the Billy of the inside narrative. The the novel grew up around the poem, springing from a headnote Melville began writing then continued to expand). Read at the end of the inside narrative, and following the unreliable news report, the ballad offers another version of the tale--a myth told as a sea chanty, its authorship now ascribed to a shipmate of Billy's who would have known the truth but instead writes the song of an old tar, an actually mutineer, with a girl back home in Bristol.
Melville knew well sailor's stories from his years at sea. And he studied Anglo American ballads in preparation for his great Civil War poetry. He knew how myths were made from the stuff of reality. But in many ways Billy In The Darbies feels more "true" or at least more real than the "inside narrative" itself--which is full of impossibly pure and impossibly malignant characters with no backgrounds, just sailor's stories about their rumored backgrounds, archetypes more than flesh and blood characters. And by including--Rashomon-like--these alternatives to the narrator's own "inside narrative," both an utterly opposite news report, and a very real feeling sea chanty Melville leaves us wondering what his texts always leave us wondering about: is anything true? Is anything really knowable at all?