An Analysis of the Article Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Three Centuries

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H. Bruce Franklin of “Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Three Centuries” investigates the underlying controversial feud that represents the issue of the story, and details the debates surrounding the “profound influence on American culture” (1-18).

Capital Punishment is a controversial debate that has been justified and condemned for over a century. When interpreting Billy Budd, there are two general ways to judge the novel, either by admiration or by condemning the story. Both judgments are complete opposites and are entirely hostile toward one another, a way of exemplifying the groups for and against the issue of capital punishment. The article, “Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Three Centuries” deals with more of capital punishment and its corrupt history more so than Captain Vere’s decision to hang Budd, author Herman Melville’s portrayal of capital punishment and its mere effects and display.

Opening the article and his viewpoints, Franklin emphasizes that the reader must not analyze current issues on capital punishment then judge the story based off those modern theories, for the story was composed over a century ago when capital punishment and its debates were only beginning (1). When author Herman Melville was originally composing Billy Budd, both national and international attention became focused on the unfolding of capital punishment in New York, the state where Melville was currently living. Culturally, Billy Budd dramatizes capital punishment and all the debates related to it. Melville wrote the story so the seemingly uncontroversial consequence delivered to Budd would emphasize capital punishment and all its effects. In the story, Budd unintentionally kills Claggart, Vere being there to witne...

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...H. Bruce Franklin emphasizes that the story of Billy Budd is not a mere formal exposition in the movement against capital punishment, but a work that explores the contemporary issues ethically, philosophically, and politically (16). To define these issues, Franklin accentuates that Melville wrote the story in a manner that dramatized the debates on capital punishment, but did so accordingly in order for the reader to understand the controversy that arose at the time Billy Budd was composed. Therefore, the reader must not judge Billy Budd off modern theories of capital punishment, for the debates have evolved and advanced dramatically since 1891. Franklin emphasizes that Melville wrote Billy Budd and created the issue of his execution in a manner that culturally defined the deadly meaning of capital punishment to the world (18).

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