A New Historical Reading of Billy Budd

A New Historical Reading of Billy Budd

Length: 826 words (2.4 double-spaced pages)

Rating: Excellent

Open Document

Essay Preview

More ↓
New Historicism is heavily indebted to deconstruction. One of the most brilliant readings of Billy Budd along these lines is Brook Thomas's reading in Cross Examination of Law and Literature. As its name implies, New Historicism combines an analysis of literary works with whatever historical backdrop is deemed relevant or important to our understanding. The "new" in this historicism has to do, among other things, with the recognition that history (or reality) is itself a kind of construct (or fiction, if you will, in the sense of something made rather than merely stumbled upon by humanity). What Brook Thomas does, then, is analyze Melville's story in the context of certain legal questions in Melville's lifetime, paying particular attention to Melville's father-in-law as well, Lemuel Shaw, who may have been the model for Captain Vere. Like Vere, Shaw sacrificed his conscience rather than "violate" an unjust law (he felt that slavery was wrong, yet he upheld the law requiring the return of escaped slaves to their "rightful" owners).


In what follows I shall resort to a shortcut. Instead of reporting on Brook Thomas's interpretation as a whole, I shall cite some of the most strikingly important and interesting passages. Given the foregoing (and your possible prior knowledge of Melville's story), these quotations should speak for themselves.


"I do not mean to either excuse Vere's technical errors or to argue that technicalities are unimportant. . . . [But] to base criticism of the legal order on procedural errors is to risk explaining injustice as the acts of corrupt, or even just well-intentioned but confused individuals in positions of authority. It avoids questioning the order to which the legal system is intricately related.


"One lesson that we might draw from our historical cases and from Billy Budd is that Vere, Shaw, and Parson are corrupt and hypocritical men, employing a rhetoric of strict adherence to the law in order to disguise their conscious manipulation of the law. Or, more generously, we might conclude that they are sincere men who are so concerned with fulfilling their duty that they unconsciously violate the very principles they claim to uphold. A more fruitful line of inquiry is to try to understand what it is about the logic of the legal order they have sworn to defend that causes three well-intentioned men seemingly to contradict their own most sacred principles.

How to Cite this Page

MLA Citation:
"A New Historical Reading of Billy Budd." 123HelpMe.com. 24 Jan 2020

Need Writing Help?

Get feedback on grammar, clarity, concision and logic instantly.

Check your paper »

Free Billy Budd Essays: A Deconstructive Reading

- A Deconstructive Reading of Billy Budd Billy, who cannot understand ambiguity, who takes pleasant words at face value and then obliterates Claggart for suggesting that one could do otherwise, whose sudden blow is a violent denial of any discrepancy between his being and his doing, ends up radically illustrating the very discrepancy he denies. - Barbara Johnson, p. 86 With Barbara Johnson's splendid Critical Difference we are willy-nilly plunged into deconstruction. At the moment I shall not attempt to explain this radical and highly subversive critical mode, except to say that what you are about to see is an example of it....   [tags: Billy Budd Essays]

Free Essays
1512 words (4.3 pages)

Free Billy Budd Essays: A Structuralist Reading

- A Structuralist Reading of Billy Budd . . . truth is revealed only when formal order is destroyed. - Dryden, p. 209 Not on your life, says Edgar A. Dryden (though not in so many words, of course) to the above in his splendid Melville's Thematics of Form. His argument is essentially to show that while most readers (erroneously) assume that Captain Vere is the story's tragic hero, the fact of the matter is that a "better" reading will reveal him as Melville's target, if you want to know the "truth." I want to emphasize at the outset is that EVERYTHING DRYDEN SAYS IS SUPPORTED BY THE TEXT he is analyzing....   [tags: Billy Budd Essays]

Free Essays
751 words (2.1 pages)

Essay on Historical Context Analysis On Reading And Write

- Historical Context Analysis on “Learning to Read and Write” Unlike any other African American, “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey” known as, Frederick Douglass who wrote “Learning to Read and Write” was well ahead of most slaves due to his given opportunity, but the gift of reading and writing that was bestowed unto him by a kindhearted woman at one time became tormenting. Douglass was born in the month of February in year 1818 which the day is unknown. He lived with his grandmother and aunty in Talbot County, Maryland after only seeing his mother a few times before she passed and unknowing his white father....   [tags: Frederick Douglass, Slavery in the United States]

Research Papers
972 words (2.8 pages)

Essay about Poetry Closed Reading Assignment:Billy Collins

- Poetry Closed Reading Assignment For this assignment, I have decided to write about a famous poem of Billy Collins which is titled as ‘Introduction to Poetry’ written in 1996. Billy Collins has used a specific metaphor, simile, rhyme and personification in his poem ‘Introduction to poetry’ in order to show how one should better understand a poem. This poem focused on what the poem actually mean and how a poem should be clearly understood. Throughout the poem, Billy Collins has presented a clear way of understanding the poem by using a very interesting imagery, symbolism, metaphor and a very sensitive sound....   [tags: introduction to poetry]

Research Papers
882 words (2.5 pages)

An Introdution To A Poet: Billy Collins Essay

- An Introduction to a Poet: Billy Collins Billy Collins is one of the most credited poets of this century and last. He is a man of many talents, most recognized though by his provocative and riveting poetry. As John McEnroe was to the sport of tennis, Billy Collins has done the same for the world of poetry. Collin’s rejected the old ways of poetry, created his own form, broke all the rules, and still retains the love and respect of the poet community. Collins has received the title of Poet Laureate of the United States twice and also has received countless awards and acknowledgements....   [tags: Poet Poetry Billy Collins]

Research Papers
1564 words (4.5 pages)

Billy Budd Essay: Comparing Christ to Billy

- Comparing Christ to Billy of Billy Budd         "I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head!" wrote Herman Melville in his June 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne (Davis and Gilman 3). Yet, by the time he began writing Billy Budd, Sailor in 1888, Melville must have tempered this view, for Billy Budd depicts the inevitable destruction of a man who is all heart but who utterly lacks insight. Melville no doubt intends for his reader to connect this tale with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Billy Budd endures a persecution similar to Christ's; he is executed for like reasons, and he eventually ascends, taking "the full rose of the dawn" (BB 376)....   [tags: Billy Budd Essays]

Research Papers
3199 words (9.1 pages)

Essay on Biblical Allegories in Billy Budd

- Biblical Allegories in Billy Budd Herman Melville's Billy Budd is a novel with many biblical allegories ranging from subtle references to quite obvious similarities between characters and Biblical figures. One of the most prevalent and accepted similarities is that of "Billy as Adam" (Berthoff, Certain 33) around the time of the Fall, "The ground common to most discussion of Billy Budd is the assumption that the story is allegorical ... a reenactment of the Fall" (Berthoff, Certain 32)....   [tags: Billy Budd Essays]

Research Papers
598 words (1.7 pages)

Essay about Reader Reaction to Billy Budd

- Reader Reaction to Billy Budd I approached Melville's Billy Budd with a mixture of trepidation and determination. I read the Introduction first, because I thought its purpose was to introduce the author, and place the selected stories in context and I thought this would be an aid to understanding. I was correct, but too correct, because Joyce Carol Oates, without warning of the spoiler, casually references Billy's death. I think this knowledge influenced my reading, because I was aware of the ultimate outcome, I read with the purpose of understanding why that came to be....   [tags: Billy Budd Essays]

Research Papers
1210 words (3.5 pages)

Irony in Billy Budd Essays

- Billy Budd is a story filled with irony. This literary aspect can be seen through the plot and characters of the work. As defined in The American Heritage Dictionary, irony is the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. After a casual reading of the story' the many ironic aspects may have been igonred, but after analyzing the story it becomes obvious that they are of great importance. "...The fate of each character is the direct reverse of what one is led to expect from his nature" (Johnson, 185)....   [tags: Billy Budd Essays]

Research Papers
609 words (1.7 pages)

The Poetry of Billy Collins Essay

- The Poetry of Billy Collins In 2001 a new poet laureate was crowned and a new voice; the voice of a poetic everyman was heard by many for the first time. That voice belonged to Billy Collins. Collins was born into a working-class Bronx couple, and grew up in a typical middle-class neighborhood where he went to church on Sundays and listened to jazz music in his free time. This middle-class background and sensibilities are reflected in his poetic style and themes, and in his desire to bring poetry back into the American main stream by making it more accessible to the average reader....   [tags: Billy Collins Poet Poetry Essays]

Research Papers
1640 words (4.7 pages)

Related Searches

(p. 212)


"If Vere uses his rhetoric to manipulate opinion, . . . . he sincerely believes that it is based on an authority outside of himself, an authority that he submits to . . . Emanating from a set of impersonal laws outside the self, rather than from a single, powerful individual, ideology so pervades each person's consciousness that no one seems capable of escaping its constraints.


" . . . a recent legal critic . . . argues that the rule of law has become an effective political weapon because it is able to offer reassurance while it contributes to repression. It reassures by appearing to demonstrate that seemingly unjust actions are actually just because human society follows a legal, rational system of laws. It is repressive because its demonstration depends on the assumption that the legal, rational system of laws governing society is just. This reification of the law keeps people from asking whether seemingly unjust actions may be caused by the very system that the logic of the law justifies." (p. 218)


As I said before, these quotations will speak for themselves, in the context of this whole handout, of course. The lesson in all of this? Melville's brilliant work combined with the splendid work of some of his critics helps us see that although laws are necessary, they can be manipulated in such ways that justice is not always the result, even though the intention of laws is, among other things, to administer justice. The idea is as old as the Bible, which tells us not to judge, lest we be judged, and which also tells us that the letter of the law kills while its spirit gives life. The legal system should make us think and think hard. Understanding all this should also make us better "judges," for the biblical injunction against judging is not a prohibition, but a warning that we shall be judged according to how we ourselves have judged. If we have been just, we have nothing to fear.


[F]or a decision to be just and responsible, it must . . . be both regulated and without regulation: it must conserve the law and also destroy it or suspend it enough to have to reinvent it in each case, rejustify it, at least reinvent it in the reaffirmation and the new and free confirmation of its principle. Each case is other, each decision is different and requires an absolutely unique interpretation, which no existing, coded rule can or ought to guarantee absolutely.

- Derrida, "The Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority,'" in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice

Return to 123HelpMe.com