Free Billy Budd Essays: A Structuralist Reading

Free Billy Budd Essays: A Structuralist Reading

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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. In other words, he cannot be accused of reading-into! Well, how does Dryden denormalize (as it were) the reading above? Rather simply even if rather spectacularly. Here's as brief a version of Dryden's argument as I can possibly give you: Captain Vere's argument is very formally ordered and highly symmetrical. Furthermore, it is in keeping with this compassionate and wise man's philosophy according to which (as Melville's text tells us) "with mankind forms, . . . measured forms are everything" (84). Interestingly enough, Dryden points out, the published report concerning the whole Budd affair at the end of the story, which is taken from a "naval chronicle of the time," and which thus represents an "authorized" version of the whole affair (85), is also formally ordered and highly symmetrical. The trouble is that this "authorized" account is totally false. According to this version Billy Budd was evil while John Claggart was good, etc. Perhaps, Dryden argues, we may find something in Melville's text that would confirm a suspicion we may already be entertaining - namely, that formally ordered and highly symmetrical arguments may themselves be suspicious. Dryden finds the text in question very close to the one where Captain Vere makes his claim about "measured forms." It reads as follows: "The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact. TRUTH UNCOMPROMISINGLY TOLD WILL ALWAYS HAVE ITS RAGGED EDGES" (84; capitals mine).


In contradistinction to Captain Vere's argument or the naval chronicle's "authorized" version, then, Dryden asks us to examine Melville's own way of telling his story. Is it formally ordered and highly symmetrical?

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No, in thunder! In fact, it is full of inconsistencies, digressions, inexplicably strange passages and events, and it even has several endings, as if Melville couldn't quite get himself around to finishing the story at all. The clear implication is that Captain Vere's articulate discourse, formally ordered and measured as it is, is little more than "fiction" or "fable" (the same applies to the "authorized" version in the naval chronicle), in other words, it is the "truth" Vere/y compromisingly told. Are you beginning to see Captain Vere as Melville's target by now? Are you getting something like the high heebie-jeebies? You should. Why? Well, because if Dryden is right (and, of course, he is) then Captain Vere is a good/evil man, which is absolutely frightening. For one thing, there's textual evidence (and Dryden is quick to point to it, too) in Melville's story that would indicate that Captain Vere acts the way in which he acts with respect to the whole Budd affair to protect his career as much as to administer justice (once you are cognizant of this, it is easy to re-read that long passage quoted above and see this issue writ large within the same text).


Not, mind you, that Captain Vere is anything but compassionate and wise. That's precisely what makes him so frightening. Like all figures of authority who have power, he administers justice in the name of the institution that has empowered him in the first place. Everything he says makes sense. And the justice he administers seems (at least superficially) also just. Yet though he is legally right, he is morally wrong. He acts according to the spirit of the letter, which means that he willy-nilly betrays, in a sense, both the spirit and the letter. But Dryden's argument is even more radical and subversive than that. He says "that the 'Athée' [the name of an enemy - that is, French ship - suggesting "godlessness"], nominal symbol of the formless world which Vere fears and despises, is at the same time a perfect representative of the orderly martial world which Vere himself commands [which] suggests that chaos may in fact lurk within the forms themselves" (212; italics mine).

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