Monday, March 27, 2006

"Billy Budd" - Herman Melville

What an odd and moving little story this is. "Billy Budd" is about a merchant sailor impressed into service on the HMS Bellipotent during the Wars of the French Revolution. He is described as being so beautiful he would be able to pose for a statue of Adam prior to the Fall and the sort of man to whom all other men willingly turn their attention and devotion. He is so good natured he bears no ill will towards the naval vessel's officers when he's forced off his comfortable merchant ship and forced into his new service.

For reasons specifically unknown (though what they might be are discussed at length by the narrator), the Master at Arms of the ship decides to destroy young Billy. Over the space of a few pages their conflict comes to a head and is resolved. The intensity and suddeness of that resolution is downright disturbing.

The followup to that conflict takes up the greatest portion of the tale and that's where Melville's greatest questions are put to the reader. I don't want to go into much detail about them because I want you to go read the story if you haven't. It's one of those books you always hear called a classic but don't know of anyone who's actually read the thing.

I will say that the questions involve duty and order in opposition to mercy and benevolence. As a younger man I would have sided with the latter but in my aged state (heh) I find myself on the side of the former and authority. It's an interesting observation I'm able to make of myself and not one I can see myself always being satisfied with.

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