Billy Budd Study Guide

Billy Budd Study Guide

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Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville has a complicated story of publishing. After the death of the author, his widow discovered the manuscript of the novel, but it was still a draft. Trying to preserve the last work of her deceased husband, she started to transcript and edit it, but sometimes it was very complicated to choose the right variant from the many drafts and understand which plot turn Melville considered the final one. It was even almost impossible to pick up the right name for the novel. All these complications resulted in the first edition being very poorly composed. Later, lots of the editors worked with the manuscript, presenting their own versions, and Billy Budd, Sailor became the most precise and neat and canonical one.

The story of Billy Budd and his relationships with the crew of the ship is the main plotline of the story. We see Billy as the man of every possible virtue, opposed by his complete antagonist, the man who seemingly possesses everything that Billy is gifted with, but marked with something naturally repulsive that shows his evil nature. Billy has only one physical flaw that his envious enemy, John Claggart, uses against him. The end of the story is very bitter, due to the clash between the harsh laws of wartime and the general sympathy of the whole crew to Billy, who is respected and loved by almost everyone for his innocence, honesty and open-heartedness.

The last chapter adds ambiguity of the story. We’ll never know if it was intended, or Melville just didn’t have enough time to choose which one should close the novel. Still, reading all three versions give us an interesting and unique experience of different storylines and the opposite points of view. It leaves us space to meditate on the real causes of the events on the ship, the reliability of the narrator and the alternative variations that show Billy as not so pure and innocent man.

The novel was greeted very warmly. Despite the fact it was unfinished and revised several times raised a wave of criticism, it was still called a masterpiece, considering that it was never a complete piece of literature.

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