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Points to Ponder

The Bible is one of Melville's biggest influences. Billy Budd is filled with direct or indirect references to the Bible. In fact, Billy Budd seems to be a retelling of the story of Man's fall. Billy is Adam before the fall. Claggart represents Satan and the corrupting influences of civilization. The sea represents a kind of Eden, a place where civilization has not really staked its claim and the sailors seem more innocent than their land-dwelling counterparts. Do you think that it works, or are there problems with this allegory? Does your opinion change when you discover that the God of the Bible is replaced in this story by Mars, the God of War?

Why does Melville keep certain details of the story from us? After giving us a thorough description of Billy Budd and Captain Vere, Melville says that he can't fully describe John Claggart's history. Also, after the trial when Captain Vere enters the stateroom to inform Billy Budd of the verdict, Melville says that he doesn't know what they actually said to each other. Does he use this storytelling technique to make it appear more realistic (as if these two facts have not been recorded in history) or is it because Melville can't decide exactly what he wants to write? After all, Billy Budd is a work of fiction. Melville can write anything he wants to about Claggart's character or what Vere said to Billy in the stateroom, and we would have to accept it. What do you make of the newspaper article in Chapter 29? If the article is real (it's not), how did Melville know the "true" story of the events?

Do you feel that this story could have been told in ten pages instead of a hundred? Melville doesn't seem to be able to make up his mind whether he writes too much or too little. In Chapter 4, he apologizes to the reader for the various digressions, which seemingly seem irrelevant to the basic plot, and he calls them literary "sins." Later on in Chapter 23, Melville writes that the events he described over the past few chapters really took just an hour and a half. To the reader it seems like the events should have taken a day or more, but Melville actually claims that he should have written about them in greater detail. How does the issue of length of narration relate to the characters in the story? Which characters speak too much or too little? Claggart and Captain Vere are given to talking too much about matters that don't seem important. On the other hand, Billy Budd and the Dansker say too few words when they are asked to say more. Why do you think Melville made his characters the opposite extremes in this trait?

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3 and 4
Chapter 5 and 6
Chapter 7 and 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10 and 11
Chapter 12 and 13
Chapter 14 and 15
Chapter 16 and 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19 and 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22 and 23
Chapter 24 and 25
Chapter 26 and 27
Chapter 28, 29, and 30


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