Billy Budd By Herman Melville Eric Lempel September 30, 1997 There are numerous characters in Billy Budd, but only a few of them have any impact on the story. A common sailor named Claggart is the narrator. The book, however, focuses on Captain Vere, the one-legged commander of the whaling ship Indomitable. Vere has sworn to kill the gigantic whale Billy Budd, who took away his leg. Red Whiskers is the first mate of the Indomitable. The Foretopman, Tashtego, and Daggoo are the three harpooners. The story begins with Claggart becoming restless. He decides to go out to sea on a whaling ship. In the port of New Bedford, he meets and shares a room with a harpooner named The Foretopman. The two of them become close friends, and agree to ship out together. The day after they reach Nantucket, Claggart begins searching for a whaling ship preparing to leave harbor. Out of three ships ready to leave, he chooses the Indomitable. The owners of the ship, Captains Dansker and Bildad are excited to hear of The Foretopman from Claggart and gladly let him join the crew. They are told the captain of the ship is named Vere. Dansker and Bildad say that he is a good man, but because of some strange illness, he is confined to his cabin. On Christmas day, and with Vere still in his cabin, the Indomitable sets sail in the Atlantic. As the weather begins to warm up (several months after leaving port), Vere is finally seen on deck. The strangest thing about Vere is his leg. Instead of flesh and bone, he has a white ivory peg leg. As the weeks wear on, Vere starts to become friendlier. One day, he calls the crew before him. He tells them that the sole mission of the Indomitable is to kill Billy Budd. Billy Budd is a gigantic sperm whale with a crooked jaw and a deformed forehead. He has never been defeated, and has attacked and sunk entire ships. Vere admits he hates Billy Budd for taking his leg away, and wants revenge. The crew agree to this challenge, and swear to hunt him down. The only who is not excited about hunting down Billy Budd is first-mate Red Whiskers. For many months, the Indomitable sails South, through the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa), and into the Indian Ocean. Along the way, they kill and drain the spermaceti oil from every sperm whale they encounter. Each time they meet another ship, Vere begins the conversation with "Hast seen the White Whale?". Finally, after entering the Japanese sea, the Indomitable encounters a whaling ship named the The Rights of Man. The The Rights of Man's captain had just recently lost his arm to Billy Budd. Vere becomes so excited at the news that he breaks his ivory leg. The ship's carpenter builds him a new one out of soap. Once reaching the waters around the equator, the Indomitable meets another whaling ship, the Rachel. They had seen Billy Budd, and had become separated from one of the whaling boats during the battle. Vere refuses to help them look for the missing men. At last, Billy Budd is spotted by Vere. In the first day of fighting, the whale is harpooned many times, but escapes after smashing Vere's boat. On the second day, the whale is harpooned again, but still escapes. On the third day, Vere's harpoon pierces the whale, but the rope catches him by the neck and Billy Budd drags him to the bottom of the sea. An angry Billy Budd rams and sinks the Indomitable. Only Claggart survives, and he is rescued by the Rachel. Billy Budd was not the novel I expected. I was under the impression that it would be about seafaring and the whale Billy Budd. Instead, Billy Budd is a story about Captain Vere's obsession. There is very little in the story about the revenge itself, just about Vere's monomania. Out of 465 pages, only forty-two of them deal with the actual battle between Vere and Billy Budd. The novel places very little emphasis on actual seafaring. Claggart never even steps on a boat until page seventy-four. Even when the ship finally leaves port, the mention of anything involving sailing or the life of sailors is kept to an absolute minimum. There is, however, plenty of emphasis is on whaling, the anatomy of whales, and their behavior. The book goes into great detail describing the whalers of Nantucket, and gives in-depth explanations of the different types of whales, quoting several outside sources in the process. The narrator mentions the awesome size of the sperm whale, and how few books even try to describe it. He also shows great respect for people who go whaling, and describes the camaraderie that forms between them. This is an annoying inconsistency in the novel, since Claggart (the narrator) tells the reader that he has never been on a whaling ship before, and has never seen a live whale. The first twenty-three chapters focus on Claggart's thoughts and actions. He introduces the reader to whaling and describes the Indomitable. After the ship sets sail, he seems to vanish from the story. At certain intervals, however, he plays minor roles, and it is Claggart that survives to tell the story. From chapter twenty-four onward, the novel is almost completely about Vere hunting for Billy Budd. He has the blacksmith construct a special harpoon, made from the finest iron, and soaked in the blood of the three harpooners. The forging of the harpoon is somewhat ironic, since the rope attached to that same harpoon is what drags Vere to the bottom of the sea. Despite Vere's apparent madness, he still seemed able to reason clearly. He carefully and methodically located the region of the sea that Billy Budd is most likely to be in (an almost impossible task, considering the size of the Earth's Oceans). When he first set sail, Vere's original plan was to hunt only Billy Budd and ignore other whales. Once he realizes that his men will abandon him if they do not make some sort of a profit while at sea, he encourages them to hunt other whales and boosts the morale of the crew. Vere is definitely the hero of Billy Budd, but he is a tragic hero. Everyone in the novel who knew Vere prior to losing his leg considered him to be a great man, and one of the finest captains ever. After the loss of his leg during the first battle with Moby Dick, Vere's tragic flaw appeared. He was obsessed. He wanted revenge, and nothing else. Vere considered Billy Budd to be the embodiment of all that is evil. This monomania is what sent the Indomitable halfway around the world to the Pacific Ocean, where Vere (and almost everyone else on the Indomitable) died. Vere becomes focused on his one view of the whale. Vere's preceives the whale as the embodiment of evil. The whale's white color lends an ambiguity to the image of the whale as evil. The great White Whale, Billy Budd, symbolizes many different things. The first thing it represents is Vere's anger. The whale's body is deformed, as is Vere's. The whale is driven by animalistic rage, mirroring the anger in Vere. Vere thinks Billy Budd is a monster, but it is really Vere who has become the monster. The whale serves as a scapegoat for Vere's miserable existence. Another thing Billy Budd can represent an unreachable goal. He is a legendary whale, and the object of a wild and exciting chase through three oceans. And, despite the efforts of the Indomitable, they never defeated him. The whale was a goal that no one could achieve, but people still destroyed themselves trying. One odd thing about the novel is that despite all the pain, death and destruction Billy Budd has caused, I do not consider the whale to be evil or monstrous. In fact, I was almost happy to see the whale turn on his hunters and destroy them. I cannot fully appreciate all the feeling about whales that the novel attempts to create. When Billy Budd was written, whales were thought of as dumb brutes. They were found in large enough numbers that people hunted them endlessly, and never worried about killing them all. Whaling was an admired profession. People needed whale oil for their lamps. Spermaceti oil was used to make perfume and other cosmetics. In today's society, things are radically different. Whales are thought to be just as intelligent--if not more intelligent--than humans. Some scientists believe they have a complex language, something not mentioned in the book at all. Whales are an endangered species, almost hunted to extinction. In fact, many countries have outlawed whaling. Most people consider whaling to be cruel and inhumane. The Japanese are despised worldwide for continuing to hunt them. Television programs portray them in a positive light. Whale are mammals that nurse their young and breathe air, just like human beings. They are not giant fish. Today's children are taught to respect whales, and are taken to aquariums to be educated about them. After the invention of the electric light bulb, whale oil lamps were no longer used. Modern cosmetic products contain no spermaceti oil. Their manufacturers proudly make claims that no animals were harmed while making the cosmetics. The real "dumb brutes" in the novel are not the whales, but the whalers. They are uneducated about the true nature of their prey. In a sense, Billy Budd was simply exacting revenge for the centuries of pain and death mankind has inflicted on whales. In the time of Herman Mellville, man's dominance over nature was idealized. Today, we are taught to respect and preserve our environment. This different frame of reference makes it very difficult to appreciate the symbolism in this novel. The main focus of the novel, however, is on obsession and its destructiveness. One of the most important elements in a great literary work is universality. The main idea of the novel (destructive obsession) is universal, even though the symbolism is not. Billy Budd was clearly a great novel, although it was nothing like what I expected.