I am thirty two years old, and I read frequently and widely. For some reason, however, I have managed to miss reading any of the works of Herman Melville. Billy Budd had been sitting on my shelf for months, and I finally decided to read it. As is often the case with classic works of literature, I had some trepidation when I started it, wondering if the prose and 19th century mannerisms and issues would be too dense for me to penetrate. However, at around eighty pages, the investment in reading this is much less than it would be reading, say, Moby Dick.
There are many places you can read about the symbolism and criticism and meaning and political and psychological and psychosexual implications of Billy Budd. For a book under a hundred pages, it has certainly generated much theorizing. And I think I knew at least at second hand that this was a momentous work of genius, which is perhaps one of the reasons why I avoided it for so long.
But while there is a lot of symbolism in the work, and it can be interpreted many different ways, it is also, on the surface, a fairly simple drama. There are only three real characters, and the relationship between them that sets the drama in motion is clearly delineated. First, there is Billy Budd, a skillful, attractive and likable sailor. There is John Claggart, a petty officer tasked with keeping the ship's discipline. And there is the Captain, Edward "Starry" Vere, an educated and thoughtful man who is conflicted about what is the right thing to do.
For no clear reason, Claggart dislikes Budd, and attempts to frame him as involved in mutiny. The Captain, seeing through Claggart, has him confront Budd directly. Budd is so shocked and enraged that he lashes out, striking Claggart with a blow that brings about his death. The Captain holds a quick military tribune for Budd, and he is found guilty and sentenced to death. Although the prose is somewhat ornate, the characters and the situation they find themselves in are described clearly.
Of course, once that basic level is attained, there are so many ways to interpret what is really happening, and why. Is Claggart's resentment towards Budd about repressed homosexuality? Is the book a religious allegory? Is Captain Vere a righteous man who is forced by duty into condemning Budd to die, or is he a callous man more in touch with his own ideas than the world around him? Is the book a commentary on slavery, militarism or the conflict between conscience and social norms? Inside of the eighty pages and the simple plot, there are many threads to be pulled out if the reader so desires.
But the reader doesn't have to go into this work with an annotated dictionary of symbolism and a treatise on transcendentalism to read this book. Read it for the dramatic, well-told story first, and then try to figure out what it all means.