Billy Budd

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Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
The Present vs. the Past Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Billy Budd, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon

The clash between false rumor and truth is central to the plot of Billy Budd. The story turns on the false rumors that Claggart makes up and reports to Captain Vere, while Vere must decide between the truthfulness of Claggart's and Billy's stories. The distinction between truth and rumor is thus a matter of life or death for both Claggart and Billy. Moreover, the very story of Billy's tragic death is caught between these two categories. The naval chronicle that reports his death has authority and supposedly preserves the truth of the situation for posterity. However, the reader knows that the naval chronicle, which relates Claggart's version of the story, actually ends up reporting nothing more than a false rumor. By contrast, the sailors' ballad about Billy Budd, which sympathetically describes his final moments, can be seen as closer to the truth, even though such seafaring songs are usually less truthful and trustworthy than media like the naval chronicle.

Even Melville's story itself plays with this tension between true and false stories. The narrator constantly draws attention to himself as telling the story, referring to himself with personal pronouns and addressing the reader directly. He calls attention to his frequent digressions from the main narrative of his story, as well as to his ability to fabricate and make things up. He says it would be easy, for example, to make up an incident explaining the malice Claggart had toward Billy Budd, though there was no such incident. In these moments, the narrator insists on his trustworthiness, but this actually has the effect of making the reader skeptical and more aware of the narrator's ability to stray from the truth throughout the tale. Moreover, he acknowledges the limits of his knowledge as a narrator, when he admits that he can only imagine how Captain Vere informed Billy of his death sentence. The entire story of Billy Budd thus comes to resemble the other stories told within it. Like other sailors' yarns, it hangs somewhere in the border between rumor and truth.

Further, the narrator asserts a number of times that his tale of Billy Budd is a true story, an actual event. This assertion has the affect of separating the narrator from Melville, the author. Melville wrote Billy Budd, a fiction. But the narrator is telling a true story about a man named Billy Budd. The narrator, then, is a part of the world created by Melville, and the narrator exists at the same level as Billy, Claggart, Vere, and all the other characters. The narrator, then, is just as fallible as those other characters. And just as people may disagree about what happened even though they witnessed the same events, the narrator's story of Billy Budd should be seen not necessarily as the version of what happened, but as a version.

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Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Quotes in Billy Budd

Below you will find the important quotes in Billy Budd related to the theme of Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth.
Chapter 8 Quotes

Such sanctioned irregularities...lend color to something for the truth whereof I do not vouch, and hence have some scruple in stating; something I remember having seen in print, though the book I cannot recall... In the case of a warship short of hands whose speedy sailing was imperative, the deficient quota, in lack of any other way of making it good, would be eked out by drafts culled directly from the jails.

Page Number: 315
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has introduced John Claggart and described his intelligent-seeming yet strangely pale appearance. The narrator notes that the way in which John joined the crew of the Indomitable is unknown, and in this passage mentions a rumor that some warships without enough sailors would recruit men "directly from the jails." The narrator's words emphasize the theme of storytelling, rumor, and the slippery nature of the truth. He says he remembers seeing this rumor "in print, though the book I cannot recall...". Such a statement highlights the unreliability of human memory and the ease with which false statements can be given the illusion of authority. After all, even if the narrator did see this story in a book, the author of the book could also have been lying about or misremembering the truth. Furthermore, this calls into the question the narrator's reliability, particularly as he claims (in other cases) to be presenting pure fact.

The rumor itself also increases the sinister impression of Claggart, while pointing to an important paradox in the way that society treats prisoners versus men serving in the military. Prisoners are people deemed harmful to society, whose crimes theoretically warrant them being locked up. Meanwhile, military men are supposed to represent upstanding, honorable citizens who possess the skills and temperament necessary to defend the country. However, if the rumor the narrator mentions is true, there are some contexts in which prisoners are thought capable of serving in the military, a fact that suggests that in both cases, men are simply used as "pawns" by leaders in order to increase the power of the Empire. 


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But the less credence was to be given to the gun-deck talk touching Claggart, seeing that no man holding his office in a man-of-war can ever hope to be popular with the crew.

Related Characters: John Claggart
Page Number: 316
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has mentioned a rumor that some men are recruited to join ships directly from jail, and added that some people say this is true of John Claggart. However, the narrator dismisses this as unfounded conjecture that probably originated because the nature of Claggart's position inherently makes him unpopular with the crew. This statement raises sympathy for Claggart, as it suggests that nothing he could do would make the sailors he supervises like him. At the same time, it indicates the fundamental problem of the hierarchical structure of authority aboard the ship. In one sense, it is possible to view the ship as a microcosm of society as a whole, with struggles between different ranks reflecting tensions between the ruling and working classes of the general population. 

Chapter 14 Quotes

But the incident confirmed to him certain telltale reports purveyed to his ear by "Squeak," one of his more cunning corporals... the corporal, having naturally enough concluded that his master could have no love for the sailor, made it his business, faithful understrapper that he was, to foment the ill blood by perverting to his chief certain innocent frolics of the good-natured foretopman, besides inventing for his mouth sundry contumelious epithets he claimed to have overheard him let fall.

Related Characters: Billy Budd, John Claggart, Squeak
Page Number: 329
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator observes that powerful feelings can be evoked by completely ordinary incidents, as is the case with Claggart's anger at the spilled soup. The narrator adds that Claggart may believe that Billy spilled the soup as a deliberate affront to Claggart; this suspicion could have resulted from rumors created by a corporal named Squeak, who tells Claggart lies insinuating that Billy doesn't like him. Once again, the narrator illustrates the complex web of hierarchical power that connects all the men onboard the ship, and shows that this hierarchy creates feelings of jealousy, suspicion and resentment between the men.

This passage is also a compelling lesson in the danger of rumor. While Squeak views himself as "faithful," and his actions merely as the perversion of "innocent frolics," the lies he tells about Billy inadvertently lead to both Billy and Claggart's deaths. The name "Squeak" alludes to this sense of whimsical harmlessness, as well as the notion that Squeak is both mischievous and subservient, like a little mouse. "Squeak" could also represent the lies that Squeak tells, which he perceives to be inconsequential but which lead to devastating consequences. 

Chapter 19 Quotes

The same, your honor; but, for all his youth and good looks, a deep one. Not for nothing does he insinuate himself into the good will of his shipmates, since at the least all hands will at a pinch say a good word for him at all hazards. ...It is even masked by that sort of good-humored air that at heart he resents his impressment. You have but noted his fair cheek. A man trap may be under his ruddy-tipped daisies.

Related Characters: John Claggart (speaker), Billy Budd
Page Number: 344
Explanation and Analysis:

Claggart has gone to Captain Vere to tell him he is suspicious that a mutiny is being planned, led by Billy Budd. This rumor is false, and at first Captain Vere reacts incredulously; he doesn't believe Billy could be capable of such a deed, considering his kind, appealing manner. In this passage, Claggart agrees about Billy's "youth and good looks," but suggests that his outward appearance might be concealing internal resentment at having been conscripted onto the Indomitable. Note the cunning way in which Claggart manages to persuade Captain Vere that Billy is duplicitous. Rather than denying the assertion that Billy is handsome, Claggart agrees, but proposes that this in itself is suspicious. 

Indeed, this idea that beauty is inherently suspicious or deceitful has a long history in Western culture, although it has been much more commonly used to discredit women. This idea is particularly relevant in the context of the sea, as one of its most famous manifestations is in the figure of the siren, a supernaturally attractive woman (in some interpretations) who would lure sailors to their deaths through the beauty of her singing. Although Claggart is not accusing Billy of being a siren, he is suggesting that Billy has committed a very similar crime––luring sailors into self-sabotage through his handsome appearance. This point is emphasized by Claggart's claim that "a man trap may be under his ruddy-tipped daisies." 

Chapter 29 Quotes

The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact. Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial.

Page Number: 380
Explanation and Analysis:

The story of Billy Budd has come to an end with Billy's execution and burial at sea. The narrator announces that it is impossible to achieve "the symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction" when relating stories from real life. He confesses that there is no neat conclusion to the narrative, and that "truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges." This passage is an example of metafiction, in which the novel draws attention to itself as a novel (although it does so through the narrator's insistence that the story of Billy Budd is true). By claiming that Billy's story has no clear conclusion, the narrator emphasizes the ambiguity and complexity of the tale.

Meanwhile, the narrator's words also clarify the realist nature of the novel. This is also somewhat paradoxical, as the story contains many mystical elements, as well as strong religious overtones and a reliance on character "types" (such as the handsome sailor) that are more suited to a genre such as a fable than a realist novel. Despite toying with these tropes, however, the narrator's emphatic statement that Billy's story is true suggests that the moral problems raised by the narrative are akin to those found in real life, and should be treated seriously as a result.