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[Location:Literature/ Topic: The Artist and Alienation /Sub-Topic: “Drowne’s Wooden Image”/Introductory Page

Echoes of Hawthorne in Melville's Billy Budd

by Dr. John W. Stuart
Manchester-Essex Regional High School, Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA

Dr. John W. Stuart, Chair, Department of English, Manchester-Essex Regional High School, Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA
Dr. John W. Stuart, Chair, Department of English, Manchester-Essex Regional High School, Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA (courtesy of Dr. John W. Stuart)
Melville's novelette Billy Budd connects with Hawthorne in several respects: I.) an allusion to Hawthorne's short story "The Birthmark"; II.) tensions of same sex relationships that mirror situations in both the real lives and fictional narratives of Hawthorne and Melville; and III.) a preoccupation with the nature of evil, an ongoing subject of fascination for both authors.

I. "The Birthmark"

The reference to "The Birthmark" appears in Billy Budd's second chapter:

Though our Handsome Sailor has as much of masculine beauty as one can expect anywhere to see; nevertheless, like the beautiful woman in one of Hawthorne's minor tales, there was just one thing amiss in him. No visible blemish indeed, as with the lady; no, but an occasional liability to a vocal defect.
Written well over two decades after Hawthorne's death, the allusion reflects the reverence for Hawthorne that Melville exhibits in his review of Mosses from an Old Manse and his Hawthorne-dedicated masterpiece Moby-Dick. The "minor tale" to which Melville refers, "The Birthmark," is itself a part of Mosses from an Old Manse.

"The Birthmark" prefigures Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter as well as Melville's Billy Budd. Instead of a guilt-induced red letter "A" or a stress-induced inability to speak, the "defect" in the short story is a small handprint-like redness in newlywed Georgiana's left cheek. Otherwise flawless in beauty, Georgiana, at first with sad reluctance but ultimately with manic urgency, agrees with her Chillingworth-like husband Aylmer's determination to employ his vast scientific knowledge in ridding her of the birthmark. In a dream, Aylmer imagines the birthmark to extend inwardly to Georgiana's heart, a remarkable parallel with one of the theories that Hawthorne suggests for the scarlet letter that mysteriously appears on Arthur Dimmesdale's chest.

To Aylmer, Georgiana's birthmark represents

the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain. . . . the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death. . . . what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work!

When Aylmer's efforts succeed in removing the birthmark but, in the process, bring about Georgiana's death, his troll-like assistant Aminadab's laughter accompanies the conclusion,

Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completedness of a higher state.

Georgiana and Billy Budd possess more resemblances than a single physical defect. Both of them embody innocence but suffer from the manipulations of others, a combination that ultimately leads to Georgiana's and Billy's destruction. Their experiences are emblems of the Fall of Man, she an Eve found wanting, he an Adam subject to the "mesmeristic glance . . . of serpent fascination" from his destroyer Claggart, one whose corpse Melville likens to "a dead snake." In foreshadowing Claggart's effect upon Billy, Melville notes

Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.

Although neither Hawthorne nor Melville fully subscribed to Calvinistic doctrines, their explorations of human nature and its original sin-like components led them to show evil as inescapable by even the best of people. The respective failures of hubris-deluded Aylmer and Billy's pedantic Captain Vere in saving Georgiana and Billy serve as additional indictments of humanity's inherent limitations and as further proofs of the necessity of redemption. Melville parallels Billy with the sacrificed only sons Isaac and Jesus and describes Billy's Christlike look, when he is falsely accused by Claggart of involvement in a mutiny, as "an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold." The author also notes that "a chip" of the mast upon which Billy is subsequently hanged is "as a piece of the Cross," and the image of his execution is vividly paralleled with the Ascension:

At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of up-turned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.

In addition to the allegorical qualities in regard to the Fall of Man, which "The Birthmark" shares with Billy Budd, therefore, the novelette also presents its title character as a Christ figure. Both narratives explore forms of the tragic flaw of hubris, but there are no "conventional" heroes in either work, as Melville explicitly notes about Billy in regard to his "imperfection." Billy Budd possesses richer characterization than does "The Birthmark," as one would expect in a lengthier work; but the major characters of both pieces primarily symbolize aspects of human nature which both authors examine.

II. Same Sex Relationships

Same sex relationships in the all male environment of Billy Budd's British as well as Herman Melville's American ships are understood. As former First Lord of the Admiralty, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once witheringly quipped, British naval tradition might well be equated with sodomy. Although Billy Budd lacks the "marriage" rites of Moby-Dick's Ishmael and Queequeg, it contains endearments for "Handsome Sailor" Billy that leave little doubt as to many of his mates' ardent feelings toward him. The old Dansker on the British warship originates "Baby Budd," also shortened to "Baby," in reference to Billy, "the name by which the foretopman eventually became known aboard ship." Readers also hear "one Donald" addressing Billy as "Beauty."

Captain Graveling of Billy's first ship The Rights of Man notes of his crew's feelings for Billy that "they all love him," and Captain Vere muses upon the asset that the impressed Billy brings to H.M.S. Bellipotent as "a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might well have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall." Arch diction indeed from Melville, for whom "genus homo" might well serve as a subtitle for the early between-the-lines gay manifesto that Billy Budd constitutes! But if the novelette subtly promotes liberated sexuality, as do a number of Melville's narratives, it primarily does so indirectly by means of demonstrating negative consequences of traditional, repressive Western culture.

Billy's pathological enemy, Master at Arms John Claggart, initially resents the young sailor precisely because of "his significant personal beauty." Claggart's recognition of Billy's innocence as well

but intensified his passion . . . . Yet in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it.

Claggart, in other words, like the Handsome Sailor's many admirers, finds Billy attractive; but, since he believes that, for some unspecified reason, perhaps a result of paranoia, no closeness can ever exist between the two of them, the more desirable that Claggart perceives Billy, the more he hates him.

In surveying Billy, "sometimes [Claggart's] melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if [he] could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban." Evidently, Claggart has not fully disguised his private appreciation of Billy; but, because he believes something forbids any future for such feelings, he hardens his heart more and more fiercely toward the object of his desire. What "fate" and what "ban" does his misguided imagination perceive? Do their roles on the ship or elsewhere in society somehow doom any intimacy between them? Or does Claggart just presume Billy could never reciprocate his feelings? Might the Master at Arms simply despise sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular and, as a result, find himself driven all the more mad by his uncontrollable "yearning"? Whatever the accurate diagnosis, it is clear that Claggart distorts any positive feelings he possesses for Billy into negative ones with terrible consequences.

Claggart's repressed, closeted attraction to Billy finds parallels with some interpretations of Hawthorne's evident spurning of Melville's too intimate attentions and Hawthorne's character in The Blithedale Romance Coverdale's similar rejection of the invitation from Holingsworth to be his "friend of friends, forever." For Melville, Hawthorne's Arthur Dimmesdale's agonizing acknowledgement of adultery must have seemed a stunning parallel with what later generations would term "coming out of the closet." Whether Hawthorne himself were a closeted gay man, it is clear that Melville was relatively open in his affections for the senior author and that those affections were somehow turned away and seem to have left a wound that never fully healed. The evils of the closet constitute a subtext in Billy Budd that may well have brought to its author's mind the sad sundering of his closeness with Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Billy Budd provides an implicit indictment of the culture, whether military or civil, that encourages the kind of closet where a Claggart so readily succumbs to his "depravity according to nature." Captain Vere likewise shows a closed, perhaps also "closeted" mind as ready prey for the phenomenon of evil. In Vere's presence, as Billy is struck dumb by Claggart's accusation, Claggart is struck dead by a single blow from Billy's fist, the only response he can muster to defend himself. Although Vere cherishes Billy as "an angel of God" and knows him to be innocent of Claggart's charges, he resists any bending of rules to protect him against the harshest of consequences for his act of insubordination. Ruthlessly silencing the dictates of his heart, "sometimes the feminine in man," Vere effects what Claggart's malice alone could not -- Billy's total destruction.

Although British naval mutineers as well as criminals ashore are explicitly shown in Billy Budd's early chapters to have received forms of amnesty that ultimately contributed to the saving of the nation, Vere offers no such amnesty to Billy Budd. Claggart himself is rumored to have entered the service as an alternative to imprisonment, the navy's need for manpower leading to frequent waivers of usual punishments; but Billy Budd receives no alternatives, no waivers. At Nelson's triumphant Trafalgar, the thwarting of Napoleon's invasion plans meant a "plenary absolution" for all the former offenders who had contributed to the victory. Billy, however, a "peacemaker," neither a mutineer nor a criminal, makes a single misstep in retaliation against a known liar who seeks to manipulate the system to destroy him, and how is Billy to be absolved? Vere's "vehemently exclaimed" answer: "the angel must hang!"

Billy is first the victim of Claggart's closet, one with similarities to the Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover kinds that project self-loathing onto their targets. Vere's condition, on the other hand, while containing degrees of benevolence, ultimately emerges as more deadly than Claggart's. Associating his heart with his hated feminine side, Vere crushes down his capacity for love and compassion with a thoroughly brutal, Night-of-the-Long-Knives sort of intolerance. He, who would never have initiated Billy's demise, will not permit his own ardor to soften his inflexible judgment, as that would evidently equate with irresolution and weakness. After all, he might rationalize, he is the Captain and the Captain has an image to uphold - right? Forget justice; forget humane treatment; maintaining machismo holds precedence over all! And the tragic result: mindless, meaningless, totally unnecessary suffering and loss on the altar of nothing less than evil itself!

III. The Nature of Evil

In studying the subject of evil, Hawthorne and Melville created the irredeemable villains Roger Chillingworth and John Claggart. Both characters are gifted intellectually; both connive cruelly to destroy their victims. Chillingworth, motivated by revenge, suffers a mania to be sure; but Claggart, motivated by "no vulgar form of" envy, is certainly the more deranged of the two.

The victims of Chillingworth and Claggart, Arthur Dimmesdale and Billy Budd, are centers of attention in their respective settings, both men notably attractive. Dimmesdale matches his oppressor intellectually; but Billy, illiterate and painfully naďve, proves himself a sitting duck for Claggart's schemes. Dimmesdale both promotes and suffers from Puritan fundamentalist brainwashing, but Billy represents the free spirit of a virtual "noble savage."

Dimmesdale suffers most from the guilt he bears as a hypocrite and an adulterer; Billy, on the other hand, personifies innocence. Both men die as a result, at least in part, of their persecutors' actions; and both of them speak noble last words and leave sizable populations of admirers.

Hawthorne and Melville examine evil victimizers and their tormented victims in other characterizations as well. There are, for example, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon in Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, whose unbridled materialism and attendant cruelties subject his effete cousin Clifford to helpless and totally unjustified incarceration; and Melville's monomaniac Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, whose usurpation of the Pequod for his own mad purposes ultimately destroys all but one of the men on board.

Those who view Ahab as a sympathetic, even somewhat heroic character struggling with his grim fate may entirely miss the darkness that he shares with Claggart. Ahab, Melville's destructive Ancient Mariner whose albatross is a white whale, suffers, as does Claggart, from a form of mental illness. The evil that they work, therefore, traces at least partly to pathological causes. Ahab, in fact, exhibits very few acts of sane humanity during the voyage of the Pequod, perhaps the most notable one being his offer of the protection of his cabin to young Pip, who, as a striking foil for the Captain, has also been scared out of his wits by a mishap at sea.

Some assert that Billy Budd, by contrast with Moby-Dick, represents Melville's ultimate acceptance of the inevitable role of evil in people's lives, but such an observation may fail to take into account the sense of outrage at injustice that characterizes both narratives' conclusions. Yes, Melville certainly recognizes the wanton destruction of life in both of these works as examples of inescapable evil, but readers should recognize as well that he does not permit such "noble savages" as Queequeg, Pip, and Billy to "go gentle into that good night," without his own implicit raging "against the dying of the light."

For both Melville and Hawthorne, evil is both inherent in mankind but paradoxically unnatural at the same time. Vere, for example, when addressing the drumhead court convened for Billy's case, essentially invites cruelty and injustice to reign supreme when he openly opposes Nature by saying,

How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so? - Does that state it aright? You sign sad assent. Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature. But do these buttons we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature. No, to the King.

And so Vere willingly violates what he admittedly feels "Nature" dictates, and in doing so he bites into an evil apple indeed.

How appropriate that Melville alludes to Hawthorne's "The Birthmark" in Billy Budd! The mark upon all people from birth that both authors recognize is what Hawthorne so succinctly calls the "fatal flaw of humanity." Its association with "sin, sorrow, decay, and death" connects it with the concept of evil as well. Clearly, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne treated this dark side of the human condition in ways that have continued to resonate richly down through the generations that have succeeded them.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12059/

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