A Deconstructive Reading of Billy Budd
Billy, who cannot understand ambiguity, who takes pleasant words at face value and then obliterates Claggart for suggesting that one could do otherwise, whose sudden blow is a violent denial of any discrepancy between his being and his doing, ends up radically illustrating the very discrepancy he denies.
- Barbara Johnson, p. 86
With Barbara Johnson's splendid Critical Difference we are willy-nilly plunged into deconstruction. At the moment I shall not attempt to explain this radical and highly subversive critical mode, except to say that what you are about to see is an example of it. At the moment you may well ask (being, as ...view middle of the document...
Johnson's first item on the agenda is to put into question Billy's innocence. (Melville himself tells us that "innocence was [Billy's] blinder" 49.) She asks us to consider Billy a kind of "reader" (Johnson calls him a "literal reader" 85). Billy is a "literal reader" in that he seems to take things at face value. He seems to believe, in fact, that things are what they seem to be. If Claggart appears to be nice to Billy (and he does) then Claggart must be nice to Billy (he isn't, of course). Implied in Johnson's argument at this point is the notion that the innocence we all seem to value in Billy is perhaps less than valuable. First of all, though he appears almost prelapsarian, Billy is really postlapsarian all the same. Here is how Melville himself puts the case:
Though our Handsome Sailor had as much of masculine beauty as one can expect anywhere to see, nevertheless, like the beautiful woman in one of Hawthorne's minor tales ["The Birthmark"], 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. Though in the hour of elemental uproar or peril he was everything that a sailor should be, yet under sudden provocation of strong heart-feeling his voice, otherwise singularly musical, as if expressive of the harmony within, was apt to develop an organic hesitancy, in fact more or less of a stutter or even worse. In this particular Billy was a striking instance that the arch interferer, the envious marplot of Eden, still has more or less to do with every human consignment to this planet earth. (17; italics mine)
Johnson is quick to make much of that apparently innocent word "striking" in the quotation above. For that's exactly what Billy does when his "vocal defect" is most evidently operative in the story - that is, when Claggart repeats the false accusation to his face. At this point, to do as much justice to Johnson's argument as possible, we must turn to Claggart himself for a moment. You see, what Johnson claims Claggart questions in Billy is precisely the potential discrepancy between seeming and being. In other words, is Billy what he appears to be - that is, "innocent"? Interestingly enough when Billy apparently accidentally and innocently spills soup in Claggart's path at one point in the story, Claggart says "Handsomely done my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!" (34). Johnson is quick to point out that this invocation of the famous proverb is not an affirmation but a denial of its significance in this case. In other words, Claggart suspects that Billy is not what he seems to be. Claggart, of course, proves himself right (dead right, if you will) concerning Billy. But the matter is not as simple as it appears. Nevertheless, as Johnson points out, Claggart's view of Billy is perfectly reasonable. When Billy is impressed into the man-of-war, when he is taken from a merchant marine named "The Rights of Man," he says goodbye to the...