It was in another class of mine (called: Race, Class, and Gender across the Transatlantic Nineteenth Century) where I came across the novella Billy Budd; Sailor; another piece written by Herman Melville. Originally I was going to write my paper on Moby Dick, but as I continued reading this text, I came to find parallels more easily with the thesis I intended to prove (and later modify).
In this other class of mine, we were using the novella to understand how sympathy worked (in a 19th century context) and to focus on the political structures and critiques of the aftermath surrounding the French Revolution within the novel, but I couldn’t navigate past the heavy-handed emphasis on gender roles throughout the novella. Once reading the piece I chose for my close reading, perhaps you’ll see why:
“…The moral nature was seldom out of keeping with the physical make. Indeed, except as toned by the former, the comeliness and power, always attractive in masculine conjunction, hardly could have drawn the sort of honest homage the Handsome Sailor in some examples received from his less gifted associates…” (Melville pg 280 from Selected Tales from Oxford World’s Classics).
Now, to provide a short bit of context, this is from the very beginning of the novel, shortly after the initial description of the Handsome Sailor type. In the novel, the Handsome Sailor is identified as one who is valued not only for their good looks, but also for their physical capabilities and moral compass. They are all inextricably linked, and it is these things combined which seem to constitute/define masculinity amongst this sea-faring community. The working thesis I am currently going with is this: Masculinity in Melville’s Billy Budd is conflated with physical appearance and capability throughout the novella, an serves to measure each character’s worth.
This is not the first time I’ve looked at this particular bit of text; it mystifies me how the language almost borders on homoerotic in the description of the type which is maintained and recognized throughout the novel. Please tell me how one might preoccupy themselves with notions of revolutionary change when all they can visualize are buff, strapping sailors looping arms and pulling long, heavy ropes… I can’t. Thusly, I decided to reorient my focus from Moby Dick to Billy Budd.
Now, the novella primarily focuses on political structures throughout, providing metaphors for the militaristic, and more free-natured societies one might live in; Billy’s purpose in the novella is to exemplify how one might fare in either environment. However, more than anything else, I see this as a search for identity, as Billy’s appearance, make, etc. are used throughout the story to define him. While he is adored by many aboard either of the ships he is a member of, this is still binding and constraining on him as a character, as his title as the Handsome Sailor is always in the foreground and leaves no room for Billy’s personal identity. Gender roles (if it can be properly called that, as there are no women throughout the story) have a chokehold on Billy–as well as the other characters aboard these ships. Hopefully, I will come to tackle this as well in my final paper.
The constant emphasis on what makes Billy a man (as well as the other characters we see here) is what I find worthy of study. I ask myself why Melville chooses to put such his male characters in such a position where they must be constantly proving themselves. How might the novella play out if Billy let his title of Handsome Sailor slide throughout the novel; it is this attribute of his that makes him appealing to the crew around him, and determines his fate?
If any of you guys have suggestions, questions or comments, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below.