Close Reading American Literature

Drowning in Testosterone: Examining Budd

Taken by me, and the edition from which I found my text for the close reading.

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.


5 thoughts on “Drowning in Testosterone: Examining Budd

  1. I’ve never read this book, Billy Budd, that you mention but knowing what I know of Melville through Moby Dick, it seems like his fixation on masculinity as the determinant for that character’s worth, interest, attractiveness, importance, is a common thing in his narratives. Not trying to be rude but what is your argument? Do you want to prove that Melville equates masculinity with value? You want to talk to about his emphasis on what makes the character of Billy a man but are you trying to prove this emphasis exists or do you want to psychoanalyze Melville himself? Or do you want to look at the gender roles at the time this book was published and where this book fits in or doesn’t fit in? It’s just that your working thesis sounds like you’re trying to prove something that is already obvious (again sorry if this is rude, and I’ve never read the book so what do I know?), that Billy is the Handsome Sailor and that the crew finds hims attractive are facts and seem to be directly related to his masculinity so what is the argument? Maybe you could use the fact that w/o women present in the novel, there still exist gender roles that, instead of using women as comparison, have their own comparisons and ranks among just men. Is Melville saying overt masculism is a good or bad thing? Maybe you can argue that Melville is raising a point that the fate of men is determined by their masculinity?? I really don’t know much about this book but was it unpopular like Moby Dick was unpopular at the time? Are there other critiques of masculinity in this novel that you can use to bounce off of?

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  2. I am glad that one out of the three of us who are together in both the Transatlantic Studies class and this class would end up using Billy Budd in discussing Melville’s Moby Dick. In reading both of Melville’s text, I also noted the strong emphasis on the homosocial community of sailors. I don’t want you to change the focus of your paper, but one idea I had regarding both pieces was comparing the similarities between Moby Dick, the animal that causes fear and wreaks havoc in the lives of the shipmates, and John Claggart, the man that despises Billy Budd and takes actions to kill the innocent man. As you mentioned, there is a prevalent homoeroticism portrayed in Melville’s Billy Budd, and you could easily compare that to the same pattern it shares with Moby Dick. I really like your thesis, however I think you need to incorporate some aspect of the text we discussed in Christina’s class, in this case Moby Dick.

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