Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
E. Victor Bobb
The traditional approaches to Herman Melville's Billy Budd focus upon the question of whether or not the story was Melville's final statement of acceptance or irony. Both arguments are sociological in nature in that the different sides argue that Melville either finally accepts or continues to reject by irony, the forms of society. The acceptance critics contend that Melville ends by seeing value in the forms because of their use for maintaining order in society; the irony critics claim that Melville was taking a final satirical poke at society's limiting forms and authority.
My thesis differs from these traditional arguments because I treat the story and the actions of Captain Vere ontologically rather than sociologically. Using Paul Tillich's description of man found in The Courage To Be, I interpret Vere according to Tillich's three types of ontological anxiety. According to Tillich, all men suffer from the three types of anxiety due to a lack of an ultimate concern, though men find concerns that they take to be ultimate in spite of the fact that they are not. I argue in my thesis that Vere is a perfect example of a man who suddenly experiences ontological anxiety when he loses his spiritual center which is dependent upon a concern which is not ultimate. Vere, being a representative of 18th century, aristocratic society, places great faith in the order of the world. He manages to protect himself against threats to his faith until the "innocent" Billy suddenly kills the "evil" Claggart. The actions of Billy and the death of Claggart shock Vere's faith and his spiritual center, and his actions which follow, including the drum-head court and the hanging of Billy, fit neatly the description of a man suffering from ontological anxiety.
By using Tillich to interpret Billy Budd, I believe that the story is made artistically better because the reader is better able to understand Vere's situation because his experience is existential, i.e., the experience of anxiety is one which we all face due to the fact that we all participate in being. Also, by using this interpretation, the story becomes a tribute to the insight of Melville and his ability to understand and to write about man's state of being.
Gress, Michael E., "Herman Melville and Paul Tillich: An Ontological Interpretation of Billy Budd" (1980). Masters Theses. 3083.
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