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Literature / Billy Budd

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Herman Melville, in the last years of his life, wrote a sad tale about the Handsome Sailor. Published posthumously in 1924, it also inspired a movie (directed by Peter Ustinov), as well as an opera by Benjamin Britten.

And it's full of tropes.

This work provides examples of:

  • A Father to His Men: Vere.
  • Angrish: Budd is very prone to stammer under stress, and that is why he cannot defend himself in front of Captain Vere. He resorts to violence instead.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: It costs him his own life.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Billy
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Claggart apparently doesn't know this rule.
  • Bishōnen: Billy.
  • The Captain: Vere.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: It's enough to see Claggart to know he's The Epic Bad Guy.
  • The Chessmaster: Claggart.
  • Court-martialed: Billy's trial is central to the plot.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: Billy's hanging is pretty much described like an ascending to Heaven.
  • Downer Ending
  • Driven by Envy
  • Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette: Claggart is descibed "His brow was of the sort phrenologically associated with more than average intellect; silken jet curls partly clustering over it, making a foil to the pallor below, a pallor tinged with a faint shade of amber akin to the hue of time-tinted marbles of old. This complexion, singularly contrasting with the red or deeply bronzed visages of the sailors, and in part the result of his official seclusion from the sunlight, tho' it was not exactly displeasing, nevertheless seemed to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood." And he also has violet eyes. Super evil.
  • Eldritch Abomination: "Meanwhile the accuser's eyes removing not as yet from the blue dilated ones, underwent a phenomenal change, their wonted rich violet color blurring into a muddy purple. Those lights of human intelligence losing human expression, gelidly protruding like the alien eyes of certain uncatalogued creatures of the deep. The first mesmeric glance was one of serpent fascination; the last was as the hungry lurch of the torpedo-fish."
    Wonder why poor Billy couldn't speak under this glance...
  • Emotions vs. Stoicism: Vere and the court-martial.
  • Fatal Flaw: Billy's stammer.
  • Freud Was Right:
    • Soup-spilling scene. First, the soup itself, descibed as "greasy fluid". Second, Claggart's reaction: "Pausing, he was about to ejaculate something hasty at the sailor, but checked himself, and pointing down to the streaming soup, playfully tapped him from behind with his rattan, saying in a low musical voice peculiar to him at times, "Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!"" (Emphasis mine; if this is not subtext, nothing is.)
    • "Jemmy Legs is down on you." Even the old wise guy knows it.
    • "To be nothing more than innocent! Yet in an aesthetic way he [Claggart] saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it."
    • "When Claggart's unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy rolling along the upper gun deck in the leisure of the second dog-watch, exchanging passing broadsides of fun with other young promenaders in the crowd; that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban."
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Claggart
  • Hello, Sailor!: Um, have I mentioned it's placed on a man-of-war filled with sailors? And that our title character is angelically handsome?
  • Heroic Sacrifice: "God Bless Captain Vere!" Billy says this before he's hanged in order to convince the outraged crew not to mutiny.
  • He's Dead, Jim: Vere calls the surgeon after Claggart bites the dust, and the surgeon states that he was Killed Off for Real.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Keep saying that to yourself, Captain.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: Actually, I just hit Claggart in the face. And it turned out to be lethal.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Billy is tempted several times, but he's hopeless to corrupt. So Claggart has to come up with the whole accusation thing. But even after the murder Billy is STILL innocent.
  • Kangaroo Court: There are undertones of that throughout the trial, especially since The Captain has decided even before that Billy has to hang for killing Claggart, regardless of circumstances. When the officers are about to acquit Billy, Vere steps in and pretty much forces them to hand down the guilty verdict. This is done to keep any other sailor from thinking that they can get away with killing an officer rather than any facts of the case.
  • Karmic Death:
    • Claggart. Vere declares: "It is the divine judgement on Ananias!" and "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!"
    • In the film version, Vere himself. Minutes after having Billy hang, a battle breaks out with a French warship. Vere's body can be seen lying motionless, while the crew is busy at their battle stations.
  • Meaningful Name: Billy's former ship The Rights Of Man is named after a book by Thomas Paine. When Billy is being Press-Ganged into the crew of the HMS Bellipotent, he shouts goodbye to his ship, symbolizing the end of his life as a free citizen.
  • The Mutiny: Billy's hanging nearly results in one, but Billy's final words and the sighting of a French warship put the kibosh on that.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Vere.
  • Passion Play: Sort of.
  • Poor Communication Kills: When Billy cannot communicate with words, he communicates with lethal blows... This is lampshaded at the very beginning.
  • Press-Ganged: The story starts with Billy being pressed into service aboard the man-of-war. Billy's parting words to his former ship ("Good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man!") are meant to be symbolic, as he's being forced to enter the military, where his rights as an individual are severely curtailed.
  • Purple Prose: I know it's a classic, but...
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: Claggart is likened to a snake for a reason.
  • Rule of Symbolism: It's filled with biblical, mythological and historical symbols.
  • Satan - Claggart. It's made even clearer with a Milton quote in the chapter title "Pale Ire, Envy and Despair", which is what Satan felt when seeing Paradise.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Billy Budd, pure of singing voice and angelic of face, full of good will and eagerness to just be the best sailor he can be. He's morally incorruptible. The only "flaw" he has is his stammer, and this costs him his life, because the system he's entered is so vile and corrupt.
  • Warrior Poet: Vere.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men