Billy Budd, Sailor on the Boundary between Romance and Novel: Melville’s Cultural, Philosophical, and Literary Paradoxes

Document Type : Research Paper



This essay will indicate that Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor inherently possesses cultural, philosophical, and literary paradoxes. To examine this, we will focus on these paradoxes in three domains. First, we will elaborate on some paradoxical themes, such as democracy, which stem from American culture. In the second domain, we will trace Melville’s inclination toward the representation of paradoxes in his ambivalent place within the American romantic tradition. Here, we will argue that since Melville belonged to the Dark Romantic movement, he disavowed Emerson’s optimism and sublime, and introduced man as a Manichean creature who determines his destiny by choosing freely between good and evil.Billy Budd is generally known as a romance, but a close look at the work shows that the text is not faithful to the definition of the romance, since it is highly philosophical and this is beyond the capacity of the romance. This philosophical characteristic pushes Billy Budd towards the definition of the novel where man’s inner world is depicted. Thus, Melville employs an ambivalent literary form to manifest the ambivalent and paradoxical nature of American culture. To gain this objective, the essay will follow three theoretical domains: a historical-cultural reading of Billy Budd; an examination of the theory of American Romanticism, both Emersonian and Dark; and eventually, Henry James’s theory of the novel.