Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales, Paperback Book

Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales Paperback

Edited by Robert Milder

Part of the Oxford World's Classics series

3.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


'Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.' So wrote Melville of Billy Budd, Sailor, among the greatest of his works and, in its richness and ambiguity, among the most problematic.

As the critic E. L. Grant Watson writes, 'In this short history of the impressment and hanging of a handsome sailor-boy are to be discovered problems as profound as those which puzzle us in the pages of the Gospels.' Outwardly a compelling narrative of events aboard a British man-of-war during the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars, Billy Budd, Sailor is a nautical recasting of the Fall, a parable of good and evil, a meditation on justice and political governance, and a searching portrait of three extraordinary men.

The passion it has aroused in its readers over the years is a measure of how deeply it addresses some of the fundamental questions of experience that every age must reexamine for itself.

The selection in this volume represents the best of Melville's shorter fiction, and uses the most authoritative texts. The eight shorter tales included here were composed during Melville's years as a magazine writer in the mid 1850's and establish him, along with Hawthorne and Poe, as the greatest American story writer of his age. Several of the tales - Bartleby the Scrivener, Benito Cereno, The Encantadas, The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids - are acknowledged masterpieces of their genres. All show Melville a master of irony, point-of-view, and tone whose fables ripple out in nearly endless circles of meaning.

ABOUT THE SERIES: For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the widest range of literature from around the globe.

Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, helpful notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Classic fiction (pre c 1945)
  • ISBN: 9780199538911

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Showing 1 - 2 of 2 reviews.

Review by

This is an interesting collection. Bartleby is a wonderful conundrum; "I and My Chimney" is a bizarre but beautiful portrait. Billy Budd is a difficult tale.Melville makes wonderful observations on the individuality of people, with dry depictions that don't lose their accuracy.

Review by

There are eight stories in this World’s Classics edition all written by Melville following the commercial failure of his novels Moby Dick and Pierre, when he needed to earn money from work that could be published in literary magazines. He proved to be a master short story writer with several of these tales acknowledged as classics of their genre. A couple of these stories feel more like sketches or essays, but the quality of the writing remains high throughout.It is fair to say that when Melville took to writing theses stories in the early 1850’s he was at a low ebb. He was physically and mentally exhausted with a growing family that he found increasingly difficult to support. His novels were not finding favour with the critics and neither were they selling and so if the black moods that sometimes descended on him find their way into the stories then it is hardly surprising. Robert Miller in an excellent introduction to these tales asks “How many of them are tragedies and how many historical, well the short answer is that tragedy looms large in many of them and to a certain degree many of them are historical.<b>Cock-a-Doodle-Doo</b> seems to me almost perfection as a short story. Written in the first person the, narrator we suspect is Melville himself and he has the blues. His spirits are uplifted by the sound of a cock crowing which in its power and glory seems to defy all of nature. The narrator hears the cock crowing on subsequent walks and vows to find out who owns this “noble cock” so that he can buy it for himself. The narrator is in such a good mood that he is even cheerful with the debt collector the bane of his life. He becomes friendly with Merrymusk his wood cutter a poor hardworking man and when he visits him at his rude shack he finds him the proud owner of that “noble cock”. His wife and children are all sickly living behind a curtained partition but the joyous crowing of the rooster seems to be keeping them all alive. This is a wonderful story enhanced by Melville’s descriptions of the natural world: here he makes the landscape seem just like the sea:<i>“The old grass and the new grass were striving together. In the low wet swales the verdure peeped out in vivid green; beyond on the mountains, lay light patches of snow, strangely relieved against their russet sides; all the humped hills looked like brindled kine in the shivers. The woods were strewn with dry dead boughs, snapped off by the riotous winds of March, while the young trees skirting the woods were just beginning to show the first yellowish tinge of the nascent spray”</i><b>Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street</b> is equally as good. The narrator here is a bond dealer with offices on Wall street, who hires an additional scrivener(copyist) and says “I can see that figure now - pallidly neat, pitiable respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby” A partitioned space in the narrators office is found for the new copyist, who is content to remain in that space and when asked to read aloud a document replies “I would prefer not to”.. Bartleby becomes increasingly withdrawn and eventually stops working altogether spending his day staring out of a window at a blank wall a few feet away. All requests for him to do anything are met with his only reply “I would prefer not to” The narrator finds himself being drawn into caring about Bartleby, who seems to have withdrawn from life itself. Bartleby is another tragedy, which in tone seems to echo the futility of Merrymusk in Cock-A-Doodle-Doo.<b>The Fiddler</b> is a short story of just over six pages. Salvation appears here for the narrator in the form of Hautboy. A child prodigy on the fiddle, who has given up all thoughts of fame to live a more simple life of happiness. Helmstone our narrator like many comes under the spell of the childlike Hautboy, and he hopes to find redemption through him from a life dedicated to fame and fortune. A beautiful little story that has a certain magical quality about it.<b>The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids</b> is more of an essay. Melville describes a lunch in the city of London with a group of men dedicated to a life of good food and wine. Juxtaposed to this is a visit to a paper making factory in New England where women are employed in intolerable working conditions. It is the women’s suffering that provide for the Paradise of Bachelors.<b>The Lightning Rod Man</b> takes us back to the world of the short story. Our narrator describes a sales pitch made to him by a man selling lightning rods. He is scornful of the salesman’s ability to persuade him to make a purchase and gently makes fun of him, however this becomes increasingly personal and sarcastic on both sides. The lightning rod man is preying on the fear of his punters and Melville likens this to the hold of organised religion. The narrator ends the story with these thoughts:<i>“But spite of my treatment, and spite of my dissuasive talk of him to my neighbours, the lightning-rod man still dwells in the land, still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man.”</i> <b>The Encantadas or enchanted Isles</b> are a series of ten sketches based on the remote and largely barren Galapagos Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They are a mixture of travelogue and travellers tales, that sparkle with fine writing, but which I found the least enjoyable to read. <b>Benito Cereno</b> is a very different proposition altogether. Melville has taken a story from Captain Amasa Delanos “Narratives of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres” and bought to life a chapter that describes a mutiny on a slave ship. Melville eschews the original first person narrative to tell this tale in the third person and paints a picture of events that seem only too real, with violence and unlawful acts taking place by men on both sides of this conflict. Cowardice, bravery, foolishness and insight are all mixed together sometimes in the same person to present a portrait where it is hard to judge right from wrong.. An extraordinary story and the longest of the short stories in this collection<b>I and My Chimney</b> is a pure delight. Melville likens himself to his grand chimney in his family house, which is constantly under threat from his wife and daughters. Amusing and thoughtful by turns; another gem of a short story.<b>Billy Budd, Sailor (An insider narrative)</b> was written some thirty years after the last short story in this collection. It was left unfinished and finally published in 1924 three decades after Melville’s death. At first glance it appears to be a compelling tale of injustice or rough justice on the high seas, but there is much more to it than that. A powerful story that shows Melville's skill in creating characters whose thoughts and actions will always give the reader pause for thought. What was Melville doing creating the angelic figure of Billy Budd, How culpable was starry Vere in his execution, why was he persecuted by Claggart. Biblical references abound to present the reader with any number of ambiguities as does the character of Billy Budd himself. In spite of these contradictions and ambiguities the story is strangely satisfying. Melville at his finest and that is very fine indeed.This is a brilliant selection of stories, which will remain on my bookshelf to be read again and again. Well worth spending time with and a five star read. .

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