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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The theme of violence in the later fiction of Herman Melville McKeown, Thomas Wilson


Incidents of violence abound in most of the novels and short stories of Herman Melville, and in several of them, especially Billy Budd, the protagonist is characterized in terms of his attitude towards violence. The central contention of my thesis is that in the development of Melville's fiction from Moby-Dick to Billy Budd the thematic role of violence changes from that of a destructive to a more redemptive force. This change parallels another change that takes place in his fiction, from a focus on the individual who is destroyed by his commitment to violence, to the society which is temporarily purged of evil through the violent act of an individual. In my first two chapters I discuss Moby-Dick and Pierre as representing Melville's early attitude to violence. In Moby-Dick violence is associated primarily with Ahab, whose characterization takes up about half of the novel. In Pierre violence becomes a more central motif, simply because Pierre is the only major character in the novel, and consequently his involvement with violence reflects the focus of the novel as a whole. Both of these novels employ the theme of violence mainly to dramatize the separation of the self from society. In chapters three and four I discuss the ways in which "Bartleby the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno" prefigure the role of violence in Billy Budd. The fact that even, the timid lawyer is capable of feeling the faint stirrings of anger within him anticipates the concern of Billy Budd with the universality of human emotion, and its important role in helping to redeem an excessively rationalistic society. “Benito Cereno" also looks toward Billy Budd, in that Cereno's magnanimous concern for Delano's safety, which gives him the strength to break away from Babo's influence and jump into the boat, prefigures Billy's magnaminity at his execution. In my final chapter I discuss the way in which the destructive violence and a focus on the fate of the individual in Moby-Dick has been replaced by the socially redemptive violence and a focus on the fate of society in Billy Budd. Melville's development in this respect may be measured by his transformation of murder into a socially desirable act. Billy destroys evil and is in turn destroyed by the society which he protects, yet his influence lives in the hearts of the sailors who have known him.

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