The Seafaring Theme in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" and "Billy Budd, Sailor"

An analysis

Term Paper, 2012

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3




I. Peculiarities of naval settings
1. Leadership and personnel selection criteria
2. Group interaction
3. Outside communications

II. The impact of setting on Melville's plot development
1. Leadership and personnel selection
2. Group interaction
3. Outside communications

III. Conclusion



Herman Melville's work is characterized by a dominant overarching theme in most cases. One of the strongest motives is that of seamanship. Be it in Moby Dick, Billy Budd, Sailor or Benito Cerino.

But how great is the impact of those themes on the overall plot or story and, in conjunction, would they play out the same in a land-based setting?

To explore the psychological effects of isolation and confinement on the characters, I will mostly rely on studies by Jack Stuster. His work mainly deals with extreme isolation in arctic or space missions, but the same circumstances apply to life aboard a seagoing vessel, though to a lesser degree. In addition, I will draw on 3 years of personal experience working in a maritime setting, one year of which was spent on a civilian ship and two years of military service aboard navy vessels.

The first chapter will define the distinctive features of Melville's chosen setting and seperate it from a dry land theme. In the second chapter, I will apply those features to the novel Moby Dick and the short story Billy Budd, Sailor in order to analyze their impact on the plot development.

I. Peculiarities of naval settings

To understand the impact of setting on the story, we need to point out the differences and special conditions that seperate a maritime setting from a land-based one. Furthermore, we need to narrow our focus on behavioral issues, so as to determine how the characters' actions are influenced by the naval theme.

Stuster's (1996) research unveils a number of factors that are of special importance in settings of isolation and confinement.

While Jack Stuster (1996, 21) indentifies 15 factors influencing human behavior, the ones most important to understanding the effects of Melville's choice of setting are leadership, personnel selection criteria, group interaction and outside communications.

1. Leadership and personnel selection criteria

I will concentrate on leadership, and, in direct relation, criteria of personnel selection as the most influential factor because Melville's stories Moby Dick and Billy Budd, Sailor are driven by central conflicts in the board hierarchy, namely between Captain Ahab and Starbuck in the former, and Captain Vere, John Claggart and William Budd in the latter.

Although what constitutes good leadership is highly subjective and open to debate, there are several "conditions unique to isolation and confinement" (Stuster 1996, 96) which have to be analyzed.

Generally speaking, people attracted to naval duty are forceful personalities and confident in their own abilities, moreso in leadership positions. While those traits are useful in general, they often clash with command structures. This conflict is further enhanced by the leader's lack of assets typically available in a less isolated environment.

A naval leader has to carefully consider any form of punishment he deals out. All crewmen are valuable to the crew as a whole, regardless of position. Withholding granted privileges, which would be a trivial punishment on land, is seen as "unacceptable deprivation[...]" (ib,. 96) aboard. Lastly, leaders who rely on power or status tend to lower morale, as living in close proximity and working side by side in confined space erodes formal hierarchies to a certain extent.

The most influential attribute to isolated leadership is shown in the following quotation:

Perhaps most important, the remote-duty leader must operate in the absence of the normal matrix of other leaders who can provide support and validation for specific decisions and general courses of action.

(Stuster 1996, 97).

While personnel selection is not as applicable to written narratives as leadership qualities, the choice of traits in characters is essential to plot development in Melville's work. Stuster presents "three behavioral clusters" (ib., 254) important to personnel selection:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

2. Group interaction

Group interaction is viewed as the most important issue when considering isolated and confined conditions. A functioning group dynamic enables smooth execution of the tasks at hand and an overall wholesome working climate.

Regardless of the initial quality of interaction in the group, confinement and isolation put a strain on it over time. This effect is known under various names, viz, Lagerkoller in German or cabin fever in English.

This development can be slowed down by a team approach and a unifying spirit among the crew and its leadership. A democratic and participatory approach can provide additional alleviation, though it is not applicable in a military setting.

Furthermore, as Stuster points out, "special leadership and interpersonal skills are required to maintain authority and control under the status-leveling conditions of isolated and confined living" (1996, 167). This is what we associate with a team spirit. The intuition to sense how to deal with any given situation depending on the people involved in it.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Seafaring Theme in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" and "Billy Budd, Sailor"
An analysis
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
"No! In Thunder!" Herman Melville's Short Fiction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
461 KB
Die Arbeit kann unter vollem Namen veröffentlicht werden und ich habe keine Preiswünsche.
Herman Melville, Seafaring, Theme, Literary Analysis, setting, moby dick, billy budd sailor, influence plot
Quote paper
Markus Jack Dijkgraaf (Author), 2012, The Seafaring Theme in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" and "Billy Budd, Sailor", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Seafaring Theme in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" and "Billy Budd, Sailor"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free