“a red light would flash forth from his eye like a spark from an anvil in a dusk smithy”

For a novella so heavy on the psychology, it should perhaps not be surprising that the narrator of Billy Budd spends a lot of time describing people’s eyes. The whole aspect of the three main characters and several of the minor ones is described in minute detail. This is another instance of Melville’s focus on faces. The big thing Melville has to accomplish in Billy Budd is to explain to the reader the psychology of the three main actors—an impossible task, perhaps? It seems the narrator is desperate to get across a sense of the precise character of the men, by painstakingly describing habits, actions, and appearances, and letting “every one…determine for himself by such light as this narrative may afford” the truth behind what he is able to superficially report or speculate on.

But back to eyes. The very first mention of Billy Budd describes him as “welkin-eyed,” a ridiculous, Melvillean thing to say (and he does so two times further). It was the following passage that really jumped out at me, describing Claggart just after he has charged Billy Budd with attempted mutiny:

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, were gelidly protruding like the alien eyes of certain uncatalogued creatures of the deep. The first mesmeristic glance was one of serpent fascination; the last was as the paralyzing lurch of the torpedo fish.

Where else have we seen extended metaphors about eyes and the deep with bizarre creepy images of fish again? Oh, right, in Pierre. “Gelidly” I think makes it, here.

Note that Claggart’s aspect undergoes a transformation there, right in front of Billy Budd. Captain Vere must cover his own face with his arm to effect its transformation, and after uncovering it, it “was as if the moon emerging from eclipse should reappear with quite another aspect than that which had gone into hiding. The father in him, manifested towards Billy thus far in the scene, was replaced by the military disciplinarian.” All the way from Typee to here he’s been repeating how much can be read in the face—and how little.

2 comments to “a red light would flash forth from his eye like a spark from an anvil in a dusk smithy”

  • Contemporary writers can’t seem to get away with such focus on eyes anymore, can we blame Melville (and others) for this?

    Two things I love about the passage you’ve quoted: muddy purple and serpent fascination. (Paralyzing lurch is up there as well.)

  • Thank you. I love this kind of insight, about a seemingly unimportant detail. Best, Kevin