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Depravity, abuse and homoerotic desire in Billy Budd and the 'Prussian officer'

Jones, Bethan


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Dr Bethan Jones
Senior Lecturer/ Programme leader for BA English with Foundation Year.


In their resonant and evocative stories – Billy Budd, Sailor and ‘The Prussian Officer’ – Herman Melville and D. H. Lawrence adopt military settings for a personal drama. In both tales, two men come into close and dangerous proximity, resulting ultimately in their deaths. Michael Squires has argued that the Lawrence story, “revealing the secret origin of abuse, shows the Captain punishing what he cannot consciously desire”. This comment could also be applied to Melville’s introspective and ambiguous novella (which has been subject to diverse interpretations), suggesting a motive for John Claggart’s persecution of the innocent Billy. Furthermore, secret abuse and subconscious desire are certainly prevalent within Benjamin Britten’s operatic version of Melville’s tale, with libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier. When it is considered that Forster had almost certainly read Lawrence’s controversial story of military insubordination, bullying, murder and repressed homoerotic desire, a fascinating and complex pattern of inter-connection begins to emerge. Below, I will attempt to tease out the most significant connections by examining both stories alongside the subsequent recasting of Billy Budd as an opera.


Jones, B. (in press). Depravity, abuse and homoerotic desire in Billy Budd and the 'Prussian officer'. Journal of D. H. Lawrence Studies, 4(2), 47-72

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Sep 27, 2016
Online Publication Date Dec 18, 2017
Deposit Date Nov 24, 2016
Publicly Available Date Dec 18, 2017
Print ISSN 1759-1066
Publisher DH Lawrence Society of Great Britain
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 4
Issue 2
Pages 47-72
Keywords Billy Budd, Herman Melville, The Prussian Officer, D. H. Lawrence
Public URL
Publisher URL
Contract Date Nov 24, 2016


Article.pdf (641 Kb)

Copyright Statement
Copyright: individual author and the D. H. Lawrence Society. Quotations from Lawrence’s works © The Estate of Frieda Lawrence Ravagli. Extracts and poems from various publications by D. H. Lawrence reprinted by permission of Pollinger Limited ( on behalf of the Estate of Frieda Lawrence Ravagli.

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