The presentation of the concept of truth in the short stories of Herman Melville
Near the end of his novella Billy Budd, Herman Melville makes the statement, “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narrative is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial” (85). Melville is pointing out that truth even in its purest form is not absolute. He takes a stance almost antithetical to Platonic idealism, arguing that truth, rather than existing as a universal absolute, is inconstant and arbitrary and fluctuates by perception.
Melville furthers this point through the negative simile of an “architectural finial.” A finial refers to an ornamental architectural device which would be placed on the roof or on the corners or ends of a structure. The image is pertinent to what Melville is saying because finials are meticulously hand-carved, elaborate finishing pieces; the flawless symmetry and preciseness of the intricate finishing pieces contrast distinctly with the ambiguity and abnormality associated with truth.
The idea that truth is not absolute in nature is manifested clearly throughout Melville’s novellas Billy Budd and Benito Cereno. In both works, Melville creates situations in which each character, as well as the reader, comes away with his or her own perception of the truth. In the case of Billy Budd, for example, the reader is left to decide whether or not Billy was truly innocent. The “truth” presented by the narrator clearly asserts that Billy had no part in any mutiny conspiracy; in that regard he is innocent. Conversely, the “truth” is also that Billy struck and murdered a superior, which in itself merits punishment. Thus, he is condemned to death by hanging. However, Melville does not make it clear whether or not Billy’s strike was an intentional attack or an unstoppable reaction:
The next instant, quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night, his right arm shot out, and...