Billy Budd - Thoreau and Melville
The story of Billy Budd provides an excellent scenario in which to compare and contrast Thoreau and Melville. The topics of government-inspired injustice and man's own injustice to man can be explored through the story. Thoreau's position is one of lessened government and enhanced individualism, while Melville's is one of group unity and government's role to preserve order. The opinions of Melville and Thoreau outline the paradox of government: Government cannot exist without man, and man cannot exist without government.
One of the downfalls of both man and government is jealousy, and the H.M.S Bellipotent is no exception. Claggart is a jealous, hateful person who has made Billy the object of his anger, most likely because of his popularity and good-naturedness. Throughout the story, Claggart would then take every opportunity he could to single out Billy and eventually put him to death. It began when the grizzled man approached Claggart about Billy's ridiculing him, even though it was well known no one likes the master-at-arms. Then, when Billy spilled his soup infront of Claggart, Claggart was ready to dismiss it as carelessness until he saw it was Billy that spilled it. It became obvious that Claggart was planning Billy's demise, but Billy couldn't understand it yet. After the chase of the French ship, when Billy was confronted and accused for mutinous actions, Claggart put such pressure on him that he lost his composure and killed him. Claggart's jealously became the demise of himself and Billy.
Melville's second point in Billy Bud is about the necessary evil of humans acting as part of the government machine. Even though the captain an...
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...ues to the institution that helped get them to their place of power and wealth. He suggests it is better to live life as if you were poor, for you will retain your morals and virtues. Thoreau's last controversial point is his approach to passively accepting the governments' unjust policies. If you do, he feels that you have become worthless, and you have put things ahead of what should be first.
In an ideal world, a man would be able to govern himself and live by what he believes to be right, as Thoreau suggests. In the real world, especially in the harsh life of the navy, living by what feels right is not always best. The execution of Billy Budd can best be likened to the killing of Lenny in "Of Mice and Men". Both men were killed for murders they did not intend to commit, and both were killed to appease the fears of their governments.
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