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In Billy Budd, the author, Herman Melville, presents a question that stems directly from the original sin of ouAdam and Eve: Is it better to be innocent and ignorant, but good and righteous, or is it better to be experienced and knowledgeable? Through this work, Billy Budd,Melville is telling us that we need to strike some kind of balance between these two ideas; we need to have morality and virtue; we need to be in the world, but not of the world.
To illustrate his theme, Melville uses a few characters who are all very different, the most important of which is Billy Budd. Billy is the focal point of the book and the single person whom we are meant to learn the most from. On the ship, the Rights-of-Man, Billy is a cynosure among his shipmates; a leader, not by authority, but by example. All the members of the crew look up to him and love him. He is "strength and beauty. Tales of his prowess [are] recited. Ashore he [is] the champion, afloat the spokesman; on every suitable occasion always foremost"(9).
Despite his popularity among the crew and his hardworking attitude, Billy is transferred to another British ship, the Indomitable. And while he is accepted for his looks and happy personality, "...hardly here [is] he that cynosure he had previously been among those minor ship's companies of the merchant marine"(14). It is here, on the Indomitable that Billy says good-bye to his rights. It is here, also, that Billy meets John Claggart, the master-at-arms. A man "in whom was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living but born with him and innate, in short 'a depravity according to nature'"(38).
Here then, is presented a man with a personality and character to contrast and conflict with Billy's. Sweet, innocent Billy immediately realizes that this man is someone he does not wish to cross and so after seeing Claggart whip another crew-member for neglecting his responsibilities, Billy "resolved that never through remissness would he make himself liable to such a visitation or do or omit aught that might merit even verbal reproof"(31). Billy is so good and so innocent that he tries his hardest to stay out of trouble. "What then was his surprise and concern when ultimately he found himself getting into petty trouble occasionally about such matters as the stowage of his bag.
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These small threats and incidents establish the tension between Claggart and Billy, and set the stage for a later confrontation. They also force Billy to search for help. The person he goes to is yet another type of character presented in this book. Red Whiskers. Red Whiskers was an old veteran, "long anglicized in the service, of few words, many wrinkles, and some honorable scars"(31). Billy recognizes the old Dansker as a figure of experience, and after showing respect and courtesy which Billy believes due to his elder, finally seeks his advice, but what he is told thoroughly astonishes him. Red Whiskers tells Billy that for some reason, Claggart is after Billy, but Billy cannot believe it because he is so innocent and trusting. Through this situation Billy now finds himself in, Melville has us ask ourselves a question: Would it be right for Billy to heed the advice of experience and wisdom and tell the captain about Claggart's conspiracy? Or should he instead keep his mouth shut and try to work things out himself?
Being the good person that he is, Billy tries to forget about it and hopes that it will pass, but it does not. And that is where the fourth of these few characters comes in. Captain Vere, with his love for knowledge and books, and "... his settled convictions [which stood] as a dike against those invading waters of novel opinion, social, political, and otherwise, which carried away as in a torrent no few minds in those days, minds by nature not inferior to his own"(25-26). Vere is a man who believes in rules, regulations, and procedure. In his opinion, everything must be done according to instruction, and deviation from that set way of thinking and operation is wrong. This way of thinking is illustrated as Melville commits what he calls a "literary sin":In this matter of writing, resolve as one may to keep to the main road, some bypaths have an enticement not readily to be withstood. I am going to err into such a bypath. If the reader will keep me company I shall be glad. At the least we can promise ourselves that pleasure which is wickedly said to be in sinning, for a literary sin the divergence will be. (20)
Because of his philosophy, Captain Vere always strives to do that which he believes to be right according to the laws set by his superior officers. This is a stark contrast to Billy, who keeps quiet when he learns about a conspiracy to mutiny among the crew on board.
In the book's climax, Claggart comes to Captain Vere and accuses Billy of conspiring to mutiny. Billy, so astonished by Claggart's allegation, strikes him dead with one blow to the head. In an effort to uphold military law and regulation, Captain Vere holds a trial in which he manipulates the reluctant court into convicting Billy and sentencing him to death. But his death was not agonizing or tortuous. It was instead, majestic. "At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended, and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn"(80). Such glory and beauty in death can only be achieved by those who are truly ready and without regret, as Billy was.
The question, then, is presented. Innocence or wisdom? Which philosophy, which way of life is more correct? Claggart, who represents the natural evil in the world, serves as the opposition and corruption which we face everyday. He is the obstacle that Billy must deal with, and the way in which he confronts that obstacle determines which of these answers is the correct one. Melville, in presenting the climax of the book, might be suggesting that it would have been better for Billy to have chosen the path of experience and wisdom, like old Red Whiskers, for if he had, he would still be alive. However, I believe that through this allusion to Christ's crucifixion, he is showing us that perhaps we should not always only be concerned about ourselves, but also about those around us. Perhaps that through morals and virtue, we can rise above the evil in the world and make an impact on the lives of those around us.
The newspaper article near the end of the book portrays this perfectly. It brands Billy as a traitor, but his shipmates will not have it so. They kept track of the spar from which he was hanged until it becomes a "... mere dock-yard boom. To them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross"(87). The legend of Billy's innocence will not die, and it changes the lives of the sailors forever. I believe Melville is saying that true goodness, aspersed by a Satanic Claggart, and doomed to death by a perplexed but upright Vere, even dead, is better than all the wisdom and experience of the world because it exists after death, and therefore triumphs.
Works Cited and Consulted
Brett, Philip. "Salvation at Sea: Billy Budd." The Britten Companion. Ed. Christopher Palmer. London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1984.
Gilmore, Michael T., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Billy Budd.
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 1971.
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories. Ed. Frederick Busch. New York: Penguin, 1986.
Millett, Kate. The Politics of Cruelty. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.