BILLY BUDD

Word Count: 1385Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were perfect. They were innocent and ignorant, yet
perfect, so they were allowed to abide in the presence of God. Once they partook of the fruit of
the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, however, they immediately became unclean as well as
mortal. In , the author, Herman Melville, presents a question that stems directly from
this original sin of our first parents: Is it better to be innocent and ignorant, but good and
righteous, or is it better to be experienced and knowledgeable? I believe that through this book,
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 ships
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 Billys. 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 bagwhich brought down on him a vague threat from one of the
ships corporals(31).
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 Claggarts 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.

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In the books climax, Claggart comes to Captain Vere and accuses Billy of conspiring to
mutiny. Billy, so astonished by Claggarts 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 Christs 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 Billys 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.
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