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Billy Budd Essay, Research Paper

Ideologies. They are systems of ideas and ways of thinking. Systems of beliefs, thus relating to politics, society, or to the conduct of a class or group. These systems are used to justify actions. A way to explain the world to individuals, especially, one that is held as a whole and maintained regardless of the course of events. They can be used to interpret the social world.

In Herman Melville?s, Billy Budd, the sailor, social ideologies are shown when the main character, William Budd, is killed. His death is than justified by the martial laws of the British navy. The dilemma of the just man who has good intentions, but must act in accordance with earthly standards. How a noble and patriotic sailor can be a victim of injustice in such an orderly world. Melville also explores the classic battle between good and evil; the conflict between innocence and the depravity.

This profound novel is one about a young sailor during the late eight – teen century, who served with honor, the British navy, on the H.M.S. Indomitable. He is considered a handsome sailor, one who is inexperienced and naive but holds a certain innocence and purity, which others seem to respect and admire. The story takes a twist when William Budd, his real name, is accused of Mutiny. Claggart, the man who falsely accuses him, is determined to destroy Billy for very particular and symbolic reasons. Out of lack of wisdom and anger, Billy kills Claggart. William Budd is finally tried and convicted for the murder of Claggart and, under the Articles of War; he was sentenced to be hung in front of his fellow sailors. The main plot is the basic destruction of Billy. Melville demonstrates the power of evil and how innocence and honesty cannot survive in a modern society. Melville?s story criticizes the modern world; if you want to be a Billy Budd you will probably be destroyed, but still remain noble to others. The why of Billy?s execution has a lot of symbolisms and portrays the social beliefs in the British navy.

The author represents Billy?s innocence and purity by making much comparison, to the Adam before the fall. Before 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. Melville shows us these biblical meanings with his characters. Billy is Adam, Claggart Satan, and Captain Vere as God, the judge. These are all very different characters; the most important of which is Billy Budd.

Billy is the focal point of the book and the one we learn the most about. 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.? (Freeman p.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?(12). 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 corruption books or licentious living but born with him and innate, in short, a depravity according to nature? (16). 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. 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 ought that might even verbal reproof.? (18). 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? which brought down on him a vague threat from one of the ship?s corporals? (22).

These small threats and incidents establish the tension between Claggart and Billy, and set the stage for a later confrontation. Billy seeks help from an older sailor looking for advice about Claggart. This sailor explains to him that Claggart is after Billy, but Billy cannot believe it because he is innocent and trusting. Here we see that Billy doesn?t believe that someone could bring harm to him. 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 other character comes in. Captain Vere, with his love for knowledge and books, and

?his settled convicted which stood as a dike against those invading waters of novel opinion, social, political, and otherwise, which carried away as in torent no few minds in those days, minds by nature not inferior to his own.? (36).

Vere is a man who believes in rules, regulations, and procedures. In his opinion, everything must de done according to instruction, and deviation from that set way of thinking and operation is wrong. 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 allegations, 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. In time of war there can be no delay in imposing sentence, no mercy for a sailor who kills a superior, even though the murder is committed without malice or premeditation.

After the incidents at Nore and Spithead many Captains had anxieties about other mutinies reoccurring. Billy became a spokesman for order. He was an example of discipline, how one who serves the Queen, must obey the rules of the Articles of War. One who kills an authority must be condemned to death. Revolutionary men did not matter, what did was the order of the ship. It did not matter what the conscience of the sailors or captain Vere said. The other sailors knew that Billy was not capable or even guilty of creating a Mutiny Act. Captain Vere and his arguments persuaded the sailors, they were being ruled rather than the rulers. After all, Captains were figures authority. They accepted the fact that Billy?s punishment was ?unavoidably inflicted from the naval point of view? although they ?instinctively felt that Billy was incapable of mutiny as of willful murder.? (102) Using the rules of the navy was the way to rationalize Billy?s death.

Melville shows us, the reader, that this corrupted world is incapable of dealing with the child-like innocence; it also implies the possibility of a safe, ordered existence free from irrationality and violence. As long as man is obedient to martial law, a system designed for his own protection as well as that of the captain and the King, he can live his life secure in the belief that he lives in an orderly world. Chaos and disorderly behavior achieve their greatest success when they take over the systems, which men create in order to convince themselves that they live in an ordered world. Billy Budd?s innocence was sacrificed to maintain the order of the world; to maintain the ideologies of the British Navy or rather was it the chaos and the forces of darkness, which destroyed the innocence.


Freeman, F. Barron (ed.) Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and Other Tales. New York, New American Library, 1956, 7 to 88p.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary.Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1998, 423p.

Padilla, David. Herman Melville?s Billy Budd. (ed.) Freeman, F. Barron. (Internet).

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