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Billy Budd Essay, Research Paper
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. In Billy Budd, 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
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?which brought
down on him a vague threat from one of [the ship's 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 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
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