Billy Budd by Herman Melville
BILLY BUDD, an allegorical naval tale that dramatizes the antipathy between Good and Evil, illustrates Melville’s motifs and themes not by an epic vehicle like MOBY DICK, but by personifying his themes in three archetypal characters. The uncomplicated plot develops from character traits: Billy Budd represents naive goodness; John Claggart’s envious and vengeful enmity toward Billy’s youth and good looks, represents irrational enmity and evil intentions, and Captain Vere, the agonizing judge who sentences Billy to hang, represents the military version of the social arbiter between order and disorder.
The central plot is compact. Billy, personifying youthful natural goodness but afflicted with frustrating stammer, ends up on the warship U.S. Domitable during he Napoleonic wars where Claggart, as malicious as Iago in Shakespeare’s OTHELLO, engineers Billy’s down fall, falsely accuses him of planning a mutiny, and goads the stammering Billy into striking him. Claggart accidentally strikes his head and dies; Billy is court-marshaled at sea and hanged from a yardarm, crying for God to bless Captain Vere, his judge. The crew thereafter reveres the yardarm from which Bill’s young body swayed against the sun as if evoking a crucifixion scene.
The novella pits extremes against each other to dramatize themes.
Billy’s Christ-like figure and attractiveness is uncommon; his belief in goodness seems akin to Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s THE IDIOT. Claggart, on the other hand, stands for the depravity of Evil, a concept foreign to Billy. The burden of moral and authoritative choice thus falls on Captain Vere and, unlike Billy and Claggart; he struggles powerfully with his own conscience. He falls back on the war manual, and rationalizes his decision to
execute rather than to save Billy, despite his personal desire to spare the young man.
Captain Vere, an intelligent and fair-minded commander, weighs the difference between Billy’s innocence before God and his guilt before the British admiralty. His soul-searching wrestles with duty and disorder and his inner struggle is the real moral fulcrum of Melville’s tale. Spotless innocence and natural depravity present no moral dilemma, Melville’s allegory implies. Distinguishing and dealing with them in a real and demanding context may give the thoughtful arbiter an ambivalent pause.