Many themes relating to the conflict between Good and Evil can be
found in Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Foretopman. First originating
as a poem about a middle-aged man on the eve of his execution, Billy Budd
is the only true work of fiction written by Melville (Bloom, Critical Views
198). The idea for the novella was probably suggested in part by an incident
in 1842 in which a midshipman and two seamen of the American brig Somers
were hanged at sea for mutiny (Voss 44). Although it remained unpublished
for until almost half a century after Melville’s death, Billy Budd quickly
became one of his most popular works (Bloom, Critical Views 198).
Perhaps one of the most widely recognized themes in Billy Budd is the
corruption of innocence by society (Gilmore 18). Society in Billy Budd is
represented by an eighteenth century English man-of-war, the H.M.S.
Bellipotent. Billy, who represents innocence, is a young seaman of twenty-one
who is endowed with physical strength, beauty, and good nature (Voss 44).
A crew member aboard the merchant ship Rights of Man, Billy is impressed
by the English navy and is taken aboard the H.M.S. Bellipotent. As he
boards the H.M.S. Bellipotent, he calmly utters, “Goodbye, Rights of Man,” a
farewell to his ship and crewmates. However, this farewell is not only meant
for his ship, but for his actual rights as well, the rights that would have kept
him innocent until proven guilty under a normal society (Gilmore 18). The
society represented by the H.M.S. Bellipotent is much different from that of
the outside world, as the various laws and regulations in effect during war
turn a civilized society into more of a primitive state. The rights that are
fought for during war were no longer possessed by the men on board the
Bellipotent in an attempt to keep order as best as possible (Gilmore 18).
Billy was impressed by the English navy because of a need for good
sailors. The Rights of Man cannot survive in the war-torn waters of the
ocean without the protection of the Bellipotent, and the Bellipotent cannot
protect the Rights of Man if it does not impress sailors (Tucker 248). On the
H.M.S. Bellipotent, Billy faces destruction from a force which he does not and
cannot comprehend (Gilmore 18). Billy was snatched from a safe berth
aboard the Rights of Man so that he could be made into an example, which
would hopefully suppress the primitive instinct to rebel in the other crew
members (Tucker 248). He lacks the sophistication and experience to “roll
with the punches”, forcing him to succumb to this hostile society. Unlike the
shifting keel of the ship, he cannot lean both ways, one way toward his
natural innocence and trustfulness and the other toward the evil and conspiracy
in society, causing him to break apart and sink (Gilmore 18). It can also be
interpreted that Billy is the true civilizer, for while the war in which the
H.M.S. Bellipotent fights is a product of what passes for civilization, Billy is
the maker of peace (Gilmore 65).
Another theme that critics feel is present in Billy Budd is that of the
impersonality and brutality of the modern state. Billy was taken from a safe
and protected environment on the Rights of Man and placed in a new, hostile
setting, one which he was not prepared for and could not conform to. Once
one of the strongest and most respected crew members on the Rights of Man,
he was no longer regarded as such on the H.M.S. Bellipotent (Bloom, Critical
Views 211). However, his innocence and trustfulness remained with him,
causing the crew to regard him as being more of a noble man, rather than the
powerful man that he was on the Rights of Man.
While most of the crew admired Billy for these qualities, John
Claggart, Master-at-Arms for the H.M.S. Bellipotent, regards Billy with
jealousy and malice (Gilmore 24). Critics have described Claggart as “the
epitome of evil,” residing on the periphery of order, and serving as both
tempter and destroyer (Bloom, Critical Views 207). He has been compared by
Melville to Tecumseh and Titus Oates, and with his background being
unknown, Melville makes his character appear even more evil to the reader
(Bloom, Critical Views 207). Ironically, Claggart’s strength resides in his job
as the shipboard peacekeeper. However, when his evil side takes control, it
causes him to rear up like a coiled snake, ready to strike out at goodness
When Billy becomes part of the H.M.S. Bellipotent’s crew, Claggart’s
jealousy and malice causes his evil side to take control. In an attempt to
destroy Billy’s image of innocence and peacefulness, Claggart approaches
Captain Vere and accuses Billy of attempted mutiny. Understandibly surprised
at the accusation, Vere calls Billy and Claggart before him in order to
question both sides. Billy, being afflicted by a stammer which prevents him
from speaking when excited, involuntarily strikes Claggart when he learns of
the false accusations, killing him instantly in the presence of Captain Vere
Although Vere realizes that Billy acted without being able to
contemplate his actions, he must decide whether or not to place Billy on trial
as he is required by law to do. The Mutiny Act states that “A blow to a
superior, regardless of its effect, is a capital offense, and the law provides no
exceptions for palliating circumstances” (Bloom, Chelsea House 157). Vere
believes Billy’s story and knows that he never meant to kill Claggart.
Nevertheless, he fears the possible consequences if Billy goes unpunished and
that actual mutiny may take place if he delays Billy’s fate until the Bellipotent
reaches land. Vere forms and persuades a drumhead court to put aside
sympathy and act for the greater good of society (the British navy) (Bloom,
Critical Views 209). Most critics agree that Vere had to punish Billy,
whether he was innocent or not, to assure the obedient well-being of society
(“Billy Budd”). Vere believes that life would fall to pieces if the necessities
in life were not carried out. The occasional sacrifice of an expendable
individual, no matter how brutal it may seem, is necessary for maintaining
peace and order in society (Foster 115).
Although many themes can be interpreted from the novella Billy Budd,
it is obvious to most that the prevalent theme in the novella is the battle
between Good and Evil. When broken down into its simplest parts, Billy
Budd deals with Billy, the representative of good and innocence, being falsely
accused by Claggart, who represents evil, before an intelligent but feeling
authority, Captain Vere (“Billy Budd”).
Claggart, the epitome of evil, attempts to be the perfect peacemaker,
but the evil nature born within him and innate prevents him from doing so
(Voss 45). His evil flaw is easily enraged by the fact that Billy is a natural
and admirable peacemaker, changing his character from the enforcer to the
destroyer of peace. He has been described as a “Jekyll and Hyde” character,
changing personalities from good to evil without control or warning (Bloom,
Critical Views 207).
Vere, however, is the perfect balance between Billy and Claggart,
opposing innovation and change, yet remaining at peace with the world
(Gilmore 23). He is endowed with qualities that make him the well-nigh
perfect embodiment of the just and impartial judge (Voss 45). Vere is the
chief agent of law; many critics call him everything from a rigid military
disciplinarian to an unprincipled aristocrat (Gilmore 57). He experienced love
when it didn’t threaten duty (Bloom, Critical Views 211). Although Vere
believed that he was forced to punish Billy, he deeply regretted having to do
so. Critics feel that Billy is like a son to Vere, and some even go as far to
say that he is Vere’s long-lost son (Bloom, Critical Views 208). However,
any compromise at all in the decision is impossible, and so Vere, and we, are
forced to confront the imperatives of law. There is no escape for Vere, and
it is in this light that we must appreciate his reactions (Gilmore 58).
Vere meets in private with Billy to discuss his sentence, culminating in
a kind of sacrament (Voss 46). His attitude of sympathy and feeling for
Billy displays Vere’s belief that although evil may sometimes defeat good in a
physical sense, good always prevails in the spirit and in the heart of man.
Arthur Voss states that, “in Billy’s Christian meekness and humility, his
acceptance of his fate, his ‘God bless Captain Vere’ just before execution, and
his ascension in ‘the full rose of dawn,’ some of Melville’s critics see an
affirmation that goodness persists and triumphs over evil and injustice” (45).
Billy, though innocent, is not perfect. Some critics feel that Billy may
represent Melville’s late-in-life subordination of will to God’s infinite judgment
(Gilmore 24). Melville is also thought to have believed that Christianity is
the center of an order that is slowly slipping away, and therefore has made
Billy a Christ figure (Tucker 316). Billy’s calm acceptance of his fate further
develops this Christlike character. He feels for Vere and understands the
circumstances under which Vere is forced to punish him (Bloom, Critical
Views 209). When he cries, “God bless Captain Vere!” just moments before
his execution, Vere, either through stoic self-control or a sort of momentary
paralysis induced by emotional shock, stands exactly rigid in the ship-armorer’s
rack. His blessing of Vere, like Christ’s blessing of His enemies, shows that
he feels no resentment toward those who are taking his life from him
(Gilmore 59). Although the official naval report makes Billy the villain and
Claggart the hero, Billy proves that after he is executed, the good that he
stands for will continue to live, always defeating the troubles of evil in the
heart of man.
Melville goes on to imply that society does not know how to
differentiate true good from evil. The law and society has not yet learned
how to deal with man as a flawed individual. The law’s insanity is like that
earlier attributed to Claggart: although apparently subject to reason, it is deeply
irrational. In Billy’s case, the law is unable to distinguish the human being
from his act (Gilmore 63).
Billy’s death had a profound impact on the crew of the H.M.S.
Bellipotent. Many members of the crew respected the good that Billy stood
for and felt that he should not have been executed for his crime, as did Vere.
Billy becomes a martyr for the crew of the Bellipotent – they continue to
remember and to uphold the lessons learned from his character. Pieces of the
mast from which he was hanged are saved and cherished like pieces of the
cross would be cherished by devout Christians (Van Doren 617). The men
that witnessed Billy’s execution remembered the event as one of history’s most
tragic days for the rest of their lives. And, on his deathbed, even strong
Captain Vere displayed his affection for Billy and the impact that he had on
his life with his dying words, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.” (Gilmore 23)
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Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Views of Herman Melville. Philadelphia:
Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
Foster, Edward, ed. Six American Novelists of the Nineteenth Century.
Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1968.
Gilmore, Michael T., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Billy Budd.
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 1971.
Tucker, Martin, ed. Moulton’s Library of Literary Criticism of English and
American Authors. 4 vols. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing
Van Doren, Carl. The American Novel. New York: The Macmillian
Voss, Authur. The American Short Story. Norman, Oklahoma: University of
Oklahoma Press, 1973.