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 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? Through this book, Melville is telling that one need to strike some
kind of balance between these two ideas; a person needs to have morality and virtue;
needs 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 the reader is 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.
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. 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.
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
remises would he make himself liable to such a visitation or do or omit naught that might
merit even verbal reproof. 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.
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. 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 the reader ask themselves 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 dam 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. Vere is a man who believes in rules, regulations, and
procedure. In his opinion, everything must be done according