BILLY BUDD

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 always foremost”(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”(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