"When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was...desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband...then the eyes of both of them were opened." This well-known Bible verse from Genesis 3:6 was known as The Fall of Man. Symbolically, when the first humans ate from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, civilization was conceived. Its most authoritative embodiment was institutional conscience, or manmade laws to uphold order and justice. In the novella Billy Budd, Herman Melville presented a dilemma of private conscience and institutional conscience through the events onboard a British warship during the late eighteenth century. In the civilized society created by men, institutional conscience prevails over private conscience.
Billy Budd became the spoil-of-war in the conflict between institutional conscience and private conscience because of his alienation from civilization. Dubbed the "Handsome Sailor," Billy was liked by his companions for his "unpretentious good looks and a sort of genial happy-go-lucky air." (p.11) Melville created Billy to be a perfect, naïve grown child with no self-consciousness and unaware of insidious evils. Association with fellow sailors could not bring Billy into civilization, for his companions also lacked the sophistication of the real world. Without experiences in a normal society, Billy was "little more than a sort of upright barbarian" and "one to whom not yet has been proffered the questionable apple of knowledge." (p.13-14) When Billy The Barbarian confronted the child of civilization--institutional conscience, it killed him, leaving no ground for the private conscience to defend him. Claggart was merely a tool of civilization, for Billy was destined to be destroyed. Billy's death was prophetical, for God had warned Adam that he would surely die after eating the forbidden fruit. It was the innocence within Adam that died when he sewed fig leaves together to cover his naked body. Similarity, a pure creature such as Billy must perish when he encountered civilization and its institutional conscience.
A highly civilized man, Captain Vere was the victim of the conflict between institutional conscience and private conscience as he helped one triumph over the other while sacrificing his moral codes. He was a creature of civilization that "had a marked leaning toward everything intellectual" yet could also "at times betray a certain dreaminess of mood." (pp.22-23) Portrayed as a flawless captain, Vere possessed both the abilities to reason and to sympathize. However, it was this versatility that troubled him in deciding Billy's punishment. Caught in a quandary, Vere decided to prioritize his institutional conscience by reminding the drumhead court that "private conscience should not yield to that imperial one formulated in the code." (p.69) Vere struggled with his own private conscience that called for the mitigation of Billy's punishment. Yet, extenuation of Billy's crime would also mean breaching the imperial code. Being one of the few who were intellectual enough to appreciate the rareness of such perfection as Billy, Vere faced a terrible struggle when he must choose between to "adjudge to summary and shameful death of a fellow-creature innocent before God" or to "[cease] to be natural free-agents" and punish a "deed [that] constitute a capital crime whereof the penalty is a mortal one." (p.68) In his private conscience, Vere knew that Billy meant neither mutiny nor homicide; yet institutional laws judge not by the intent, but the outcome. Therefore, Vere must ignore the principles of his private conscience and fulfill his duty as the captain of a warship. By asking the drumhead judges "do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature?" then answering "No, to the King," Vere persuaded them to judge by the imperial codes rather than by compassion. (p.68) He put his faith in the institution that fed and clothed him, and let its martial laws operate through him. In order to prevent the "distempering irruption of contagious fever " known as mutiny from "[awakening] any slumbering embers of the Nore among the crew," Vere traded his private conscience for order on the ship by condemning Billy to hang. (pp.17-62) Vere betrayed his private conscience because his institutional conscience told him that the priority was to maintain order among the crew. Caught between moral codes and institutional responsibility, Vere chose to uphold the latter and proved that institutional conscience prevailed over private conscience.
The institutional conscience was implemented by the established law and order, whereas the private conscience originated within the individual. When the two clash, the private conscience would yield to the institutional conscience because the latter is as omnipresent as civilization itself. Based on this concept, Herman Melville masterfully pinpointed the conflict brought by civilization through the creation of the timeless novella, Billy Budd.
Irony is defined as "the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning". In the beginning of the story Billy is described as an innocent, likeable, and sweet man. Towards the end of the story he is described as a murderer. This is ironic because his deathly action was unanticipated by the reader. The irony continues throughout the story as Billy Budd dies. There stands a monument at the place Billy was hanged. Billy dies in defeat, but he comes back as a living symbol.
Paradox is defined as "a statement actually self-contradictory or false." Captain Vere stands for what is right and orderly. It is right for God to spare the innocent, but wrong for Captain Vere not to execute Billy. The chaplain is getting paid by the War Department.
Captain Vere is faced with dilemma when Billy accidentally kills Claggart. He is faced with a question, whether to trust his head or his heart.
This story shows biblical symbolism. Billy portrays a Christ-like character before his fall. His white clothing symbolizes innocence. Claggart manipulated Billy like the serpent manipulated Adam. Claggart and Billy's death is symbolic because the deaths contrast each other.
Billy's only flaw was that he couldn't handle emotional situations.
The theme is as simple as good vs. evil. Evil won in the short-term, and good won in the long-term. In the story good and evil is compared to war. It's an eternal conflict.
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 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 book begins as Billy Budd is taken off of his own ship, and placed on a British warship. This was known as impressment, and was a common practice of the British navy. They would take sailors off or other ships, sometime capture enemy ships, and force them into service for the British Crown ("Impressment"). Billy, while dissappointed about having to leave his old ship behind, accepted his duty and went onboard the "Indominable" with Captain Vere. Billy was immediately liked on the ship. He did his duty very well, and was a good man to talk to and be around. Captain Vere was very happy about the addition of Billy to the ship. He noted that Billy was always willing to work, and the captain started to like Billy.
There was, however, one person on the ship who didn't care at all for Billy, and his name was Claggart. Claggart was the master-at-arms onboard the ship, which in other words meant he was the chief of police on the warship (Kincheloe). He was tall and slim, with a protruding chin that gave him a very commanding and authoratative gaze. Claggart appears to act unusally kindly towards Billy, which makes Billy wonder if something was amiss. When Billy asks another sailor what is going on with Claggart, the man replies, "Jimmy Legs (Claggart's nickname) is down on you" (Melville 40). For some reason, unknown the Billy, Claggart has a hatred for Billy. It can be inferred that Claggart hates Billy's innocense and kind nature. Claggart is jealous of Billy's good looks, and his purity, something Claggart cannot have, and so wishes to destroy. Claggart soon confronts Captain Vere, sayint that Billy is the leader of a mutiny aboard the ship, which is one of the most serious offenses. Captain Vere, not willing to believe that Billy could be up to something so horrible, wishes to speak with Billy himself to see if something is wrong. The two men call Billy into their office and ask him about the mutiny. He is so caught up with emotion that he can't speak, and so he lashes out and strikes Claggart in the head, knocking him to the ground. When Claggart doesn't rise, Billy and Captain Vere check on him and determine he has died.
Here is where Captain Vere is faced with his problem. Billy has murdered another man aboard the ship in cold blood. The captain knows that Billy acted out in a bad manner, yet he know there wasn't much choice for Billy. There was no real proof that Billy had even attempted to lead a mutiny, and so in a way, Billy was defending himself. Billy was a very well liked person on the ship, and no one would want to see such a peaceful and pure sailor punished for defending his honor. Captain Vere has grown to love Billy as a friend and as a great sailor, and so he has no wish to see Billy in trouble for Claggart's death. On the other hand, an important man on the ship has been killed. Claggart never attacked Billy, or physically threatened him in any way. The military law on the ship dictated that if someone was murdered, his murderer would be hung. This rule was to keep order on the ship, without having to worry about trials and and the problems trials ential when the ship should be concentrating on battle. Captain Vere had to make a choice; his heart told him to ease the harsh punishment on a friend who wasn't entirely to blame for what happened to Claggart while his duty was to hang Billy for murdering Claggart in order to keep control on the ship.
In truth, Captain Vere knew all along what had to be done after Claggart's death. When the ship's surgeon saw Claggart and asked what had happened, Captain Vere replied, "Struck dead by an angle of God. Yet the angel must hang," (Melville 68). Captain Vere had a duty to do, one that he didn't want to do, but one that he had to do. As a result of the events that unfolded on the ship, Billy was sentenced to death and executed. Captain Vere wasn't happy about the decision, but he knew in his heart he had to do it.