Themes Relating to Good Versus Evil in Billy Budd


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 Although it remained unpublished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
(Gilmore 24).
When Billy