Themes Relating To Good Versus Evil In Billy Budd Essay Paper

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Many themes relating to the conflict between Good and Evil can befound in Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Foretopman. First originatingas a poem about a middle-aged man on the eve of his execution, Billy Buddis the only true work of fiction written by Melville (Bloom, Critical Views198). The idea for the novella was probably suggested in part by an incidentin 1842 in which a midshipman and two seamen of the American brig Somerswere hanged at sea for mutiny (Voss 44). Although it remained unpublishedfor until almost half a century after Melville’s death, Billy Budd quicklybecame one of his most popular works (Bloom, Critical Views 198). Perhaps one of the most widely recognized themes in Billy Budd is thecorruption of innocence by society (Gilmore 18). Society in Billy Budd isrepresented by an eighteenth century English man-of-war, the H.
M. S. Bellipotent. Billy, who represents innocence, is a young seaman of twenty-onewho is endowed with physical strength, beauty, and good nature (Voss 44). A crew member aboard the merchant ship Rights of Man, Billy is impressedby the English navy and is taken aboard the H. M.
S. Bellipotent. As heboards the H. M.
S. Bellipotent, he calmly utters, “Goodbye, Rights of Man,” afarewell to his ship and crewmates. However, this farewell is not only meantfor his ship, but for his actual rights as well, the rights that would have kepthim innocent until proven guilty under a normal society (Gilmore 18). Thesociety represented by the H.
M. S. Bellipotent is much different from that ofthe outside world, as the various laws and regulations in effect during warturn a civilized society into more of a primitive state. The rights that arefought for during war were no longer possessed by the men on board theBellipotent in an attempt to keep order as best as possible (Gilmore 18). Billy was impressed by the English navy because of a need for goodsailors.
The Rights of Man cannot survive in the war-torn waters of theocean without the protection of the Bellipotent, and the Bellipotent cannotprotect the Rights of Man if it does not impress sailors (Tucker 248). On theH. M. S. Bellipotent, Billy faces destruction from a force which he does not andcannot comprehend (Gilmore 18).
Billy was snatched from a safe berthaboard the Rights of Man so that he could be made into an example, whichwould hopefully suppress the primitive instinct to rebel in the other crewmembers (Tucker 248). He lacks the sophistication and experience to “rollwith the punches”, forcing him to succumb to this hostile society. Unlike theshifting keel of the ship, he cannot lean both ways, one way toward hisnatural innocence and trustfulness and the other toward the evil and conspiracyin society, causing him to break apart and sink (Gilmore 18). It can also beinterpreted that Billy is the true civilizer, for while the war in which theH. M. S.
Bellipotent fights is a product of what passes for civilization, Billy isthe maker of peace (Gilmore 65). Another theme that critics feel is present in Billy Budd is that of theimpersonality and brutality of the modern state. Billy was taken from a safeand protected environment on the Rights of Man and placed in a new, hostilesetting, one which he was not prepared for and could not conform to. Onceone 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, CriticalViews 211). However, his innocence and trustfulness remained with him,causing the crew to regard him as being more of a noble man, rather than thepowerful man that he was on the Rights of Man. While most of the crew admired Billy for these qualities, JohnClaggart, Master-at-Arms for the H. M. S.
Bellipotent, regards Billy withjealousy and malice (Gilmore 24). Critics have described Claggart as “theepitome of evil,” residing on the periphery of order, and serving as bothtempter and destroyer (Bloom, Critical Views 207). He has been compared byMelville to Tecumseh and Titus Oates, and with his background beingunknown, Melville makes his character appear even more evil to the reader(Bloom, Critical Views 207). Ironically, Claggart’s strength resides in his jobas the shipboard peacekeeper. However, when his evil side takes control, itcauses him to rear up like a coiled snake, ready to strike out at goodness(Gilmore 24). When Billy becomes part of the H.
M. S. Bellipotent’s crew, Claggart’sjealousy and malice causes his evil side to take control. In an attempt todestroy Billy’s image of innocence and peacefulness, Claggart approachesCaptain Vere and accuses Billy of attempted mutiny. Understandibly surprisedat the accusation, Vere calls Billy and Claggart before him in order toquestion both sides.
Billy, being afflicted by a stammer which prevents himfrom speaking when excited, involuntarily strikes Claggart when he learns ofthe false accusations, killing him instantly in the presence of Captain Vere(Voss 44). Although Vere realizes that Billy acted without being able tocontemplate his actions, he must decide whether or not to place Billy on trialas he is required by law to do. The Mutiny Act states that “A blow to asuperior, regardless of its effect, is a capital offense, and the law provides noexceptions for palliating circumstances” (Bloom, Chelsea House 157). Verebelieves Billy’s story and knows that he never meant to kill Claggart. Nevertheless, he fears the possible consequences if Billy goes unpunished andthat actual mutiny may take place if he delays Billy’s fate until the Bellipotentreaches land. Vere forms and persuades a drumhead court to put asidesympathy 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 necessitiesin life were not carried out. The occasional sacrifice of an expendableindividual, no matter how brutal it may seem, is necessary for maintainingpeace 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 battlebetween Good and Evil.
When broken down into its simplest parts, BillyBudd deals with Billy, the representative of good and innocence, being falselyaccused by Claggart, who represents evil, before an intelligent but feelingauthority, 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 naturaland admirable peacemaker, changing his character from the enforcer to thedestroyer 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-nighperfect embodiment of the just and impartial judge (Voss 45).
Vere is thechief agent of law; many critics call him everything from a rigid militarydisciplinarian to an unprincipled aristocrat (Gilmore 57). He experienced lovewhen it didn’t threaten duty (Bloom, Critical Views 211). Although Verebelieved that he was forced to punish Billy, he deeply regretted having to doso. Critics feel that Billy is like a son to Vere, and some even go as far tosay 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, areforced to confront the imperatives of law. There is no escape for Vere, andit is in this light that we must appreciate his reactions (Gilmore 58).
Vere meets in private with Billy to discuss his sentence, culminating ina kind of sacrament (Voss 46). His attitude of sympathy and feeling forBilly displays Vere’s belief that although evil may sometimes defeat good in aphysical sense, good always prevails in the spirit and in the heart of man. Arthur Voss states that, “in Billy’s Christian meekness and humility, hisacceptance of his fate, his ‘God bless Captain Vere’ just before execution, andhis ascension in ‘the full rose of dawn,’ some of Melville’s critics see anaffirmation that goodness persists and triumphs over evil and injustice” (45). Billy, though innocent, is not perfect.
Some critics feel that Billy mayrepresent Melville’s late-in-life subordination of will to God’s infinite judgment(Gilmore 24). Melville is also thought to have believed that Christianity isthe center of an order that is slowly slipping away, and therefore has madeBilly a Christ figure (Tucker 316). Billy’s calm acceptance of his fate furtherdevelops this Christlike character. He feels for Vere and understands thecircumstances under which Vere is forced to punish him (Bloom, CriticalViews 209). When he cries, “God bless Captain Vere!” just moments beforehis execution, Vere, either through stoic self-control or a sort of momentaryparalysis induced by emotional shock, stands exactly rigid in the ship-armorer’srack.
His blessing of Vere, like Christ’s blessing of His enemies, shows thathe feels no resentment toward those who are taking his life from him(Gilmore 59). Although the official naval report makes Billy the villain andClaggart the hero, Billy proves that after he is executed, the good that hestands for will continue to live, always defeating the troubles of evil in theheart of man. Melville goes on to imply that society does not know how todifferentiate true good from evil. The law and society has not yet learnedhow to deal with man as a flawed individual. The law’s insanity is like thatearlier attributed to Claggart: although apparently subject to reason, it is deeplyirrational. In Billy’s case, the law is unable to distinguish the human beingfrom 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 stoodfor 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 toremember and to uphold the lessons learned from his character. Pieces of themast from which he was hanged are saved and cherished like pieces of thecross would be cherished by devout Christians (Van Doren 617). The menthat witnessed Billy’s execution remembered the event as one of history’s mosttragic days for the rest of their lives.
And, on his deathbed, even strongCaptain Vere displayed his affection for Billy and the impact that he had onhis life with his dying words, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd. ” (Gilmore 23)Works Cited”Billy Budd. ” “Billy Budd” Electronic Encyclopedia. 1994 ed. Bloom, Harold.
The Chelsea House Library of Literary Criticism. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989. 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 andAmerican Authors.
4 vols. New York: Frederick Ungar PublishingCo. , 1966. Van Doren, Carl.
The American Novel. New York: The MacmillianCompany, 1968. Voss, Authur. The American Short Story. Norman, Oklahoma: University ofOklahoma Press, 1973.

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