Billy Budd, a novel by Herman Melville, is an allegory of good versus evil. Billy, a young man forced into service in the British Navy during the late 18th century is the embodiment of innocence. John Claggart, whom is the master at arms aboard Billy’s second ship, is evil personified. Their impending confrontation is the basis for the main prevailing theme of good versus evil. When the two collide and Billy kills Claggart in a fit of rage, Captain Vere, Captain of the Bellipotent and advocate of Billy, is forced to decide how important duty and principal are to him and essentially provides the basis for another important theme in the story: when does one’s conscience supersede the law?
Billy Budd is a physically beautiful human being, whom Melville claims could pose as the likeness of Adam before the fall, one of many biblical references in the novel. He is the only sailor selected to move from the ship Rights of Man to the Bellipotent and quickly is accepted on his new ship because of his charm and good nature. He brings smiles to the faces of all the sailors aboard the Bellipotent, young and old. His primary feature is his extraordinary innocence. In twenty-one years, he has never even directly encountered evil and thus believes that people harbor nothing but the best intentions towards him. Ironically, it is these most admirable qualities which will prove his undoing in the end.

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Claggart develops a hatred and jealousy of Billy Budd almost from the moment Billy steps on the ship. Claggart is not well respected by the other sailors on the ship and when Billy almost immediately earns this respect through friendliness and innocence, Claggart begins to plot against him. Claggart clearly desires what he cannot have, which in this case is not only Billy’s good looks, but also his innocence and sincerity. Whereas Billy lacks the ability to see the difference between actions and intentions, Claggart uses deception and deceit to fool the sailors into thinking he is a genuine human being, while at the same time still carrying out his disingenuous plots. Even Claggart’s exterior is quite disturbing. His pale complexion lead some to believe that he does not even psossess a drop of blood. Claggart feels that because he uses these same underhanded methods, that everyone else is driven by hidden malice. He feels that the other members of the ship are always conniving a devious plot and often looks too deep into peoples’ actions to find their plots.
Claggart’s underhanded methods are seen throughout the novel as he has sailors rummaging through Billy’s belongings and trying to get him to agree to participate in a mutiny. Billy’s ability to resist the temptation to the Master at Arm’s underhanded deeds only further infuriates Claggart. The final straw is when Billy spills the soup in the mess hall and the soup makes its way to the feet of Claggart, who takes Billy’s mistake as an intentional act, and makes an apparently makes a lighthearted comment about the action. Billy interprets this as a symbol of Claggart’s respect for him. In actuality, Claggart is sure that Billy is contemptuous towards him and is going to overcome this enemy anyway possible.
This confrontation between Billy and Claggart is the central them of the novel. It is a constant struggle of good versus evil, or more specifically innocence versus evil. It is clear that Billy is being compared to a Christ figure throughout the novel, representing the best qualities a man may possess. Claggart is clearly being compared to Satan, tempting Billy into evil and working to destroy him throughout the novel. Similar to the way Christ is killed, Billy is also an innocent victim in a hostile society. Claggart is similar to Lucifer in the lack of knowledge anybody possesses about him. Lucifer is vague figure people know about only through stories and it’s quite possible to meet him and not even know it. Melville even alludes to the possibility that Claggart could be a criminal placed on the ship instead of jail because of the desperate need to protect England from France.
When the two conflicting parties clash, Captain Vere is forced to act non-partisan judge of the situation. Claggart presents the idea of Billy leading a mutiny to overthrow the captain. Vere calls for Billy and has Claggart repeat his accusations. Upon hearing these accusations, Billy is overcome by emotions and begins to stutter, his one known shortcoming. Because of his innocence, Billy does not know how to deal with these accusations and ends up punching Claggart in the face. The blow kills Claggart and leaves Vere to play the role of God, deciding the fate of an innocent man’s life. This is a true test of Vere’s ability to Captain the ship. His persuasion is clearly what is going to sway the drumhead court and he decides that duty is more important than personal alliances and that a crime must be punished no matter what the intent or who the accused is coming to the final conclusion, “The prisoner’s deed-that alone we must deal with.” (p. 157). It is clear that Melville had established Vere as a father figure to Billy since the moment Billy stepped foot on the Bellipotent, similar to God and Jesus Christ, and that only made this decision that much more difficult. In the end he was forced to convict Billy to prevent other sailors from believing that murder was an excusable event. In a time where mutinies were quite prevalent, Vere was forced to make this difficult decision which was in the best interest for the ship, even if it meant sacrificing a man he was so close to and felt so deeply for.
In the end, ironically it is Billy’s innocence which proves to be his undoing. His innocence and naivety prevent him from seeing the nefarious qualities that Claggart possesses. It would seem that because Claggart died, he was the one who was punished for his underhandedness in the form of death, but in actuality Claggart achieves his ultimate goals, which were to destroy Billy’s innocence and ultimately, to destroy Billy. Though Claggart has destroyed Billy, his innocence still rings true in his death, as we see by his serene peace prior to his hanging and his final words of, “God Bless Captain Vere.”
The themes examined by Melville are themes which are still hotly debated in society today. The theme of good versus evil is something one encounters every day, a prime example being the scandals encountered in corporate America. The idea of when does one’s conscience supersede the law is examined almost on a daily by the Supreme Court. Billy Budd is a novel which examines many of the roots of human nature. Melville has written a masterpiece inspecting issues which have plagues mankind since the times of Chris and are not going to subside in the near future. This is a novel which will continue to be read and examined for many years to come.

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