How might one address the idea that Melville suggests in both Moby-Dick and Billy Budd that beauty and innocence must be destroyed so that order can be maintained?
Although it might be possible to claim that Herman Melville suggests, both in Moby-Dick and in Billy Budd, suggests that beauty and innocence must be destroyed so that order can be maintained, this claim is open to serious question. Certainly it is open to serious question if one tries to maintain that this is Melville’s own opinion. In both works, he himself seems to show great sympathy for innocence and beauty, and he also shows a certain degree of distrust for bogus claims about the need to maintain order.
This is especially the case in Moby-Dick. A strong case can be made that Captain Ahab, in that book, is a very morally flawed character and that his moral flaws become more and more significant as the book develops. Perhaps the most striking case of such immorality occurs in the chapter titled “The Pequod Meets the Rachel.” In that chapter, Ahab refuses to assist the broken-hearted captain of the Rachel, whose young son is missing at sea. Although the captain pleads with Ahab for assistance, Ahab rejects his pleas. Ahab is so consumed with his pursuit of Moby Dick that he is willing to let a young boy – surely a symbol of innocence and beauty – perish in order to catch and slay the white whale. Rejecting the other captain’s desperate requests for help, Ahab replies,
"Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good bye, good bye. God bless ye, man, and may I forgive myself, but I must go.”
Of course, there is no real reason that Ahab must go; only his monomaniacal obsession – in other words, only his overwhelming selfishness – dictates this decision. Nowhere else in the book does Ahab appear more heartless and blameworthy than here. In order to pursue the whale and thus restore what he thinks of as a kind of moral “order” to the universe, Ahab is willing to let a young boy die.
In Billy Budd, the situation is more complicated. Captain Vere seems truly troubled by his decision to execute Billy, and he has far more plausible reasons for justifying the execution. After all, Billy really did strike and kill a superior officer during a time of actual naval conflict and also during a time of mutinies on other ships. Ahab faces none of these very practical pressures. Vere seems to regret, or at least be in seriously conflicted about, his decision that Billy must die so that order can be preserved. It should be noted, however, that many critics see Vere as a true villain. If this interpretation is accepted (and even if it is not), it seems possible to argue that Melville himself is truly troubled by any claim that beauty and innocence must be destroyed in order to maintain order. After all, even Vere himself seems truly troubled by such a claim.