Melville began the composition of Billy Budd, Foretopman with a vision of a sailor condemned to hang for mutiny. Over time, the sailor evolved into an embodiment of innocence compared by the narrator to Adam before the Fall and to the unsophisticated and unspoiled “savages” of Tahiti. Captain Vere calls Billy “an angel of God,” and his execution has clear parallels to the Crucifixion. Billy’s exceptional physical beauty and social popularity are matched by his moral virtue, which is paradoxically defined by what Billy is not—not intellectual, not sophisticated, not envious, not suspicious, and not malicious.
As Billy’s character evolved in the process of composition, his antagonist emerged—a dialectical opposite but harder to characterize. Claggart is intellectual, rational, deferential, and self-controlled. Where does he get his preoccupation with Billy? The narrator refers to “natural depravity” and “the mystery of iniquity.” Captain Vere identifies Claggart with Ananias, whose sin was falsehood. He is also compared to a serpent, recalling “the envious marplot of Eden.” Claggart, recognizing Billy’s virtue, despairs of achieving it for himself; perhaps this is the source of his enmity.
Captain Vere’s character was the third to emerge in the process of composition and is subject today to the most critical debate. Even his name is ambiguous. In Latin veretas is “truth,” and vir is...
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