Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1800
According to Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, the editors of the novel, Herman Melville began the novel in 1886, developed and revised it through several stages, and then left it unpublished when he died in 1891. The Hayford-Sealts text, published in 1962, differs considerably from earlier ones published in 1924 and 1948. Among the noteworthy differences is the change of name for the ship on which the action occurs, from Indomitable to Bellipotent. The symbolism of the latter name relates it to the emphasis that Melville places in the novel on war, human involvement in it, and the effects of war on the individual.
That Melville did not wish his readers to mistake the nature or the general intent of his novel is clear in his statement that Billy “is not presented as a conventional hero” and “that the story in which he is the main figure is no romance.” The story is extremely simple. A young sailor on a British merchant ship is impressed for service on a British warship. He offers no resistance but accepts his new assignment with good will and attempts to be an ideal sailor. The ship’s master-at-arms takes an immediate and unwarranted dislike to the sailor, plots to cause him trouble, and then accuses him to the captain of having plotted mutiny. The captain summons the sailor, asks him to defend himself, and sees him strike and accidentally kill his accuser. The captain imprisons him, convenes a court-martial, condemns him to death, and has him hanged. This plot is the vehicle for Melville’s extended use of moral symbolism throughout the novel.
Billy Budd, Claggart, and Captain Vere are all clearly symbolic characters, and Melville brings out the symbolism through information supplied about their backgrounds, language used to describe them, and authorial comment of moral, theological, and philosophical import.
Melville employs a double symbolism for Billy: He is a Christ figure and a representation of innocent or Adamic man. Before Billy is removed from the merchant ship, the captain explains to the lieutenant from the warship that Billy has been most useful in quieting the “rat-pit of quarrels” that formerly infested his forecastle. “Not that he preached to them or said or did anything in particular; but a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones.” The captain’s words echo Luke 6:19: “And the whole multitude sought to touch him: for there went virtue out of him, and healed them all.” When the lieutenant is adamant about Billy’s impressment, the captain’s last words to him are, “you are going to take away my peacemaker.” There is no mistaking the reference to the Prince of Peace. In describing Billy as he appears to the men and officers on the warship, Melville mentions “something in the mobile expression, and every chance attitude and movement, something suggestive of a mother eminently favored by Love and the Graces.” An officer asks, “Who was your father?” and Billy answers, “God knows, sir.” Though Billy explains that he was told he was a foundling, the hint has already been given of a divine paternity. Melville drops the Christ symbolism of Billy until the confrontation with Claggart when Billy, unable to reply to Captain Vere’s request that he defend himself, shows in his face “an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold.” At the hanging, Billy’s last words are, “God bless Captain Vere!” and the reader recalls Christ’s words on the Cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” The symbolism continues with the hanging. Captain Vere gives a silent signal and “At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.” In the final chapter, Melville adds that The spar from which the foretopman was suspended was for some few years kept trace of by the bluejackets . . . . To them a chip from it was as a piece of the Cross . . . . They recalled a fresh young image of the Handsome Sailor, that face never deformed by a sneer or subtler vile freak of the heart within. This impression of him was doubtless deepened by the fact that he was gone, and in a measure mysteriously gone.
Even in the verses that close the novel, with Billy’s words, “They’ll give me a nibble—bit o’ biscuit ere I go./ Sure a messmate will reach me the last parting cup,” one cannot miss the reference to the Last Supper.
Billy is Christlike, but he belongs to the human race. Melville repeatedly employs him as an archetype. Billy’s complete innocence is first suggested in Melville’s comment that “Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.” Later, Captain Vere thinks of the handsome sailor as one “who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.” Innocence does not protect Billy. As Adam’s human imperfection led to his fall, so an imperfection in Billy leads to his destruction. In times of stress, Billy stutters or is even speechless and, says Melville, “In this particular Billy was a striking instance that the arch interferer, the envious marplot of Eden, still has more or less to do with every human consignment to this planet of Earth.”
The innocence that is his “blinder” causes Billy (or “Baby” as he is called) to fail to see and be on guard against the evil in Claggart, and his “vocal defect” deprives him of speech when he faces his false accuser. He strikes out as instinctively as a cornered animal, and his enemy dies. Billy does not intend to commit murder but, as Captain Vere tells his officers, “The prisoner’s deed—with that alone we have to do.” Billy does not live in an animal’s instinctive world of nature. His life is bound by social law and particularly by naval law in a time of war. As Captain Vere explains, innocent Billy will be acquitted by God at “the last Assizes,” but “We proceed under the law of the Mutiny Act.” That act demands death for Billy’s deed, and he dies in order that discipline may be maintained in the great navy that protects Britain against its enemies.
As Billy symbolizes innocent man, Claggart represents the spirit of evil, the foe of innocence. There is a mystery in Claggart’s enmity toward harmless Billy. For, says Melville, “what can more partake of the mysterious than an antipathy spontaneous and profound such as is evoked in certain exceptional mortals by the mere aspect of some other mortal, however harmless he may be, if not called forth by this very harmlessness itself?” Claggart’s evil nature is not acquired, “not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate.” He recognizes the good but is “powerless to be it.” His energies are self-destructive; his nature is doomed to “act out to the end the part allotted to it.” Although he destroys an innocent man, he is destroyed as well.
As Billy at one extreme is Christlike and childishly innocent and Claggart at the other is satanic, Captain Vere represents the kind of officer needed to preserve such an institution as the navy he serves. He is a man of balance, “mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline; thoroughly versed in the science of his profession, and intrepid to the verge of temerity, though never injudiciously so.” His reading tastes incline toward “books treating of actual men and events . . . history, biography, and unconventional writers like Montaigne, who, free from cant and convention, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities.” More intellectual than his fellow officers, he seems somewhat “pedantic” to them, and Melville hints that, in reporting Vere’s long speech to his junior officers of the drumhead court, he has simplified the phrasing of the argument. Elsewhere, however, Captain Vere’s speech is simple, brief, and direct.
Although Captain Vere is a thoughtful, reserved man, he is not without feeling. Quickly recognizing Billy’s inability to speak when he has been ordered to defend himself, he soothingly says, “There is no hurry, my boy. Take your time, take your time.” He is even capable of momentary vehemence as when he surprises the surgeon with the outburst, “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” The captain quickly regains control. Melville does not report what Captain Vere says to Billy when he informs him privately of the death sentence, although Melville suggests that Captain Vere may have shown compassion by catching Billy “to his heart, even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up.” Captain Vere is seemingly overcome after Billy’s last words, “God bless Captain Vere!” and the echo from the crew, since “either through stoic self-control or a sort of momentary paralysis induced by emotional shock,” he stands “rigidly erect as a musket.” The final view of a man whose heart balanced his mind is given in the report of Captain Vere’s dying words, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd,” spoken not in “the accents of remorse.” Though capable of fatherly feeling toward an unfortunate young man, he causes to be carried out a sentence he believed was needed if the strength of order is to be maintained in the turmoil of war.
Although Billy Budd, Foretopman has occasionally been read as a veiled attack on the unjust treatment of a hapless man by an impersonal, authoritarian state, a close reading of the novel makes it seem more likely that Melville’s intent was to show, especially through Captain Vere, that the protection of a state during a time of war must inevitably involve on occasion the sacrifice of an individual. Melville includes scattered satiric comments on the imperfections of men and organizations, but his overwhelmingly favorable portrait of Captain Vere as a principled and dedicated representative of the state leaves the reader with the final impression that Melville had at last become sadly resigned to the fact that imperfect people living in an imperfect world have no guarantee against suffering an unjust fate. That Billy uncomplainingly accepts his end, even asking God’s blessing upon the man who is sending him to death, suggests that Melville, too, had become reconciled to the eternal coexistence of good and evil in the world.