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the novel, Herman Melville began the novel in 1886, developed and revised it through several stages, and then left it unpublished when he died in 1891.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...
(The entire section is 1,800 words.)