Billy Budd, Foretopman

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Billy Budd, called the Handsome Sailor, displays near physical perfection and possesses a purity of innocence alien to the world he inhabits; but a single flaw leads to his destruction as this symbolic tale unfolds in its leisurely paced, digressive, yet powerful manner.

A British navy ship, short of hand, borrows Billy from a homeward bound merchant vessel. Unfazed by his impressment, Billy boards the Indomitable and soon earns the crew’s admiration for his good nature. Even the strong-willed Captain Vere takes special note of him.

Like an Adam aboard a floating Garden of Eden, Billy has no grasp of wrongdoing. So when the master-at-arms, John Claggart, makes his hatred and envy known, Billy fails to guard against the evil that Claggart manifests. Eventually Billy’s flaw--his stutter--causes him to murder Claggart. The circumstances surrounding Billy’s punishment provide a dramatic and significant climax to this sad account of the Handsome Sailor.

The novel gives yet another version of the Fall of Man, so apparent are the symbolic roles of the major characters: Billy as Adam; Claggart as Satan; Captain Vere as the Almighty Judge. It takes up, as well, the eternal opposites embedded in love and hate. For the innocent Billy, love is spontaneous and natural; yet such love is his undoing. For the depraved Claggart, hatred becomes the twisted response to a love so pure. And for Captain Vere, whose name means truth, love must be...

(The entire section is 551 words.)