Themes Relating to Good Versus Evil in Billy Budd

Many themes relating to the conflict between Good and Evil can be

found in Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, Foretopman. First originating

as a poem about a middle-aged man on the eve of his execution, Billy Budd

is the only true work of fiction written by Melville (Bloom, Critical Views

198). The idea for the novella was probably suggested in part by an incident

in 1842 in which a midshipman and two seamen of the American brig Somers

were hanged at sea for mutiny (Voss 44). Although it remained unpublished

for until almost half a century after Melville's death, Billy Budd quickly

became one of his most popular works (Bloom, Critical Views 198).

Perhaps one of the most widely recognized themes in Billy Budd is the

corruption of innocence by society (Gilmore 18). Society in Billy Budd is

represented by an eighteenth century English man-of-war, the H.M.S.

Bellipotent. Billy, who represents innocence, is a young seaman of twenty-one

who is endowed with physical strength, beauty, and good nature (Voss 44).

A crew member aboard the merchant ship Rights of Man, Billy is impressed

by the English navy and is taken aboard the H.M.S. Bellipotent. As he

boards the H.M.S. Bellipotent, he calmly utters, "Goodbye, Rights of Man," a

farewell to his ship and crewmates. However, this farewell is not only meant

for his ship, but for his actual rights as well, the rights that would have kept

him innocent until proven guilty under a normal society (Gilmore 18). The

society represented by the H.M.S. Bellipotent is much different from that of

the outside world, as the various laws and regulations in effect during war

turn a civilized society into more of a primitive state. The rights that are

fought for during war were no longer possessed by the men on board the

Bellipotent in an attempt to keep order as best as possible (Gilmore 18).

Billy was impressed by the English navy because of a need for good

sailors. The Rights of Man cannot survive in the war-torn waters of the

ocean without the protection of the Bellipotent, and the Bellipotent cannot

protect the Rights of Man if it does not impress sailors (Tucker 248). On the

H.M.S. Bellipotent, Billy faces destruction from a force which he does not and

cannot comprehend (Gilmore 18). Billy was snatched from a safe berth

aboard the Rights of Man so that he could be made into an example, which

would hopefully suppress the primitive instinct to rebel in the other crew

members (Tucker 248). He lacks the sophistication and experience to "roll

with the punches", forcing him to succumb to this hostile society. Unlike the

shifting keel of the ship, he cannot lean both ways, one way toward his

natural innocence and trustfulness and the other toward the evil and conspiracy

in society, causing him to break apart and sink (Gilmore 18). It can also be

interpreted that Billy is the true civilizer, for while the war in which the

H.M.S. Bellipotent fights is a product of what passes for civilization, Billy is

the maker of peace (Gilmore 65).

Another theme that critics feel is present in Billy Budd is that of the

impersonality and brutality of the modern state. Billy was taken from a safe

and protected environment on the Rights of Man and placed in a new, hostile

setting, one which he was not prepared for and could not conform to. Once

one of the strongest and most respected crew members on the Rights of Man,

he was no longer regarded as such on the H.M.S. Bellipotent (Bloom, Critical

Views 211). However, his innocence and trustfulness remained with him,

causing the crew to regard him as being more of a noble man, rather than the

powerful man that he was on the Rights of Man.

While most of the crew admired Billy for these qualities, John

Claggart, Master-at-Arms for the H.M.S. Bellipotent, regards Billy with

jealousy and malice (Gilmore 24). Critics have described Claggart as "the

epitome of evil," residing on the periphery of order, and serving as both

tempter and destroyer (Bloom, Critical Views 207). He has been compared by

Melville to Tecumseh and Titus Oates, and with his background being

unknown, Melville makes his character appear even more evil to the reader

(Bloom, Critical Views 207). Ironically, Claggart's strength resides in his job

as the shipboard peacekeeper. However, when his evil side takes control, it

causes him to rear up like a coiled snake, ready to strike out at goodness

(Gilmore 24).

When Billy becomes part of the H.M.S. Bellipotent's crew, Claggart's

jealousy and malice causes his evil side to take control. In an attempt