Melville and the Social Injustices of His Day

Billy goes along with everything that people in

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encounter because he does not want to look like a "snitch." Billy goes along with everything that people in authority tell him to do, but he will avoid getting in trouble with his shipmates. He seems to choose cognitively his decisions by making the ones that will upset no one (Johnson 56). He is like a politician in the way he avoids getting anyone angry, but he lacks the politician's drive to further his or her own position. Billy seems to have no purpose other than to stay as "pure" as possible. Morality is one of Melville's favorite themes. Repeatedly he shows his characters to be immoral, moral, or amoral. His characters all have a strong sense of morality. But what is his definition of moral? William York Tindall states, "As I shall use it and as I think Melville did, morality implies not only action but
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motive, attitude, and being. It involves a sense of obligation to self, community, and the absolute, which provide a frame by conscience, law, tradition, or revelation. If we demand a single equivalent, Melville's 'responsibility' will do" (35-36). Captain Vere is, through two-thirds of the book, a model Naval Officer. He seems at first glance to be the naval archetype, if you will. He loves to read about "real men" and "real events" according to Melville. Is it this very trait that sends him on his trip towards madness? Phil Withim states, "Does he suggest here that the only result of Vere's reading is that his mind becomes more and more firmly fixed on his earliest opinions, that no author can ever modify them, either because he will not let their ideas penetrate or because he never reads books that do not agree with him" (80)? I believe he has the right idea. It is a common axiom that you can teach people only about things they already believe. Vere only believes in his own rigid ideals and in the end, they overtake him. Vere learns his lessons from the past. Vere uses what had happened during the bloody French Revolution as a gauge of things to come. Like many naval men, he chooses to try to keep a stable society or at least one under his control. What is his price to pay for keeping the sailors in line? The destruction of the stammering innocent and ultimately the human value cost Vere more than he gained by executing Billy. Wendell Glick reflects on this, "Billy was too good for this world; he properly belonged to another, not to this; and the moral principles from which he acted were appropriate enough for the world to which he belonged. But in a society composed of men, not angels --in a society in which even Claggarts are to be found --an inferior standard, that of expediency, is the only workable one" (111). The allegories in Billy Budd are often of the biblical kind. Melville compares Billy throughout the book to biblical characters, often Adam or Jesus. Melville relates Billy's innocence to that of Adam's before the fall. He compares him to Jesus because both are "peacemakers." Indeed, Billy is destined for a metaphorical crucifixion. When Billy hangs, his death becomes an ascension (Tindale 39). It is interesting that Melville refers to the living Billy as Adam. The author is implying that he is without evil. Billy, once confronted by evil, reacts
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