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Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Character Analysis


Billy Budd

Billy Budd is beautiful and innocent of the world, but he is naïve about its darker side. He totally lacks cynicism and the ability to detect evil intent in others. This proves to be his greatest vulnerability and, ultimately, his downfall. Budd may be viewed as a Christ-like figure who is both admired for his purity and yet pitied for his lack of worldliness. Budd can neither recognize nor fathom others' evil intentions. He is unaware of John Claggart's devious conspiracy to destroy him. Budd is as incapable of seeing or opposing evil as he is of putting on false appearances.

John Claggart

Outwardly, John Claggart seems reasonable and dutiful, but inwardly he is said to be "evil." Claggart harbors an intense envy—which turns to hatred—of Billy Budd, whose purity and beauty he cannot abide and is driven to destroy. It is Claggart who conspires in Budd's downfall. In contrast to Budd, Claggart is a master of deception and is able to hide his malevolence until he is ready to strike.

Captain Vere

Captain Vere is presented as a sympathetic character who sees the unspoiled goodness in Billy Budd. But Vere is also a ship's commander who must carry out British naval law. He is torn between his recognition of Budd's purity and goodness and his duty to enforce draconian naval laws, even if they compromise his conscience.

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