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Billy Budd, Sailor | Symbols

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Names

The names of both people and ships represent characteristics or roles in the story. For example, Billy Budd's last name may represent his potential to open to a more perfect beauty (as the bud of a flower). Captain Vere's last name may refer to the word veer, indicating his understanding that his sentencing of Budd is unjust—a judgment that will haunt him later in life when he "veers" more toward his moral sensibility.

The ships' names are important symbols. Billy Budd is impressed from the merchant ship the Rights-of-Man. This name is taken from the title of Thomas Paine's book on freedom and democracy. In this book Paine argues strongly for individuals' rights and the democratic form of government that would ensure these rights. Yet from this ship of "freedom" Billy Budd is impressed onto the Bellipotent, a ship whose name means "the power of war." On a warship all rights and freedoms are sacrificed to the dictatorial, all-powerful military and its commanders. Clearly the ships' names represent Budd's loss of his freedom and rights and his entrapment in an uncaring and inhuman institution—itself a symbol of society's power to destroy individuals' rights and freedoms.

Note that in some editions of Billy Budd the navy ship is named the Indomitable, which means "invincible" or "unconquerable." This name, too, conveys the powerlessness of the individual to gain any rights or freedoms from a rigid and overpowering institution or society.

Stammer

Billy Budd's stammer is his one "defect." Its symbolism may be twofold. This flaw may be the imperfection that mars Budd's otherwise Christ-like persona and may be interpreted as a flaw that makes Budd more human (less godlike and perfect). On the other hand it may reinforce Budd's divine persona. The stutter is in a sense something that separates Budd from other humans (because he's godlike). The stutter limits Budd's ability to communicate with other people, especially in crucial circumstances.

Budd stammers when he is confronted by evil or lies. His stutter leaves Budd defenseless when Claggart describes Budd's supposed treachery to Captain Vere. Vere asks Budd to defend himself, but Budd's stutter is so severe he cannot say anything in his own defense. Budd's crippling stutter seals his fate. Is it then a fatal flaw, or does it represent a means of preserving his purity and accomplishing his martyrdom?

Knowledge

In this tale knowledge represents civilization and its hubris and bigotry. Captain Vere and other educated and knowledgeable characters see themselves as the only truly civilized people on board (and, indeed, in the British Empire or the world). Those lower-class, illiterate Britons, or those people who do not have the same culture or values as the British, are often referred to as "barbarians."

Knowledge is therefore not always valued for itself or for the good judgment that experience and learning inform. Instead it is referred to as a mark of innate superiority. It is routinely and casually referenced to elevate the "civilized" and "literate" upper-class Britons from the "uncivilized" and "barbaric" lower classes, as well as those true "primitives" of other cultures. Both types of "barbarians" are easily dismissed, ignored, or mistreated by those with knowledge.

Spar

A spar on a sail-powered ship refers to any wooden poles that hold rigging, or sails. In this story Billy Budd is hanged from a spar, which represents a cross such as the one on which Christ was crucified.

Thus the spar is a symbol of Billy Budd's Christ-like nature and martyrdom. The spar is therefore a key symbol among the religious symbolism found throughout the story.

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