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Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Themes


Innocence and Malice

Billy Budd is always described as being an innocent. His beauty—of face, body, and character—exemplifies his purity. He is in fact so innocent he cannot understand the more nefarious impulses of the people he interacts with. He is guileless and incapable of telling a lie, and he deals with others as if they were the same way. He assumes everyone he comes into contact with is honest and well meaning, which makes him extremely vulnerable to manipulation and conspiracies against him. As discussed later, Billy Budd's innocence is so total he is likened to a Christ-like character at various points in the text.

It is Budd's utter innocence that draws forth the malice of certain others, particularly John Claggart. Claggart clearly recognizes Budd's innocence, and it fuels his envy and hatred, as well as his implacable desire to destroy Budd. Claggart is consumed with hatred for Budd simply because he hates his purity so much. Claggart is referred to as an "evil" man who cannot overcome his compulsion to destroy goodness and innocence. Claggart is therefore the embodiment of malice that arises in direct opposition to innocence and is determined to destroy it. Claggart is sometimes referred to as Satanic in his evil.

Loyalty, Duty, and Justice

This story takes place on board a British warship, where each person aboard has his duty to perform in service of the British Crown. Sailors and petty officers are duty-bound to perform their specific tasks and—importantly—to observe the laws and rules imposed by the British navy. It is Commander Captain Vere's duty to see to it that all laws and rules are obeyed and to mete out specified punishments if any are broken.

All the men on the ship are supposed to be loyal to the British Crown, especially as they are on a British warship. There are other loyalties, born of resentment, among the common sailors, many of whom have been impressed into service. The loyalty among sailors extends to their common welfare and treatment by the officers and the commander. Captain Vere's loyalty is bound to British naval law above all else. He must subsume his feelings if they in any way tend to undermine or compromise his duty to enforce naval law and rules.

Duty can also be a burden insofar as it undermines justice. Captain Vere is unquestioningly loyal to his country's navy, which demands that he uphold the law without exception and regardless of circumstances. But doing his duty in carrying out the law often requires Captain Vere to suppress his sense of justice. Transgressions and the punishments for them are strict and cannot be questioned. Extenuating circumstances are rarely, if ever, open to consideration. Thus Captain Vere feels impelled to do his legal duty while ignoring the human element in the trial and sentencing of Billy Budd. Justice is compromised or wholly undermined when duty demands disregarding humanity. That is especially true when the captain is duty-bound to punish without regard for the extenuating human circumstances surrounding Budd's crime.

Law, Conscience, and Morality

During the period in which the story takes place, British naval law was unbending in its severity and inflexible in its prescribed punishments. It was the ship's captain who primarily determined whether a law was broken aboard ship, organized a trial, and imposed the required punishment. Little or no leeway was available for a captain's personal feelings in these matters.

The unyielding quality of naval law might sometimes lead to deep personal misgivings about carrying out the punishment for a transgression. Yet the captain was expected to ignore his conscience and his personal sense of morality to carry out the requisite punishment. Although at Budd's trial Captain Vere is adamant about the seriousness of the crime and the absolute need for swift punishment, later on he is shown to be haunted by his guilty conscience. Other petty officers involved in the trial are deeply bothered by the rigidity of the law and their inability to listen to their conscience in ruling on the case. Everyone involved compromises his sense of morality in passing sentence on Billy Budd. They come to feel that their sentencing of Budd is morally wrong, but they are constrained from following their conscience by the harshness of the law.

The essence of this dilemma seems to lie in the story's implication that law is a necessary precondition for modern civilization and, as such, disallows personal sympathy or morality to compromise its prescribed justice. For the officers on board the Bellipotent, then, morality is a burden. Being moral in the British navy of the time is problematic and difficult because naval law is so strict. It might be argued that upholding strict military law is in itself a moral duty, but personal morality is beyond reach in such circumstances.

Truth, Rumor, and Falsehood

Billy Budd is the only character in the story who can only tell the truth. In fact he cannot conceive of others lying and does not recognize lies when he hears them. Aside from Billy Budd the truthfulness of the other characters is questionable. Claggart and his minions clearly deal in falsehoods. Claggart plans a deception concocted of deliberate lies. Yet the main currency of information aboard ship is rumor. Rumors spread by the sailors gain so much traction they begin to take on a semblance of truth. It is not always possible to tell if a rumor is based on truth or on falsehood.

Even the narrator cannot be trusted to relate the truth about the story. He tells the story as something he heard that happened in the past. The author seems to want to reinforce his truthfulness by couching his tale in fancy phrases and difficult, erudite sentences. But to some extent this style can be viewed as a type of smokescreen to deflect closer scrutiny that might help the reader distinguish between true and untrue statements in the narrative. Thus the narrator himself is unreliable as a truth-teller. The tale is therefore somewhat ambiguous regarding the truth of the events it describes.

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