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In the novel Billy Budd, Sailor, Herman Melville attempts to convey underlying truths regarding human nature through the people, whom grow to represent a larger aspect of society. The story revolves around the titular character, a virtuous and naïvely incorruptible young seaman who finds himself in a regrettable situation due to a flaw that surfaces when faced with threatening situations. The author employs an extended comparison dealing with the essence of faith versus circumstances and choosing between the two through the three main characters in the novel. Billy Budd’s moral purity is contrasted with the malicious character of John Claggart and the middle ground between the two ultimately becomes the intelligent and objective Captain Vere and his ethical dilemma. The outcome of the situation, arguably, represents society’s concept of “divine justice” and elucidates the archetypes of the good, the bad, and the balanced. Therefore, by juxtaposing the moral standards of Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Captain Vere, Melville is able to examine the constant battle between rationality and faith.
Billy Budd, from the very beginning of the story, is portrayed as the pinnacle of rectitude. His Rights of Man shipmates praise his ability to “[sugar] the sour ones” with virtue (6) and the author makes Billy Budd’s innocence very clear when he states that “to deal in double meanings and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to [Billy’s] nature”(9). Furthermore, through the narrator, Melville details his exceptional goodness when he declares that “his simple nature remained unsophisticated by those moral obliquities” (12). Through this implication that Billy Budd lacks the intelligence to formulate any sort of vindictive thought, the author reveals how someone who is such a paradigm of purity can assemble into the real world. If the Bellipotent is society, then Billy Budd represents the remaining naïveté and decency that ultimately becomes not his downfall, but his legacy. He is the personification of acting by faith, as he blindly accepts authority and never succumbs to his own will. His lack of personal courage is illustrated in his blatant acceptance of death and faith, shown even in his actions before the fatal moment. The ship’s chaplain, as expressed through the narrator, states how fearlessly committed Billy is to his own “dogma” (78) and the way in which he confronts death without abandon, even “bless[ing]” (80) Captain Vere upon the moment of his execution, disregarding ration and instinctively relying on his own belief in the moral integrity of Vere.
John Claggart, on the other hand, is the epitome of a malicious man whose motivations are cruel and vengeful. The author portrays him as “the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short ‘a depravity according to nature'” (34). His internal “depravity” confines him to live without faith, as everything Claggart does seems to spur solely from his own conscience and entirely distrusting of those around him. He acts by ration, but not by any defined set of rules. Instead, he relies entirely on his selfish desires and volition, vastly different from Billy Budd’s blind trust, in that his reasoning is that everyone is out to get him. Therefore, Claggart’s conscience is really “the lawyer to his will” (39) and he is unable to escape this “innate” evil because it is the basis for his rationale and decision-making. Claggart can justify his wrongdoings, such as framing Billy Budd, because his resentment and envy towards Billy translates to a necessity to be punished and he “[makes] ogres of trifles” (39).
Melville utilizes his character to portray the dangers of an overly self-reliant and one-sidedly rational mind, because Claggart’s inability to sympathize will be his fatal flaw. Melville utilizes the character of Captain Vere to form the perfect balance between Budd and Claggart as well as emphasizing the division between injustices and mistakes. Captain Vere is established as a heavy rule-follower since his introduction as the practical, intelligent philosopher of the ship. In deciding what to do with Billy Budd, Vere concludes that “he [is] not authorized to determine the matter on [a] primitive basis”(61). Nevertheless, he settles on the more “rational” option after debating with both himself and the court for quite some time. Vere declares that he will rule solely based on “the prisoner’s overt act,” (67) even though he “[believes]”(63) in Billy Budd. Melville uses Vere’s definitive decision, in which the captain settles on ration and ignores his “gut feeling” and natural justice, to elucidate the tangible struggle between law and belief, and Vere’s refusal to incorporate faith into his decision becomes his downfall as well. Despite his strong feelings against choosing the “[pitiless] law,” (68) he still hangs Billy Budd, yet cries before the trial that Claggart was “struck dead by an angel of God,” (59) acknowledging the sincerity of faith and even displaying signs of remorse. However, his disregard for instinctive belief will eventually kill him in battle. Melville employs the other ship in the conflict at the end of the novel (not coincidentally named “Atheist”) to indicate that Vere’s unwillingness to consult his faith is his most significant hamartia.
Melville creates these characters of Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Edward Vere in order to contrast the difference in principles between faith and rationality and how, ultimately, faith is the more honorable choice. Melville deliberately manifests Billy Budd as both the most morally sound character as well as the most faithfully reliant and driven by impulse. The implication that relying strictly on rules invokes some sort of cowardice is an interesting lesson taught by the narrator, if not Melville, and could even be interpreted as Melville following his own beliefs and disregarding “natural law” by writing this book.
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