Billy Budd – Criminal Without a Crime How would you feel if you were told you cheated on a test, that you really did not, by a teacher who hated you, and will be expelled because of it? Herman Melvilles Billy Budd relates an allegory of the righteous versus the reprobate by symbolizing Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Captain Vere as Jesus Christ, Lucifer, and God. The protagonist in the novel is Billy Budd. The experiences that Billy undergoes throughout the novel parallel what Jesus Christ endured in his life. Melville characterizes Billy Budd as an innocent man physically and mentally. The first feature sailors would notice about Billy were his schoolboy features, with blond hair and blue eyes.
His suave looks caused some people to refer to him as the handsome sailor(16). Most often sailors were scurvy men, quite often with diseases, who made no effort to uphold a handsome appearance. With his tanned complexion and sound build he resembles Hercules, one of the flawless Greek Gods of mythology (17). Billys full name is William, but the sailors felt that the childish name, Billy, was more appropriate. Commonly only young innocent boys hold the name Billy, but the sailors see the man as an innocent boy.
Billys innocence sparked the Dankser to give Billy a nickname because whether in freak of patriarchal irony touching Billys youth and athletic frame or for some other and more recondite reason, from the first in addressing him he [the Dansker] always substituted Baby for Billy(35). The characteristics aforementioned verify Billys innocent nature, just as Jesus Christ held the same innocent disposition. After Billys capture from the Rights of Man, by impressment, he shows no remorse toward his old captain and shipmates for not protecting him. Billy, as well as Jesus, cannot hold a because their innocent nature renders them incapable of such thoughts. Once aboard the Bellipotent he becomes the most popular member of the crew.
Once Billy sees a man being flogged, he vows to follow all of his orders so he wont be disgraced in front of the crew. Although Billy was stolen from another ship, he still follows whoever is the leader. Billys innocence can be seen in one particular scene with Claggart. Billy accidentally spills his soup and Claggart exclaims with heavy sarcasm, Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!(36). Billy fails to recognize the sarcastic remark, because he cant understand why a person would try to hurt him.
His moral disposition allows him to keep sinful thoughts out of his head. The similarities between Christ and Billy include their demises. Jesus Christ supposedly said that he was king of the Jews. Then he was tried and convicted of treason, although he was falsely accused in the first place. His punishment was crucifixion on a large wooden cross.
Billy Budd suffers a similar demise. He was accused of being the leader of rebellious group planning a mutiny. Outraged by the outlandish charge he kills his accuser with a single blow. Billy is then found guilty of mutiny, and he protected the true mutineers. Billy is sentenced by a drumhead court to hang on the yardarm, which is similar to the cross that Christ was put on. Claggart, symbolized as Lucifer, is the antagonist in Melvilles story, and he draws on evil to prevent Billy from reaching glory. Claggart presents the ultimate mystery in the novel.
It is imperative to understand how Claggart became a member of the Indomitable, and what his occupation is upon the ship. Claggart is an enigma without no background. Quite possibly, he was a criminal placed onto the ship instead of jail. When Claggart speaks it sounds as though he attempts to mask a foreign accent, which supports the oddness of a foreigner in the British navy. His job on the Indomitable is master at arms, basically a snitch. Claggarts presence in the navy is perplexing, because he does hold an amplitude of knowledge. A physical attribute that is disturbing about Claggart is a sickening pale complexion, which may possibly indicate he does not have a drop of blood in his body.
The mysteries that the reader encounters about Claggart are paralleled with evil. Lucifer is still a vague figure that people know about through stories. It is possible to meet Lucifer and not even realize it. The name the sailors on the Bellipotent have given Claggart is Jemmy Legs. At first the name sounds similar to a nickname, but the name drips of evil. The Dansker refers to Claggart as being a spider when he tells Billy that Jemmy Legs is down on you(35).
The Dankser warns Billy that he has become entangled in the spiders web, and Claggart will soon go in for the kill. Traditionally spiders have been associated with witches, and they invoke fear into people by their gruesome appearance. Jemmy Legs symbolizes a spider, which is a creepy little pest. Claggarts sick intentions are masterminded with his scholarly mind. His deceptiveness allows him to disguise his hatred for Billy from everyone aboard the Bellipotent.
He openly admits that looks can be deceiving about any person including Billy as A man trap may be under his ruddy-tipped daises(57). He is telling Vere that Billy is putting on a charade about being the best sailor, only so that he can lead a mutiny against Vere. Claggarts monomania for bringing evil upon Billy comes in subtle ways. Claggart obtains pleasure by giving Billy evil looks, while he pretends to be Billys comrade. Claggarts evil intentions, symbolic of Lucifer, come out when he accuses Billy of being the leader of a mutinous group of impressed officers. When he confronts Billy with the charges, Billy kills him.
Claggarts evilness tempts Billy to do a terrible deed, and Claggart symbolizes the evilness that awaits innocent victims. Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, who is symbolic of God, comes to decide the fate of Billy. He is the character that must deal with the struggle between good and evil, and must try to act non-partisan. The Captain respects all opinions, even Claggarts accusation against Billy, when Vere hollers at Claggart heed what you speak. Just now, and in a case like this, there is a yardarm end for the false witness(58). Vere desperately wants to believe the accusations are false, because Billy was a Kings bargain.
Billy was possibly going to be promoted as well. The Captain and Billy had a bond between them, ever since they met. Vere was the man that stole Billy from the Rights of Man, and brought him onto the Bellipotent. From this moment on, Captain Vere acts as a father to Billy. This is the same as God being the father to Jesus Christ.
Vere is truly old enough to be young Billy Budds father also. Up until Billy kills Claggart, Vere vehemently opposes Claggarts claims that Billy is a mutineer. When Billy strikes Claggart, Captain Vere knows he must uphold justice and prevent rebellious behavior from the crew. Captain Vere does believe that Billy is not a mutineer and he states in court I believe you, my man(67). As much as it hurts Vere to sentence Billy to his death, he knows that Billy must pay for his sin. To abide by the law, Vere tells the jury The prisoners deed with that alone we have to do(69).
When the jury convicts Billy, as they were strongly swayed by Vere, Captain Vere takes it upon himself to tell Billy of his demise. Melville does not touch on the scene much, but it is a warm sentimental scene with Vere acting as Billys father and consoling him. Captain Vere symbolically stands as God The classic battle between innocence and evil comes alive with symbolism in Herman Melvilles allegory Billy Budd, with Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Captain Vere being portrayed as Jesus Christ, Lucifer, and God.