Good Vs Evil In Billy Budd Essay

, Research Paper

Ryan Fischer

English III


19 April 2001

Good Versus Evil in Billy Budd

Good versus evil is a very common theme in many different types of literature. One literary work which portrays the battle between good and evil very affectively is Billy Budd by Herman Melville. In this novel, good is portrayed through the character of Billy, while the character of Claggart portrays evil. The battle between good and evil is personified through the characters of Claggart and Billy.

The first and most influential character in the book is Billy Budd who personifies goodness and innocence. By definition, good and innocence both mean possessing little or no evil or imperfections so the words can be used interchangeably in many circumstances. “By nature, Billy is purely innocent, not quite childlike, but lacking the knowledge of good and evil” (Pink Monkey). This quote is a very accurate description of Billy. Although he is a man and has the physical qualities that are attributed to a grown human being, he lacks what is referred to as “common sense” from a worldly point of view. His childlike attributes include his name. Bill’s full name is William, but the men aboard the ship refer to him as “Billy” and sometimes even Baby Budd. “Commonly, only young innocent men hold the name Billy” (Simms, “Criminal Without a Crime”), so even the hardened men on the ship saw Billy as innocent and unlike the rest of them in terms of morals. Again Billy’s innocence is shown when he first boards the Indomitable and witnesses the whipping of a man who neglected his responsibilities. Billy is outrages and terrified at the sight of this and promises himself that he would never put himself in the same situation. One of the best scenes depicting Billy’s innocence is when Billy spilled some soup and Claggart mocks him by saying, “Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too” (Melville 36). Billy fails to recognize this comment as sarcasm because he does not know why someone would deliberately try to hurt him in any way. Because of Billy’s innocence, he is not familiar with violence or punishment and his naivety towards the words of other people makes him the personification of goodness or innocence.

Totally opposite of Billy’s inexperience and innocence is the character of Claggart. Claggart is the ultimate symbol of evil in the novel. He is already on the ship when Billy boards the Indomitable from the Rights of Man so Claggart has experience on the ship and with the crew. Claggart does not like Billy’s innocence or all of the work that Billy does because everyone seems to be taking a very strong liking to him. An early description in the book refers to Claggart as a man “in whom was 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 `depravity according to nature?” (Melville 38). This is the most dangerous kind of evil because it was not learned by Claggart, but was instead born with his evil nature so that he has no sense of righteousness. He is constantly giving Billy dirty looks, but Billy sees him as no threat because Billy does not see why Claggart would ever want to hurt him. Even the Dansker warns Billy that he has become entangled in Claggart’s evil web and that Claggart will soon go in for the kill, but Billy does not make anything of it. Claggart even goes as far as trying to convince Captain Vere, who is very close to Billy, that Billy is only putting on an illusion by saying, “a mantrap may be under his ruddy-tipped daisies” (Melville 57). Then comes the ultimate blow and the pinnacle of Claggart’s evil in the novel. Claggart blames Billy for being the leader of a mutinous group of impressed officers. Claggart then goes to Billy’s cabin to let him know of the charges and out of total depravity of right and wrong, Billy kills Claggart. This event shows that Claggart not only possesses a certain amount of evil, but that he himself is evil.

To better relate Billy to good and innocence, there are many ways which he is related to the ultimate symbol of goodness; Jesus Christ. In general, both Billy and Christ struggled with many hardships, temptations, and persecution throughout there lives. The main difference being that Christ recognized them while Billy was too inexperienced to. They were both incapable of holding a grudge because their innocent nature prevented them from such thoughts. An interesting exert from Simms sums up the similarities in their demises. “Christ supposedly said he was the king of the Jews. Then he was tried and convicted of treason, although he was falsely accused in the first place… Billy suffers a similar demise. He was accused of being the leader of a rebellious group planning to mutiny. Billy is found guilty of mutiny and protected the true mutineers” (Simms, “Criminal Without a Crime”). Both Billy and Christ we killed in similar ways on large wooden beams. Billy was hung, while Christ, of course, was nailed to it. When the rope was put around Billy‘s neck, “Billy ascended, and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn” (Melville 80). This glory can only be achieved by those who are truly ready and without regret just as Billy and Christ were.

Just as Billy shows similarities to the ultimate goodness of Christ, Claggart shows similarities to the ultimate evil which is that of Satan. “Claggart, symbolized as Lucifer, is the antagonist in Melville’s story, and he draws on evil to prevent Billy from reaching glory” (Simms, “Criminal Without a Crime“). Claggart’s evil can be referred to as almost “super-human” because of the fact that no good is ever portrayed through his character just as no good is ever portrayed through Satan. “Claggart is pure evil, not quite explainable except as a flawed element of human nature” (Pink Monkey). Claggart’s evil is beyond that of human nature. Our human nature is to sin, but it also gives us some kind of a choice. Claggart, however, is pure evil. There is no choice because everything he does has some kind of evil motif. He represents a natural evil and the opposition and corruption that we must face everyday. That opposition and corruption comes from Satan himself. In this way, Claggart is the personification of pure evil and that pure evil is portrayed in only one other being. And that being is Satan.

The struggle in Billy Budd is very obviously shown through the confrontations between Billy and Claggart. If Billy chose experience, and in turn worldliness and sinfulness, he might have lived, but true goodness exists after death where experience doesn’t matter. Therefore, goodness ultimately triumphs. This means that “we need to have morality and virtue; we need to be in the world, but not of the world” (Simms, “Billy Budd”). This novel makes it clear that evil still reigns on earth and that good and innocence will always have to struggle against it.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. New York: Washington Square, 1972.

Pink Monkey Notes. On Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. 1997. Pink 20 Feb 2001. .

Simms, Michael. “Billy Budd.” Essays on CD. New York: Penn, 1998.

Simms, Michael. “Billy Budd- Criminal Without a Crime.” Essays on CD. New York: Penn, 1998.


Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. New York: Washington Square, 1972.

Pink Monkey Notes. On Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. 1997. Pink 20 Feb 2001. .

Sedgewick, William Elleny. “Billy Budd is a tale of acceptance.” Readings on Herman Melville. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1997.

Simms, Michael. “Billy Budd.” Essays on CD. New York: Penn, 1998.

Simms, Michael. “Billy Budd- Criminal Without a Crime.” Essays on CD. New York: Penn, 1998.


ДОБАВИТЬ КОММЕНТАРИЙ  [можно без регистрации]
перед публикацией все комментарии рассматриваются модератором сайта - спам опубликован не будет

Ваше имя:


Хотите опубликовать свою статью или создать цикл из статей и лекций?
Это очень просто – нужна только регистрация на сайте.

opyright © 2015-2018. All rigths reserved.