&The Symbolism Within Essay, Research Paper
In the book “Billy Budd”, written by Herman Meville, there are many references to the bible. Billy Budd, the main character, is portrayed as a biblical figure that is caught in the real world of war and mutiny. There are also many other different types of symbolism throughout this book.
The story starts out in the eighteenth century, on the H.M.S Rights-of-Man, a British naval ship. Billy Budd is pressured into service on a warship, the H.M.S. Bellipotent and here is where his life changes forever.
Melville uses Biblical allusions in defining his characters. There are obvious symbolic references of Billy Budd as a Jesus figure, or as Adam in the Garden of Eden. But what role does Claggart play in this Biblical metaphor? Claggart is carefully described throughout the story as having a dark and sinister countenance. Physically, his face is pale and sickly, his hair black. He contrasts greatly with the rosy cheeks, and blonde hair of Billy Budd. Because of his pallid complexion, Claggart stays out of the sun most of the time. Therefore, he is often described as surrounded by darkness, and lurks in the shadows of the ship, much like a snake spends much time hiding under rocks. In addition, Claggart is responsible for the false accusations of Billy’s involvement with the mutiny.
In the Biblical allegory of this story, Claggart fits into the role of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, whose devious and evil spirit helps bring about the fall of Adam and Eve. In the Biblical story, the serpent convinces Eve to take the fruit that God has commanded her not to eat, promising that it will bring her God-like powers. Here, Claggart is similar to the serpent in his deceitfulness, telling Captain Vere that Billy Budd is implicated in the ship’s mutiny. Billy actually attempted to subdue the attempts of a mutiny by refusing to accept the two gold pieces offered to him to take part. But the evil Claggart easily distorts even Billy’s innocent and noble deeds. Claggart’s contempt towards Billy is never explained, so the reader is left to believe that there is an innate evilness about Claggart that leads him to target Billy as his enemy. The vision of Claggart as a serpent symbol is apparent again. In the Bible there was no justification of the serpent’s treachery in tricking Eve, Claggart has no real reason to hate Billy, except possibly the jealousy that he feels towards Billy’s handsome appearance and innocent spirit.
Of the several different Biblical figures that Billy represents, his physical description in the beginning of the story most strikingly matches those of Adam. The picture of perfect beauty, Billy is a sweet, innocent young man that has never been exposed to the corruption of the world. When Billy is impressed to join the ship the Bellipotent, he cheerfully waves good-bye to his first ship, The Rights of Man. Symbolically, Billy is waving good-bye to his own rights and happiness. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Billy was in a place where he had everything he could want. He was loved and appreciated by his crewmates, who saw him as a refreshing source of kindness and compassion. Billy makes the transition onto a war ship where he is surrounded by corruption. In essence, Billy loses all of the things that supported and encouraged his innocent spirit.
When Claggart accuses Billy for being apart of the mutiny he becomes unable to speak, and he strikes Claggart hard, more out of shock than anger. This scene represents Billy’s fall from innocence, just as eating the fruit marked Adam’s fall from grace. Adam lived contently in the Garden of Eden, but eventually the pressures of the evilness around him caused him to eat the forbidden fruit, ending his life of perfection, and tainting him with sin. Billy too, was taken from a life of happiness, and thrown into a place of deceit and corruption. For a long time he remained innocent and pure, but his individual innocence could not prevail over the corrupt society of the ship.
The deaths of both Claggart and Billy are fitting to their symbolic figures as Biblical characters throughout the story. For example, Claggart who represents the serpent in the Bible is killed by Billy in the manner that a snake would be killed. When Billy strikes Claggart, he hits him with a fast, sharp blow to the head. Although it does not seem common that a man would die after one blow to the head, it suits the character of Claggart to die in that manner, because it is the only way to kill a snake. When Claggart dies, Billy and Captain Vere attempt to prop his body up on a chair, but he slides back down onto the floor. His death is a divine judgment by God, punishment for all of his deceit and bitterness. After the doctor sees him, his body is dragged out of the cabin of the ship to be given a burial at sea. Once again, there is the serpent imagery of Claggart slithering across the floor, just as the serpent in the Bible was condemned by God to slither across the ground to represent its lowliness.
On the other hand, Billy’s death is suited to his character as a Christ figure. When he is sentenced to die, his expression is one of complete calmness and acceptance, just as Jesus was prepared to sacrifice himself for the world. Billy’s silence and complacency with his harsh fate are truly admirable characteristics that Jesus alone possessed. His imminent death seems to bring him above the realm of the world, to a state of complete tranquility. The following morning, Billy prepares for his death and walks to the gallows with a peace of mind that all take notice of. In front of his peers, Billy pauses a moment to strongly shout the words, “God bless Captain Vere!” His unconditional love for the person who has condemned him to die is modeled after Jesus’ death, in love for the people who despised and ridiculed him the most. Billy has a very special gift of innocence and love that will never be appreciated on earth. His death marks like Jesus, his ascendance to Heaven.
An example of symbolism and a direct relation to the bible appears in this quote, which Captain Vere shouts to the Surgeon after John Claggart, the master at arms of the ship, is dead. ” Suddenly, catching the surgeon’s arm convulsively, he exclaimed, pointing down to the body. It is the divine judgment on Ananias! Look!” (Melville, pg. 1021) This quote refers to the footnote at the bottom of the page. The footnote explains the story of Ananias with this quote. ” Peter said, Ananias though hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost.” (Melville, pg. 1021) Captain Vere is saying this because he believes that Claggart was lying about the supposed mutiny that Billy was apart of. His death was the result of a fabrication about an outstanding sailor.
When Captain Vere realizes that there must be a trial to determine Billy’s innocence or guilt, he chooses three crewmembers to act as a jury. At the hearing, Billy explains that he had no intention of killing Claggart. Striking him was a manifestation of Billy’s inability to speak out about his surprise at being accused of treason. The hearing begins, and Captain Vere interrupts the trial to remind the jurors they must uphold the laws of their country that they are fighting to defend. He discourages the court from thinking personally about Billy, or listening to their conscience. He expects them to think clearly about the crime committed. The three crewmembers know that committing murder is not something that Billy would be inclined to do. However, Vere reminds them that a decision should be based on the act itself, not whether or not the act was premeditated. Billy’s loving and friendly personality with the crew will get no sympathy in the court of law.
When Billy is being questioned about what he did to Claggart, he is asked if he can explain anything else that might seem unclear. He replies, “Nobody is present-none of the ships company, I mean-who might shed lateral light, if any is to be had, upon what remains mysterious in this matter.” (Melville, pg. 1024) After hearing this Captain Vere replies that he understands what Billy is saying and that mystery should go to psychologic theologians to discuss. Meaning that the only one, who could possibly figure out what has been going on in the ship in terms of the supposed mutiny and setting up of Billy Budd, could be someone of religious understanding and importance. Captain Vere goes on to say that this however, is a military court and they have to deal with “the prisoners deed” or the result of Billy’s actions. Captain Vere is preoccupied with the absolute laws of the court, and refuses to make a moral decision regarding Billy’s fate. Unfortunately, without incorporating morals into the decision, there is no decision to make. Billy is guilty for murdering Claggart, regardless of his innocence previous to the event. The court finds him guilty and he is sentenced to be hanged the following morning.
Another reference to the bible is made in this quote from the book. “The austere devotee of military duty, letting himself melt back into what remains primeval in our formalized humanity, may in end have caught Billy to his heart, even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest.” (Melville, pg. 1029) This refers to the bible when God tested Abraham’s faith by asking him to kill his only son. When Abraham was about to do so God said stop because he knew that he was obedient to him. Captain Vere is sharing his feelings to Billy in this part of the book, right before he is to be hanged.
At the end of chapter twenty-four, Billy’s natural way of looking at things and way of being is once again introduced. Here we find the good chaplain trying to comfort Billy before he is put to death. Billy accepts what the chaplain is doing and listens not because he believes but rather out of “natural courtesy.” Billy is seen almost as a martyr, someone who makes great sacrifices or suffers much for a belief, cause, or principle. The chaplain knows that this man cannot be saved that it would be ” as idle as invoking the desert.” (Melville, pg. 1033) He as well as Billy knows that there is no use, that this is his fate.
Throughout the story, Billy has a Christ-like personality. He is described as a perfect specimen of beauty, and he maintains the role of peacemaker and friend to all of his crewmates. He is removed, because of his untainted character, from the worldly sins around him. Just as Jesus came to earth in the form of a man to spread love and kindness to people, Billy acts as a loving presence on the ships that he sails on. He single handedly makes people think about the importance of kindness, and everyone begins to appreciate, and value the lessons that are learned from Billy’s innocence. Out of all the characters in the story, Billy is the most near to perfection. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, and follows what he knows to be true.
When the question of Billy’s fate arises in reference to Claggart’s death, it is the first time that the other crewmembers must open their hearts. They all realize that Billy is a model human being, who only ever showed kindness towards all of the crew. Billy’s role of making people look to their conscience is the same role that Jesus played in coming to earth. Jesus’ mission was to make people realize that corruption, and violence is not the ways that people should live. Jesus offered people the chance to love one another and take part in kindness and joy that would lead to ultimate happiness. Both Billy and Jesus die as young men, who struggled to teach people through the way that they lived. In death, their legacy lives on, and their message of love will never be forgotten. Billy is hanged right before dawn, from the mast of the boat. The mast where he is hung resembles a cross, and his death is a symbolic crucifixion. After he passes away, the dawn of a new day comes, and light is shed on the darkness of the ship. It goes with out saying that Billy’s death was not in vain. Although he may not have offered salvation to the world as Jesus did, his life and death changed the lives of the people that know him.