Distinguished by his striking good looks and affable nature, Billy’s primary quality is his extraordinary, even disturbing innocence. At twenty-one years of age, he has never directly confronted evil. Due to his good looks, he has always been well liked and admired wherever he goes. As a result, he naïvely takes the view that other people always mean him the best. He has not developed the prudent cynicism of a figure like the Dansker, who is well aware of man’s evil inclinations. He has no defense against a hateful man such as Claggart, and cannot even perceive the malice in Claggart’s sarcastic comment about Billy’s accident with the soup. If Billy had believed it when the Dansker told him that Claggart was plotting against Billy, he might have been able to protect himself. But Billy is blinded by his own openhearted nature, and he misjudges the malevolent Claggart as a friend.
Billy’s demise is brought about by a combination of his own weaknesses and evil influences that are outside of him and beyond his comprehension. Along with his naïve trust in others, his weaknesses include his speech impediment, which renders him unable to defend himself when Claggart accuses him of mutiny. Melville presents this speech impediment as more than a physical condition, however—Billy’s hesitancy and speechlessness seem directly related to his ignorance and innocence. He has no words with which to confront Claggart because he cannot understand Claggart’s evil or formulate any clear thoughts about him. Faced with Claggart’s lie, he can think of no way to rebut him other than with brute force. Similarly, Billy is unable to identify and condemn the conspirators on the ship adequately so as to nip the situation before it buds. Essentially, Billy’s mental and emotional shortcomings render him extremely vulnerable to the evil influences on board the ship, although the evil itself lies in other people.
Melville portrays Billy’s innocence as something to be both admired and pitied. In a number of ways, Billy’s fate parallels that of Jesus Christ, suggesting that the sacrifice of Billy’s innocence represents both a significant loss for the world and a hope for mankind’s redemption. It would be a mistake, however, to view Billy simply as a Christ figure. Billy is a flawed human being, even violent at times. Unlike Christ, Billy does not willingly or even wittingly sacrifice himself for the sake of others. Whereas Christ, in his death, intentionally takes all of the sins of the world upon himself to save humankind from evil, Billy dies because he cannot comprehend evil or defend himself adequately against it. In this sense, Billy is more human than Christ—what happens to Billy more closely resembles something that could happen to us, and we are perhaps able to pity him and empathize with him more deeply.
With no power to annul the elemental evil in him, though readily enough he could hide it; apprehending the good, but powerless to be it; a nature like Claggart’s, surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and, like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible, act out to the end the part allotted it.
If Billy represents innocence in the novel, the older, higher-ranked Claggart represents evil. Claggart’s innate wickedness is causeless and seemingly limitless. His motives are far more sophisticated and subtle than Billy can comprehend. Billy lacks awareness of the discrepancies that exist between human action and human intention, always taking actions at face value; Claggart, on the other hand, exhibits a great understanding of deception and ambiguity and makes frequent use of them in his nefarious plots—for instance, he shows kindness toward Billy to mask his unkind intentions.
Because Claggart carefully hides his own motives and intentions, he has a tendency to assume that other people are also motivated by hidden malice, and he overinterprets the actions of others in order to find the ill will concealed within them. Deeply egocentric, Claggart obtains sustenance from envy. When Billy spills the soup, Claggart assumes that Billy has purposely directed this action toward him, utterly ignoring the obvious indication that Billy simply spilled by accident. Seeking to destroy Billy, Claggart employs underhanded and vicious methods, falsely accusing Billy of mutiny in order to see him killed.
In the novel’s Christian allegory, Claggart represents Satan, working tirelessly to pervert goodness and defeat morality and human trust. On another level, Claggart represents the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. When Claggart’s false allegation prompts Billy to strike him violently, Claggart has effectively coaxed Billy into abandoning his virtue and committing an evil deed. Indeed, the narrator refers to Claggart’s corpse as a dead snake. Thus, it is possible to interpret Billy’s death as a double victory for Claggart: Billy dies, as Claggart wished, and he falls from moral grace, as well.
Vere symbolizes the conflict between the individual’s inner self and the role society forces the individual to play. Vere likes Billy and distrusts Claggart, and he seems not to believe Claggart’s accusations against Billy. When Billy strikes Claggart, Vere feels sympathy toward Billy; he does not seem to believe that Billy has committed a terrible sin. However, Vere ignores his inner emotions, convenes a court to try Billy, and urges the jury to disregard their own feelings of compassion and punish Billy according to the letter of the law.
As a man, Vere exonerates Billy, but as a ship’s captain, he finds himself duty-bound to punish him, allowing his role as a captain to supersede his inner conscience. He does this partly to avoid taking responsibility for Billy’s death, making him the parallel of Pontius Pilate in the novel’s Christian allegory. But he also sacrifices Billy because he believes in the ultimate supremacy of society’s laws over the desires and impulses of individuals. With this belief, and in his actions throughout the later part of the novel, Vere demonstrates that he places greater faith in reason and rational philosophy than he does in the dictates of his own heart. Famous for his wide reading and his love of philosophy, Vere is in some ways too cerebral to be a leader of men, and in his rigorous adherence to the rule of law he fails in his moral responsibility to Billy.
We are likely to feel that Vere is wrong in applying the letter of the law rather than following his heart, and one of the basic questions that this novel poses is why Vere is wrong to do this. One possible explanation may be that the rules governing the treatment of someone in Billy’s situation are predicated on mistrust and cynicism about human beings. In the eyes of the law, someone who strikes and kills his accuser, as Billy does, must be guilty of murder, and is probably guilty of the crime for which he was initially accused, as well. Billy’s individual circumstances are too unique and complex to be taken into consideration within the law. The novel remains ambiguous about which is paramount, the good of society or the good of the individual; still, it does make clear that Vere is racked with guilt after putting the law ahead of his conscience. Vere’s last words before he dies are a repetition of Billy’s name, suggesting that he is unable to let go of his sense of debt to Billy.