Habitually living with the elements and knowing little more of the land than as a beach, or rather, that portion . . . set apart for dance-houses, doxies, and tapsters, in short what sailors call a “fiddler’s green,” his simple nature remained unsophisticated by those moral obliquities which are not in every case incompatible with that manufacturable thing known as respectability. But are sailors, frequenters of fiddlers’ greens, without vices? No; but less often than with landsmen do their vices, so called, partake of crookedness of heart, seeming less to proceed from viciousness than exuberance of vitality after long constraint; frank manifestations in accordance with natural law. By his original constitution aided by the co-operating influences of his lot, Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.
In this quotation from Chapter 2, the narrator suggests that sailors are less likely to be wicked than men on land, since they are not exposed to difficult moral situations. Although sailors may drink and consort with prostitutes when on shore, thus gaining a sullied reputation, supposedly respectable people actually encounter more serious moral problems. Unlike people who spend most of their time on land, sailors do not commit vice out of “crookedness of heart” or “viciousness”—in other words, evil. Rather, they act sinfully because they have been confined at sea for a long time and have “natural” inclinations and an abundance of energy. Thus, although Billy has spent most of his time either on a ship or in areas of towns devoted to vice, he has nevertheless preserved his near-total ignorance of evil. Billy, if not the full-fledged physical and moral Handsome Sailor ideal, is so innocent that he stands out as an “upright barbarian” nonetheless. The last line subtly foreshadows the arrival of Claggart, who does tempt Billy to evil like the serpent. Significantly, the narrator describes the serpent as “urbane”—urbanity signifying sophistication and being the opposite of innocence. Thus, Melville equates evil with experience in society.
“And now, Dansker, do tell me what you think of it.”The old man, shoving up the front of his tarpaulin and deliberately rubbing the long slant scar at the point where it entered the thin hair, laconically said, “Baby Budd, Jemmy Legs is down on you.””Jemmy Legs!” ejaculated Billy, his welkin eyes expanding. “What for? Why, he calls me ‘the sweet and pleasant young fellow,’ they tell me.””Does he so?” grinned the grizzled one; then said, “Ay, Baby lad, a sweet voice has Jemmy Legs.””No, not always. But to me he has. I seldom pass him but there comes a pleasant word.””And that’s because he’s down upon you, Baby Budd.”
This passage occurs in Chapter 9, when Billy, baffled about why he seems to be having so many problems on the ship, asks the Dansker for advice, and receives the old sailor’s warning that Claggart (called “Jemmy Legs” by the men) is his enemy. The quote is important because it represents Billy’s first hint that there could be a discrepancy between someone’s actions and intentions—in other words, that Claggart could treat him with “a sweet voice” and still hate him. Billy’s baffled reaction to the Dansker’s world-weary advice shows the depth of his innocence: whereas most people mistrust each other simply out of habit, it seems almost impossible for Billy not to trust Claggart. Billy also shows that even though he has the ability to perceive evil, he cannot conceive of the possibility that someone could treat him kindly and wish him harm at the same time. In fact, the narrator goes on to note that Billy becomes almost as troubled by the Dansker’s replies as he is by the unexplained mystery of his trouble on the ship, indicating further that Billy cannot delve beneath the surface to interpret meaning.
For what can more partake of the mysterious than an antipathy spontaneous and profound such as is evoked in certain exceptional mortals by the mere aspect of some other mortal, however harmless he may be, if not called forth by this very harmlessness itself?
This somewhat convoluted question from Chapter 11 represents Melville’s diagnosis of Claggart’s evil, similar to his earlier description of the nature of Billy’s innocence. Melville essentially argues that Claggart’s hatred of Billy stems from Billy’s very “harmlessness.” In other words, Claggart’s “spontaneous and profound” hatred rises due to Billy’s “mere aspect”—something in Billy’s nature, or his innocent face, but nothing to do with any ill will on Billy’s part. The nature of evil is to destroy innocence, and, dimly perceiving Billy to be somehow above the world of subterfuge and cruelty that he himself inhabits, Claggart becomes consumed with the desire to corrupt and destroy Billy.
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.
This quote, from Chapter 12, further describes the nature of Claggart’s evil. Here, Melville focuses on the innate quality of Claggart’s evil, a quality unusual among literary portrayals of villains. Most villains appear evil either because of events that have corrupted them or because of deliberate, avoidable choices they have made—evil resulting from a painful background or from a conscious decision to betray good. Claggart’s evil has no such antecedent. Claggart simply embodies evil. Melville makes this fact clear in this description when he writes that Claggart can understand goodness, but is “powerless” to embrace it, just as he has no power to overcome the “elemental evil” that lies inside of him. Claggart has one option in life: to “act out to the end” the part that he has been assigned, that of the devious villain. Yet, if Claggart is a prisoner of his own evil, and has no choice but to act according to his evil nature, then the question arises as to whether he bears responsibility for his actions.
Vere speaks these words in Chapter 20, as he commits himself to pursuing the letter of the law and seeking the death penalty for Billy despite his own feelings. Vere equates Billy with an “angel of God,” but at the same time says that even if a real angel of God had committed murder on his ship, the angel would have to hang. Vere’s duty is to oversee the application of the written law, and the law prescribes hanging as a punishment for murder, particularly when the murderous act could be attributed to a conspiratorial plot of mutiny. In choosing to obey law over conscience, Vere commits himself to society at the expense of own individuality. Before he dies, he appears to rue this decision—his last words, “Billy Budd,” apparently indicate that he dies haunted by his perceived betrayal of the young sailor whom he admired. Reminiscent of Kant’s famous claim that justice must happen though the heavens fall, the quote simultaneously connects Billy’s plight to the religious allegory of the novel and the question of justice. In this quote, Billy almost recalls the devil himself. The Bible asserts that Lucifer originated as an angel in heaven who fell from grace.
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