Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Melville is deeply interested in the ways in which society forces people to curtail or limit their individuality. When the warship Bellipotent extracts the unassuming Billy from his former ship, the Rights-of-Man, the symbolism is relatively explicit: society is all-powerful, it compels men into participation in war, and in doing so it can readily dispense with the rights of the individual. The names of the ships alone—Bellipotent means “power of war”—suggest as much.
Captain Vere’s dilemma in dealing with Billy illustrates how society requires the separation of one’s inner feelings from one’s social obligations. In prosecuting Billy, Vere decides to follow the letter of the law, despite his own sense that Billy personifies goodness and innocence. Feeling the pressure of his position as a leader with a responsibility to see that the men obey the Mutiny Act, Vere forces himself to disregard his own feelings about Billy’s situation and even urges the jurors in the case to do the same. Laws, not the dictates of individual conscience, govern society; in order to fill a social role well, it may sometimes be necessary to act against one’s own impulses. To be a “good” captain, Vere must do something that he instinctually interprets as morally wrong—condemning an innocent soul. Being a good captain requires him to be a bad friend to Billy, just as being a good friend to Billy would require him to be a bad captain.
In presenting Vere’s dilemma, the narrator introduces a lengthy discussion about the famous mutiny at Nore. The narrator shows that most of the participants in the mutiny ultimately redeem themselves in the momentous victory at Trafalgar, where they display true patriotism. The narrator’s point seems to be that the impulses of individuals are generally good and beneficial to society as a whole. However, the outcome of the narrator’s story is more ominous. Although the British war machine greatly benefits from the individual enthusiasm and patriotism of its sailors, the more powerful the navy becomes, the more it is able to squelch individualism. In fact, the harsh legislation of the Mutiny Act is passed to suppress any further murmurings of dissent. Melville seems to suggest that ultimately, the individual’s attempt to assert himself in the face of society will prove futile.
Although a number of the characters in Billy Budd possess strong individual consciences; fundamentally, the people on the ship are unable to trust one another. Paranoia abounds. Consequently, life aboard the ship is governed by a strict set of rules, and everybody trusts the rules—not the honor or conscience of individuals—to maintain order. The mistrust that the characters feel, and that is likely also to affect us as we read, stems from the sense that evil is pervasive. Evil men like Claggart seem to be lurking everywhere. Because it is impossible to know for sure whether people’s intentions are good or evil, the evil men not only disguise their own insidious designs, they also impute evil motives to others. Most notably, Claggart misinterprets Billy’s intention in the soup-spilling incident and subsequently plots his downfall.
The Dansker understands this sort of dishonesty all too well, and as a result, he has acquired a cynicism in his dealings with other people. The Dansker’s reticence may be interpreted in different ways, but one plausible interpretation is that he fails to take direct action against evil men because he fears the consequences of confronting evil directly, thus leaving other good men like Billy to fend for themselves. He may represent people who play roles in order to fit into society, never fully acting on their own impulses and distancing themselves from the rest of society. In this reading, the Dansker confronts a dilemma similar to Vere’s. The Dansker likes Billy and tries to help him, but he ultimately sacrifices Billy to the claustrophobic, paranoid world of the ship, in which men are disconnected from their own consciences. In Billy Budd, men who confront the law and men who confront evil suffer similar consequences, suggesting the dark view that evil and the law are closely connected.
Billy Budd does not represent goodness so much as he does innocence, and the conflict between innocence and evil in this novel is different from the conflict between good and evil. The narrator makes clear that Billy is not a hero in the traditional sense. Though he has the good looks and blithe attitude of the ideal Handsome Sailor, his defining characteristic is extreme naïveté, not moral strength or courage. Billy does not have a sufficient awareness of good and evil to choose goodness consciously, let alone champion it. Because he is unable to recognize evil when confronted by it, he ultimately allows Claggart to draw him away from virtue and into violence.
As a youthful, handsome, and popular sailor, Billy wishes only to be well liked and well-adjusted in his social role. He assumes that no one has cause to dislike him, and takes everyone at face value. Claggart, on the other hand, is full of deception, distrust, and malice, and interprets Billy’s placidity as a dangerous façade. Claggart seems to destroy Billy for no reason other than the latter’s innocence. Evil exists to corrupt innocence, and even though Billy kills Claggart, in a sense Claggart achieves a double victory over Billy in his own death. Claggart’s actions cause Billy to fall from both social and moral grace by committing murder, and Billy suffers death as a consequence.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Although the narrator rarely alludes to the Bible explicitly, Billy Budd contains many implicit allusions to the imagery, language, and stories of the Bible, creating a sustained parallel between Billy’s story and Christ’s Passion, the story of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. Like Christ, Billy sacrifices his life as the innocent victim of a hostile society. Vere’s role in the story parallels that of Pontius Pilate in the Gospels, as he is the official who permits the sacrifice by following the letter of the law instead of his own conscience. Claggart functions as a satanic figure, tempting Billy into evil and working to destroy him throughout the novel. Satan is not a part of the story of Christ’s Passion, and Claggart’s temptation of Billy more closely mirrors the serpent’s temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden than anything in the Gospels. The narrator makes Claggart’s connection to the serpent in Genesis more explicit by comparing Claggart’s dead body to the corpse of a snake. In addition to these main parallels, the novel’s innumerable Christian references form a complex web of associations and contrasts. Critics remain sharply divided over whether Billy Budd’s religious imagery represents Melville’s embrace of religion or harsh critique of it, which illustrates the ambiguity of the religious allegory in the story. Melville leaves to each reader the decision of what the connection between Billy Budd and Christianity signifies.
Throughout the novel, Melville uses names to indicate ideas about the true nature of people and things. For example, Billy’s last name, Budd, suggests his innocence and youth by conjuring an image of a flower’s bud. Captain Vere’s name suggests his tendency to veer between attitudes. The name of the Rights-of-Man suggests the greater individual liberties enjoyed by the crew of that happier ship, while the name of the Bellipotent suggests its association with war and the power represented by its military order. The name of the Athée means “the atheist,” and when this ship defeats the Bellipotent—which carries the characters who stand for Christian figures—the event suggests that Christian society moves toward a disastrous fall from grace as it becomes more dependent on violence and military discipline.
The narrator frequently uses animal imagery to describe both Billy and his fellow sailors. For example, the narrator remarks that Billy appears to have the “self-consciousness” of a Saint Bernard. Later, the narrator says that Billy “was like a young horse fresh from the pasture suddenly inhaling a vile whiff from some chemical factory” when presented with the conspiratorial bribe. Again, during the trial, Billy gives Vere a questioning look “not unlike that which a dog of generous breed might turn upon his master.” When he lashes out at Claggart, Billy is said to resemble a cornered dog or caged monkey. This animal imagery functions primarily to highlight Billy’s extreme innocence, suggesting moreover that he is distanced from society because he lacks the proper vocabulary to understand social interactions. Melville combines this animal imagery with references to Billy as a “babe,” a “savage,” and an “upright barbarian,” suggesting that Billy represents Melville’s exploration of what happens to the natural or primitive man when confronted with the law and Christianity.
Mutiny figures prominently in the plot and historical background of Billy Budd, and it relates to numerous themes as well. The feigned mutinous conspiracy presented to Billy by the anonymous stranger on the upper deck ultimately leads to his demise. The narrator spends much time detailing the mutinies that ultimately led to the Mutiny Act, the law that necessitates Vere’s condemnation of Billy. On the one hand, mutiny represents opposition to war. It also represents individuality and agency in the face of authority. Still, since a successful mutiny requires the cooperation of many sailors, it also represents a form of society. Moreover, this association defines itself in opposition to an authoritarian force that aims to keep men separated from their fellow dissenters. Thus, the captains whistle the men back to their individual duties quickly whenever they hear a murmur in the crowd.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Broadly speaking, the H.M.S. Bellipotent symbolizes society, with the actions of a few characters standing for the state of human society in general. In a sense, the various ships in the novel represent different types of societies: the Rights-of-Man symbolizes a place where individuals maintain their individuality, while the Bellipotent represents a military world in which, under the threat of violence—and therefore in the presence of evil—the rules of society impinge upon the individual rights of men. The Athée, whose name means “the atheist” in French, symbolizes the anti-religious aspects of a powerful, war-driven society.
The purser and the surgeon who debate Billy’s story after his death represent faith and skepticism, the two fundamentally opposed attitudes toward religious mysteries. The purser believes that Billy’s death indicates some special quality in Billy, possibly supernatural. The surgeon, on the other hand, maintaining a scientific viewpoint, refuses to acknowledge Billy’s unusually peaceful death as more than a quirk of matter. Besides dramatizing two long-standing attitudes toward religion, these two characters and their conversation are important because they initiate the narrator’s exploration of Billy’s posthumous legend. The narrator ultimately calls into question the novel’s larger Christian allegory as he investigates how people transform events into legendary narratives.