You love us on Instagram and Twitter, now check us out on TikTok! You love us on Instagram and Twitter, now check us out on TikTok!

Billy Budd, Sailor

Herman Melville
  • Study Guide
Characters

Billy Budd

Characters Billy Budd

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.