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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
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.