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Billy Budd, Sailor

Herman Melville
  • Study Guide
Main Ideas

Motifs

Main Ideas Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Christian Allegory

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.

Suggestive Names

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.

Primitive and Animal Imagery

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

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.