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.