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
Main Ideas

Symbols

Main Ideas Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Ships

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

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.