Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Melville is deeply interested in the ways in which society forces people to curtail or limit their individuality. When the warship Bellipotent extracts the unassuming Billy from his former ship, the Rights-of-Man, the symbolism is relatively explicit: society is all-powerful, it compels men into participation in war, and in doing so it can readily dispense with the rights of the individual. The names of the ships alone—Bellipotent means “power of war”—suggest as much.
Captain Vere’s dilemma in dealing with Billy illustrates how society requires the separation of one’s inner feelings from one’s social obligations. In prosecuting Billy, Vere decides to follow the letter of the law, despite his own sense that Billy personifies goodness and innocence. Feeling the pressure of his position as a leader with a responsibility to see that the men obey the Mutiny Act, Vere forces himself to disregard his own feelings about Billy’s situation and even urges the jurors in the case to do the same. Laws, not the dictates of individual conscience, govern society; in order to fill a social role well, it may sometimes be necessary to act against one’s own impulses. To be a “good” captain, Vere must do something that he instinctually interprets as morally wrong—condemning an innocent soul. Being a good captain requires him to be a bad friend to Billy, just as being a good friend to Billy would require him to be a bad captain.
In presenting Vere’s dilemma, the narrator introduces a lengthy discussion about the famous mutiny at Nore. The narrator shows that most of the participants in the mutiny ultimately redeem themselves in the momentous victory at Trafalgar, where they display true patriotism. The narrator’s point seems to be that the impulses of individuals are generally good and beneficial to society as a whole. However, the outcome of the narrator’s story is more ominous. Although the British war machine greatly benefits from the individual enthusiasm and patriotism of its sailors, the more powerful the navy becomes, the more it is able to squelch individualism. In fact, the harsh legislation of the Mutiny Act is passed to suppress any further murmurings of dissent. Melville seems to suggest that ultimately, the individual’s attempt to assert himself in the face of society will prove futile.
Although a number of the characters in Billy Budd possess strong individual consciences; fundamentally, the people on the ship are unable to trust one another. Paranoia abounds. Consequently, life aboard the ship is governed by a strict set of rules, and everybody trusts the rules—not the honor or conscience of individuals—to maintain order. The mistrust that the characters feel, and that is likely also to affect us as we read, stems from the sense that evil is pervasive. Evil men like Claggart seem to be lurking everywhere. Because it is impossible to know for sure whether people’s intentions are good or evil, the evil men not only disguise their own insidious designs, they also impute evil motives to others. Most notably, Claggart misinterprets Billy’s intention in the soup-spilling incident and subsequently plots his downfall.
The Dansker understands this sort of dishonesty all too well, and as a result, he has acquired a cynicism in his dealings with other people. The Dansker’s reticence may be interpreted in different ways, but one plausible interpretation is that he fails to take direct action against evil men because he fears the consequences of confronting evil directly, thus leaving other good men like Billy to fend for themselves. He may represent people who play roles in order to fit into society, never fully acting on their own impulses and distancing themselves from the rest of society. In this reading, the Dansker confronts a dilemma similar to Vere’s. The Dansker likes Billy and tries to help him, but he ultimately sacrifices Billy to the claustrophobic, paranoid world of the ship, in which men are disconnected from their own consciences. In Billy Budd, men who confront the law and men who confront evil suffer similar consequences, suggesting the dark view that evil and the law are closely connected.
Billy Budd does not represent goodness so much as he does innocence, and the conflict between innocence and evil in this novel is different from the conflict between good and evil. The narrator makes clear that Billy is not a hero in the traditional sense. Though he has the good looks and blithe attitude of the ideal Handsome Sailor, his defining characteristic is extreme naïveté, not moral strength or courage. Billy does not have a sufficient awareness of good and evil to choose goodness consciously, let alone champion it. Because he is unable to recognize evil when confronted by it, he ultimately allows Claggart to draw him away from virtue and into violence.