Study Guide

Billy Budd Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Herman Melville

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The H.M.S. Bellipotent and All That It Implies

In the "Setting" section, we explain a bit about the climate of 1797. The story takes place during the Napoleonic Wars in the same year as a number of massive mutinies in the English fleet. Thus a man like Captain Vere was concerned not only with fighting a war against the French but also with keeping peace within his own crew.

As much as the narrator tends to zoom out to explain the historical circumstances of the story, he tries to confine himself to the events on board the H.M.S. Bellipotent. As he says, the story is restricted "to the inner life of one particular ship and the career of an individual sailor" (3.1). At another point, the narrator notes how the ship itself makes up the story's entire stage. He says, "In the present instance the stage is a scrubbed gun deck, and one of the external provocations a man-of-war's man's spilled soup" (13.1). The confined space of the Bellipotent is where the story happens, where the events take place.

In making this point, the narrator is concerned with the fact that even the most dramatic of passions can unfold on a minor stage. As he says, "Passion, and passion in its profoundest, is not a thing demanding a palatial stage" (13.1). The Bellipotent, as you've probably noted, is anything but a palatial stage. In fact, the nature of the Bellipotent as a stage is extremely important to the story, to how events unfold. In other words, the Bellipotent is not just a passive setting where things take place, the setting actually affects the way that things happen.

How does the ship do this? One way is that it is an extremely confined space. Claggart, for whatever his reasons, has a consuming hatred of Billy Budd. In normal circumstances, he might just go out for a drive in the country to get some fresh air. In this case, though, he has nowhere to go. He is constantly forced to rub up against a man that he can't stand. Whereas in most plays, it is implied that the action is taking place in a location much wider than the stage itself, here the "stage" sets the boundaries of where the characters can actually move. The fact that Claggart cannot physically escape from Billy means that he cannot escape from his own hatred, and the confined space is one reason that Claggart snaps and falsely accuses Billy.

The other thing about ships in general is that they are isolated things, that they're floating out at sea, and the Captain is using his little compass and his knowledge of the movements of the sun and the moon and the stars to stay on course. Things are not solid out at sea. There's a third axis that doesn't exist on land. Things go down into the water to unfathomable depths. In the case of the Bellipotent, the narrator is careful to note that when the events unfold the ship is out on a separate mission and hence is alienated from the rest of the English fleet. The sense of isolation contributes to the enormous responsibility and helpless that Captain Vere feels when he is confronted with the case of Billy Budd.

Claggart, clever devil that he is, knows this and takes advantage of it. He doesn't approach Vere until they are out on their own, and he waits until they've just failed in their pursuit of a French ship. He waits until Claggart is "doubtless somewhat chafed at the failure of the pursuit" (18.3), and then he takes advantage of the setting. He waits to accuse Billy until Claggart is especially vulnerable and alone.

Billy Budd, Christ Figure

Whoever this narrator is, he really likes Billy Budd. A lot. One of the ways that you can tell is that he is constantly comparing Billy Budd to religious figures. The comparisons mainly fall into two different categories: those linking Billy to the Biblical Adam before the "Fall of Man," and those comparing Billy to Jesus Christ. We'll deal with the Adam comparisons in "The Noble Savage" section (see below). Here, we're mainly concerned with what it means for the narrator to treat Billy as an 18th-century Christ figure.

Let's focus in on Billy's execution scene. Billy's last words are "God Bless Captain Vere!" (25.2). The words aren't too far off from Christ's own cry of forgiveness in Luke 23:24 – "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." In a way, though, Billy's forgiveness is even more remarkable. Forgiveness, of course, implies that there's something to forgive, that there is something that the forgiver could begrudge the one who he is forgiving.

With Billy, though, he doesn't even seem to hold anything against Captain Vere after Vere condemned him to death. It's almost like he doesn't understand that he has reason to be angry with Captain Vere or to resent him. After all, he isn't actually forgiving Vere. It's more like he's affirming Vere's decision to execute him and hoping that God will give Vere strength since Billy knows that he is going to be wracked by guilt.

In this way, Billy appears more remarkable (or maybe less human) than Christ does in the Bible. For Billy there is not a single moment where his faith wavers. The moment in the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ says, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46) simply does not exist for Billy. People often have trouble relating to Christ because he is so good. The whole point, of course, is that Christ is part divine and part human, meaning that he is capable of human weakness and sin. In a way, though, Billy is even harder to relate to.

What does this mean? Is the narrator trying to replace Christ with Billy?

Actually, this probably has a lot more to do with the narrator himself than it does with either Billy or Christ. Consider how the narrator describes the moment when Billy is hanged:

At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of dawn. (25.5)

As we point out in "Writing Style," the narrator seriously romanticizes Billy's execution. After all, who can say what the light of the "Lamb of God" looks like? Is this something that the narrator actually saw or something that he is reading into what he saw?

In the final chapter of the book, the narrator notes how the sailors kept track of the spar (big pole of the main mast) where Billy died. As he says, "To them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross" (30.1). The narrator, who clearly considers himself superior to the sailors, seems to portray their worship of Billy as excessive and sentimental. Yet, if you take a minute and read back over the passages that compare Billy to Christ, you'll quickly realize that the narrator himself does this to an even greater degree.

By making Billy even more Christ-like than Christ, the narrator idealizes him to the point that it's hard to imagine Billy as a real human figure, as someone with whom it is possible to empathize. One of the great ironies of Billy Budd is that, in seeking to exonerate the main character, the narrator actually makes him disappear by removing him from the realm of human beings that it is possible for us to imagine.

Faith Versus Science

These days, when you hear "faith versus science" the first thing you probably think is: evolution versus creationism. In Billy Budd, though, the tension between faith and science is not so simple or straightforward as Religion versus Science, or Believers versus Atheists. On some level, you might say that the real tension is not faith versus science so much as faith versus rationality. In the central moral debate of the story, Captain Vere tries to put aside his gut feeling that Billy is innocent; he tries to act rationally, according to the word of the law, in convicting him. If Captain Vere permitted himself to act on faith, then it is possible that Billy never would have been executed.

We'll focus in on one particular scene that more or less captures the flavor of a debate that runs throughout the book. This is the scene in Chapter 26, where the Purser and the Surgeon get into an argument over how to explain the fact that Billy did not twitch after being hanged. The Purser interprets it as "testimony to the force lodged in will power" (26.2). The Surgeon, dryly refuting him, says, "Such movement indicates mechanical spasm in the muscular system. Hence the absence of that is no more attributable to will power, as you call it, than to horsepower – begging your pardon" (26.1). As is typical in the portrayal of such debates, the Purser is portrayed as relatively simple and uneducated in contrast to the worldly and sophisticated philosophizing Surgeon.

Yet what is key is that the Purser admires Billy Budd. He thinks of him as something of a hero. He wants reality to align with his desire to glamorize Billy Budd, to portray him as stronger than the average man. The Surgeon is cut and dried; at least openly, he shares no such desire. Just as he dismisses the idea of Billy's willpower, so he dismisses the entire role of human desire in interpreting and explaining events.

As he says, in his scientific way, "It was phenomenal, Mr. Purser, in the sense that it was an appearance the cause of which is not immediately to be assigned" (26.7). Billy's failure to twitch is not of interest to the Surgeon because it cannot be explained. But doesn't this betray the Surgeon's own desire – his desire that the world operates rationally and that the only things that matter are those that can readily be explained?

The Noble Savage

As we noted above in "Billy Budd, Christ Figure," the narrator's characterization of Billy is jam-packed with the narrator's own ideas about who Billy is and what he stands for. The phrase "Noble Savage" does not actually appear in Billy Budd. It is linked with the romantic and naturalistic thought of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who imagined that society has contaminated man, and that the ideal men were those who were more intimately connected with nature, those who were, as they said in Rousseau's time, "savage." Rousseau's phrase might capture the worldview of the narrator: Billy Budd is his example of the noble savage.

One of the ways that the narrator characterizes Billy is as a simple man. As in, Billy is really simple. What's weird, though, is that the narrator doesn't mean to be putting Billy Budd down by emphasizing how unintelligent he is. In fact, the narrator worships Billy for his simplicity.

Consider some of the early descriptions of Billy: "He possessed that kind and degree of intelligence going along with the unconventional rectitude of a sound human creature, one to whom not yet has been proffered the questionable apple of knowledge" (2.10). A bit later, the narrator says, "Of self-consciousness he seemed to have little or none, or about as much as we may reasonably impute to a dog of Saint Bernard's breed" (2.11). As degrading as such descriptions are, the narrator's purpose is actually to compare Billy to Adam before the "Fall of Man" in Genesis. In other words, he compares Billy to uncivilized man.

As the narrator explains it, there seems to be something more dignified and pure about men before they became civilized. It is as if "savages" were closer to human nature because they were not yet forced to take on all of the different roles that society thrusts upon them. As the narrator says when speaking of virtues: "they will upon scrutiny seem not to be derived from custom or convention, but rather to be out of keeping with these, as if indeed exceptionally transmitted from a period prior to Cain's city and citified man" (2.13). The narrator sees virtue not as originating from "custom or convention," but as somehow preceding it. What one might term the good came before civilization and is thus separate from it.

For the narrator, Billy's mental simplicity is akin to complete sincerity. He thinks that Billy's good-heartedness means that he is lacking a certain mental fold that allows for lies and evil intentions to slip into the human mind. The result is that the narrator treats Billy as a romanticized version of…dun dun dun, the Noble Savage!

Now, we poke fun at this view just because we encourage you to get outside of it. Notice how often we point out that this view is attributable to the narrator. Just because the narrator portrays events in a Rousseau-type light doesn't mean you have to. That said, to get outside of this viewpoint you'll have to use the text itself, to find points where the narrator undermines himself without even knowing it. For an idea of how to do this, check out our argument in "Writing Style."