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In his last novel published post-mortem
, Billy Budd
, Herman Melville
took themes that vitally concerned his writing and distilled them into a short tale with powerful, symbolic meaning. His concern with the nature of mankind
and its fallibility was represented through the young sailor's journey. The exposure of the boy to evil
in the form of the character Claggart was not just the relation of an individual incident, but an allegorical
discussion of the broader implications for humankind.
A committed anti-Transcendentalist, Melville did not end his novel with any sort of indication of the absolute triumph of the human spirit. Rather, he showed both its achievement and its downfall, revealing a more complex picture of the nature of individual will. Making the uniquely untouched Billy the cardinal hinge of events, he illustrates the fallibility of man by the actions of Claggart and Captain Vere. To lend gravity to his prose, Melville made significant references to the Bible. Through Biblical allusions and symbolism, he shows that mankind is not inherently good or evil, but in a fallen state.
To stress Billy's natural purity and innocence, Melville makes several comparisons with the Biblical character Adam. While establishing Billy Budd on the physical model of the Handsome Sailor presented in the first chapter and lending credence to the possibility that Billy is of noble blood, the author uses a similarity with Adam to flesh out Billy's mental characteristics. He is noted as a young man without, "any trace of the wisdom of the serpent" (70), "much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been" (71). Ensuring that there can be no mistaking Billy for Adam after his Original Sin, Captain Vere remarks to himself that Billy "in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall" (115). These quotes stress Billy's lack of knowledge about evil. Like Adam, Billy cannot comprehend any wrong-doing; without tasting of the serpent’s proffered fruit he is incapable of it. Having "none of that intuitive knowledge of the bad" (106) native to the rest of the human race, he is incapable of wickedness.
Through undeniable parallels with Adam Melville makes Billy a representative of humanity before its fall by eating of the apple from the tree of Knowledge. Yet Melville makes a significant break with the story of Adam after Billy has killed Claggart. This equivocal event could be considered the temptation of Billy, and he fails, yet the man does not appear to lose any of his innocence or grace. The Chaplain when he comes to visit Billy before execution remarks that he, "Had no consolation to proffer which could result in a peace transcending that which he beheld" (141). And in Billy's final action he blesses, rather than curses Captain Vere; leaving the whole ship struck in wonder as the boy dies. These qualities still present in him after the death of Claggart seem to indicate that nothing was lost, unlike Adam who was forced to flee the garden of Eden and toil under Earth's burdens. Using the break allows Melville to isolate Billy from the other characters representing humanity. He is not a true member of their race, rather he is inherently separated from us. The transcendental qualities Billy possesses cannot be abstracted to humanity as a whole because of this remoteness.
Not only sharing natural innocence with Adam, Billy also shares Adam's nemesis: the Serpent. The Master-at-Arms Claggart in his relationship with Billy takes on the characteristics of a demon. "Upon any abrupt unforeseen encounter a red light would flash forth from his eye like a spark from an anvil in a dusk smithy. That quick fierce light was a strange one" (108). Glowing eyes are unnatural features for a man, making Claggart distinct from the other sailors and lending him an aura of inhumanity. At his death he can no longer hide his serpentine nature, and to Captain Vere handling his body feels like "handling a dead snake" (120). The presence of both serpent and Adam completes the Biblical allusion to Billy's distinctive nature unblemished by knowledge of evil.
It also helps to illustrate the polar opposite of Billy's nature to be found in a human; natural depravity. In his descriptions Melville quips that, "to pass from a normal nature to him one must cross ‘the deadly space between,’" (93) and that Claggart is among "These men (who) are true madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous but occasional evoked by some special object" (95). The special bestial characteristics given to Claggart in combination with his unique nature serves as the foil to Billy's goodness, but bears marked similarity. His evil is greater than that capable by man, he is lower than a man, inhuman. Billy and Claggart as a pair symbolically represent the clash of natural good and natural evil, their realm is truly a separate one from man's.
While neither Billy nor Claggart can be abstracted to man as a whole, Captain Vere is the perfect representative for humankind and shows our fallen state through his Biblical parallels with Pontius Pilot. From the beginning of the novel there are certain aspects of Billy's character that fit in with Biblical standards, but don’t specifically refer to Adam. He is declared by his previous captain aboard the Rights-of-Man as a "peacemaker" (67). This not only helps to describe why his presence is enjoyed by the other sailors, it also foreshadows a parallel between Billy and Jesus. Jesus has been called the Prince of Peace. After his betrayal by Claggart the similarities are stronger to be seen. His interrogation was "as a crucifixion to behold" (120) by Captain Vere, a clear reference to between the sacrifice Billy is making and the sacrifice that Jesus was required to make. Important to this role is Captain Vere, who's insistence that the matter is out of his hands, "for that law and the rigor of it, we are not responsible" (131), seems to bare a close resemblance to Pontius Pilot's handing of Jesus over to the crowds as he washed his hands of the Savior’s death.
Captain Vere is acting from his true intentions for what he believes is best, yet this accordance with his individual will does not result in goodness as the Transcendentalists attest. Rather, he is forced to allow Claggart to win by executing Billy. His desire to enact justice twists itself into injustice. Such a corruption of intentions shows the fallen state of man who has knowledge of Evil.
Yet, in the Bible the Original Sin was recompensed by Jesus' death. Melville does not allow this saving grace, but instead shows that man will remain fallen by breaking with the story of Christ. When Billy dies, the sailors take actions that seem to resemble Christian mysticism, such as blessing the yard-arm from which he hung and attributing superstition to pieces of it carried around with them, just like it was thought that pieces of the cross on which Jesus was crucified were holy. The poem composed to honor Billy’s death makes a clear reference to the last supper, "They’ll give me a nibble—bit o’ biscuit ere I go./Sure, a messmate will reach me the last parting cup;” (153). The sharing of the bread and wine is reminiscent of the ritual Passover Jesus shared with his disciples before his death. At Billy's death he is even said to have metaphorically risen to heaven, "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... Billy ascended" (145).
Despite this exact parallel with Christ, Billy does not resurrect after three days. He does not return to save the crew or its captain. "Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I’ll dream fast asleep" (154) as the sailor who composed his eulogy recognized. This significant break with the Biblical tradition helps reflect Melville's anti-Transcendentalist tendencies by pointing out that through Billy’s perpetual death, humanity is not saved. Captain Vere and his sailors' souls are not bought off by Billy's sacrifice, because he never returns from the ocean bottom.
By making use of Biblical allusions and symbolism, Melville represents good, evil, and the failure of humanity to choose correctly because of its fallen state. Billy and Claggart, polar opposites in natural character, both serve as pure abstractions of good and evil by their remote representations from humanity. Captain Vere as a symbol of us all breaks with Transcendentalist expectations by causing an injustice through following his individual will for good. In the conflict between Billy and Claggart, Captain Vere cannot overcome humanity's fatal flaw. Acting out his pure intentions results in evil nonetheless. The gravity of Melville's prose in setting across his anti-Transcendentalist ideas with Biblical symbolism is greatly increased, and such profound meaning has helped to insure his final novel Billy Budd’s recognition as a true masterpiece of literature.