Comparing Christ to Billy of Billy Budd
"I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head!" wrote Herman Melville in his June 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne (Davis and Gilman 3). Yet, by the time he began writing Billy Budd, Sailor in 1888, Melville must have tempered this view, for Billy Budd depicts the inevitable destruction of a man who is all heart but who utterly lacks insight. Melville no doubt intends for his reader to connect this tale with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Billy Budd endures a persecution similar to Christ's; he is executed for like reasons, and he eventually ascends, taking "the full rose of the dawn" (BB 376). Yet, in creating Billy Budd, Melville forms a character who is but a half-Christ, more like the Child than the Man. Indeed, a number of characteristics and circumstances sharply distinguish Billy Budd from the complete Christ. These differences ultimately work to support Melville's (now refined) philosophy that innocence, unaccompanied by wisdom, must inevitably meet with destruction and that only when a man balances the "spontaneous impulses of [his] 'heart'" against the experiential "wisdom of [his] 'head'" (Howard 328) can he prevail in a fallen world.
Critics often connect Billy Budd with the Christ Child. Richard Chase, for instance, writes that Billy Budd is the realization of Melville's "fresh commitment to the infantile Christ" (267), and Milton Stern claims that Billy's behavior represents an "ideal Christliness" because he accepts "everything with animal insightlessness and the childlike faith of innocence" (216). Christ taught that to enter heaven, one must become like a little child (Matt. 18:2-3). Many have inferred from this that, from a Christian perspective, childlike ignorance must be good while experience and wisdom must be bad. Yet, in so doing, they apparently forget that not only did Christ evaluate things with insight, but He also insisted that His disciples be "wise as serpents" as well as "harmless as doves" (Matt. 10:16).
Billy Budd is neither. He may possess the heart of Christ in that he usually unconditionally loves others, but he lacks "any trace of the wisdom of the serpent." Nor is he "yet quite a dove" (BB 300). If a peacemaker, he is a "fighting peacemaker" (BB 296). He does not, as Christ taught men to do, turn the other cheek to insults. (Unless, of course, he fails to recognize them.) When "the Red Whiskers . . . insultingly [gives] him a dig under the ribs," he hits the man (BB 295). Yet the "Red Whiskers" grows to love Billy nonetheless, probably because the sailor has a harmless heart, if not a harmless arm. Billy is like the Christ Child--loving, innocent, and never maliciously harmful--but he little resembles the mature Man.
Melville, as can be discerned from reading his novels, was clearly no orthodox Christian. However, he had a more complete view of Christ than that with which most critics credit him, a more complete view,...