Themes of Good and Evil in Billy Budd
Many themes relating to the conflict between Good and Evil can be found in Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd. Perhaps one of the most widely recognized themes in Billy Budd is the corruption of innocence by society (Gilmore 18).
Society in Billy Budd is represented by an eighteenth century English man-of-war, the H.M.S. Bellipotent. Billy, who represents innocence, is a young seaman of twenty-one who is endowed with physical strength, beauty, and good nature (Voss 44). A crew member aboard the merchant ship Rights of Man, Billy is impressed by the English navy and is taken aboard the H.M.S. Bellipotent. As he boards the H.M.S. Bellipotent, he calmly utters, "Goodbye, Rights of Man," a farewell to his ship and crewmates. However, this farewell is not only meant for his ship, but for his actual rights as well, the rights that would have kept him innocent until proven guilty under a normal society (Gilmore 18). The society represented by the H.M.S. Bellipotent is much different from that of the outside world, as the various laws and regulations in effect during war turn a civilized society into more of a primitive state. The rights that are fought for during war were no longer possessed by the men on board the Bellipotent in an attempt to keep order as best as possible (Gilmore 18).
Billy was impressed by the English navy because of a need for good sailors. The Rights of Man cannot survive in the war-torn waters of the ocean without the protection of the Bellipotent, and the Bellipotent cannot protect the Rights of Man if it does not impress sailors (Tucker 248). On the H.M.S. Bellipotent, Billy faces destruction from a force which he does not and cannot comprehend (Gilmore 18). Billy was snatched from a safe berth aboard the Rights of Man so that he could be made into an example, which would hopefully suppress the primitive instinct to rebel in the other crew members (Tucker 248). He lacks the sophistication and experience to "roll with the punches", forcing him to succumb to this hostile society. Unlike the shifting keel of the ship, he cannot lean both ways, one way toward his natural innocence and trustfulness and the other toward the evil and conspiracy in society, causing him to break apart and sink (Gilmore 18). It can also be interpreted that Billy is the true civilizer, for while the war in which the H.M.S. Bellipotent fights is a product of what passes for civilization, Billy is the maker of peace (Gilmore 65).
Another theme that critics feel is present in Billy Budd is that of the impersonality and brutality of the modern state. Billy was taken from a safe and protected environment on the Rights of Man and placed in a new, hostile setting, one which he was not prepared for and could not conform to. Once one of the strongest and most respected crew members on the Rights of Man, he was no longer regarded as such on the H.M.S....