Billy Budd Thoreau And Melville

1167 words - 5 pages

Billy Budd - Thoreau and Melville


The story of Billy Budd provides an excellent scenario in which to compare and contrast Thoreau and Melville. The topics of government-inspired injustice and man's own injustice to man can be explored through the story. Thoreau's position is one of lessened government and enhanced individualism, while Melville's is one of group unity and government's role to preserve order. The opinions of Melville and Thoreau outline the paradox of government: Government cannot exist without man, and man cannot exist without government.


One of the downfalls of both man and government is jealousy, and the H.M.S Bellipotent is no exception. Claggart is a jealous, hateful person who has made Billy the object of his anger, most likely because of his popularity and good-naturedness. Throughout the story, Claggart would then take every opportunity he could to single out Billy and eventually put him to death. It began when the grizzled man approached Claggart about Billy's ridiculing him, even though it was well known no one likes the master-at-arms. Then, when Billy spilled his soup infront of Claggart, Claggart was ready to dismiss it as carelessness until he saw it was Billy that spilled it. It became obvious that Claggart was planning Billy's demise, but Billy couldn't understand it yet. After the chase of the French ship, when Billy was confronted and accused for mutinous actions, Claggart put such pressure on him that he lost his composure and killed him. Claggart's jealously became the demise of himself and Billy.


Melville's second point in Billy Bud is about the necessary evil of humans acting as part of the government machine. Even though the captain and the rest of the drumhead were upset by the decision they had reached, they recognized it as their duty to maintain the law and execute Billy. The silence following the execution, the process of burial, and the distance the drumhead then put between themselves and the rest of the crew all showed the regret for commiting their inhumane act at their government's discretion.


The execution itself illustrates how the masses must make sacrifices to preserve a stable way of life. The drumhead resolved to hang Billy to fight the dangers of mutiny and to follow the laws their superiours laid down to keep stability in the navy. They were not comfortable with what they had to do, but they did it for the common good of their navy. Even Billy's final words "God bless Captain Vere!" showed that he understood he committed a crime and would be punished accordingly. He could have fought back, but he chose to accept his punishment for the navy. Even Billy's hanging appeared as if he had stopped his own heart prior to his death, he did not twitch or spasm like most do in a normal hanging. The final symbol of working for the community over ones self comes when the sailors resume their work. They work silently,...

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