Good And Evil In Billy Budd

1189 words - 5 pages

Good and evil exist in all things. In Herman Melville's novel Billy Budd, good is represented by Billy Budd and evil, by John Claggart.  Together, they embody Melville's portrayal of opposing forces that run throughout all aspects of human experience.  In addition, Melville provides for the possibility of a balance between good and evil through the character of Captain Vere.  In Freudian terminology, I might view Claggart as Id, untamed instinct.  Billy can then be seen as Ego, existing to contain and direct Id instincts in a productive fashion, Vere could be seen as Superego in his struggles with his conscience to decide between the letter of the law and his own view of Billy.  This novel, Melville's final work, stresses his belief that good does not, indeed, can not, exist without evil, nor, since Adam and Eve, has either stood alone.


From the beginning, Billy Budd awed his companions with the strength of his love for life.  When he was taken from the ship, The Rights of Man, Captain Graveling became disturbed at the thought of losing such a man, saying "Beg pardon, but you don't understand, Lieutenant.  See here now.  Before I shipped that young fellow, my forecastle was a rat-pit of quarrels.  It was black times, I tell you aboard the Rights here.  I was worried to that degree my pipe had no comfort for me.  But Billy came, and it was like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy...a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones." Clearly from the start, we are made aware of Billy's goodness, his ability to bring peace to the roughest of men.  He is likened to a Priest, and portrayed as exuding a sweetness which seems contagious.  The crew saw him as the "sweet and pleasant fellow," and a "peacemaker."  Billy although sweet and innocent, is still not perfect.  Indeed, he has a minor flaw, rendering him somehow more human.  At times, when under emotional strain,and he cannot express himself, he stutters.  On his new ship, Billy faces John Claggart, the master-at-arms.  Claggart had the job "of preserving order on the populous lower gun decks."  Claggart tends to take his job too zealously, flogging young sailors on any excuse when in fact, they have done nothing wrong.  Melville immediately paints a heinous picture of this man, as someone with an overarching need to be in control, to the point where he uses punishment where none is necessary, to further his sense of superiority over others.  The fact that he must do this to cover up his inner feelings of inferiority, goes unnoticed by Claggart and most everyone else.


Even in his descriptions, Melville gives Claggart and Billy distinctive looks which emphasize their characters.  Melville sets Claggart apart from the rest of the crew by virtue of his education and his appearance.  From the start, he is...

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