Early American literature is unique in that it is abundantly influenced by Biblical themes and ideas. Being that this country was founded by the strict, fundamentalist Puritans, it seems obvious that the literature would be pervaded by such things as the presence of evil and its impact on goodness and holiness. The “evil” that is found in Melville and Hawthorne is interesting because it reflects the Biblical idea of evil tempting good and attempting to convert it rather than simply destroy it. The stories of Poe reflect the turmoil and evil that is contained within a person and tempts him or her to commit evil acts.
What is fascinating about this literature is that in Billy Budd, The Scarlet Letter, “The Imp of the Perverse,” and “William Wilson,” evil is always victorious. In today’s society, it is tempting to read stories and watch films in which good always prevails and the characters live happily ever after; however, at the time of these writings, there was still an air of Calvinism and the lasting idea that mankind is innately evil. Modern society is uncomfortable with the term “evil,” but at the time of this literature, it was a common term that was used freely and had clear definitions. Therefore, because of the strong Biblical influence, the aforementioned tales are centered on this presence of evil and its temptation and torturing of that which is holy until goodness is overcome.
Melville’s Billy Budd is a tale in which the Biblical influence is quite obvious. There are many images of snakes and serpents, which is often symbolic of Satan. Many critics read the story as an allegory to the Christ story in which Billy and Claggart “play the roles of Jesus and Judas” (Wright 133). There is imagery throughout the story that is Christian such as the “fleece of the Lamb of God” that was seen at Billy’s execution (Melville 2482). Also at his execution, it was said that he “ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn” (Melville 2482). It is not coincidental or accidental that the work contains this imagery because in the manuscript, at the beginning of the next chapter, “Melville first referred to Billy’s ‘ascension’ but changed it to his ‘execution’” (Wright 135). There are also countless suggestions of Billy’s beauty, purity, innocence, and goodness that make the comparison of him to Christ quite apparent.
The parallel between Claggart and Judas can be drawn because of Claggart’s betrayal of Billy. Melville describes Claggart as having “the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short ‘a depravity according to nature’” (2453). This is similar to Judas in that his evil deed was not of his own will but necessary for fulfillment of the scriptures, according to the Bible.
Another method of reading the character of Claggart is to compare him to the fallen angel Satan. Satan was described as God’s favorite angel who...