Author Herman Melville began writing the novella Billy Budd, Sailor in 1890, toward the end of his life. Published posthumously in 1924, Billy Budd, Sailor tells the story of a violent incident on a merchant ship wherein a young sailor’s captain orders him executed for the capital crime of murder.
At the time that Herman Melville began writing the novella, the literary relevance of his work, and popular interest in his novels and short stories, was virtually non-existent.
He had, in fact, published nothing in a decade (Cohen 7). As an old man, Herman Melville grappled with questions of religion and spirituality, and these questions colored the style of his writing, which became increasingly religiously allegorical in his later years.
Melville’s lifelong friend and fellow writer Nathaniel Hawthorne observed that by the end of Melville’s life he “has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind” (Cohen 7).
Hawthorne also spoke of Melville’s constant wrestling with religious questions: “Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation…. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other” (Cohen 7).
Melville’s inability to come to a clear position on religious matters shines in Billy Budd, Sailor, a story which presents the disturbing dilemma of the execution of an innocent man, essentially a victim of envy and gossip, who is brought down by the betrayal of one of his own: a fellow sailor. In critic Esther Smith’s words, in Melville’s twilight years, “as the biographical nature of his material gave way to his increasingly painful spiritual struggles, his work grew richer but darker” (Smith 1).
The dark major theme of Billy Budd, Sailor, is that of sacrifice, specifically, the blood of an innocent shed to atone for the sins of the multitude, much like the biblical story of Jesus Christ. Thus Billy Budd, Sailor is best understood in the allegorical sense, as a novella that retells the story of Christ’s betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection. The main players in Melville’s retelling are Billy as Jesus Christ, Claggart as Satan, and the Grizzled Man as Judas.
Melville makes a number of allusions to Billy’s “function as a sacrificial deliverer,” and often directly compares the novella’s main character to Jesus Christ (Loges 137). The author describes Billy as “young Adam before the Fall,” and as the critic Esther Smith points out, this makes him vulnerable to the likes of Claggart, since Billy “is, of course, living in the world after the Fall” (Smith 1).
Melville alludes to the Christ like effect Billy had on his former ship through the Shipmaster, who laments “you are going to take my best man from me, the jewel of ’em” (Melville 12). The Shipmaster describes the disarray of his ship before Billy’s arrival: “But Billy came; and it was like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy.
Not that he preached to them or said or did anything in particular; but a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones . They took to him like hornets to treacle; all but the buffer of the gang…He indeed out of envy, perhaps” (Melville 10). Herein we see the strong hint that Melville employs to foreshadow Billy’s betrayal.
Melville’s heavy use of religious symbols and language furthers the view of Billy as a Christ like figure. Following the decision of the drumhead court when Billy is executed, his “hanging becomes an Ascension…victory over death, and chips of the spar from which he was hanged become as pieces of the Cross to his shipmates…lasting influence for good” (Smith 1). Billy also behaves like Jesus Christ in the face of his own annihilation, understanding it as somehow part of a divine plan, and his own destiny.
Critic Leona Toker asserts that “Billy accepts the necessity of this sacrifice, calmly, and perhaps with a sense of fulfillment at the completion of a quest. His hanging is described in a language that associates him with Christ; and there is a suggestion of the supernatural in the absence of the involuntary muscular spasm that usually follows hangings” (Toker 2).
Finally, critic Hennig Cohen highlights the “spiritual significance” of Billy Budd, Sailor, and labels Billy himself as “an offering in a ritual of restoration” (Cohen 4). Other more subtle allusions to Jesus Christ exist in Billy’s immediate popularity once aboard the Bellipotent, the appeal and esteem that the other men have for him, and his pulchritude.
Melville’s depiction of Claggart suggests a Satanic embodiment of evil. The author describers the Master at Arms’ “complexion, singularly contrasting with the red or deeply bronzed visages of the sailors…tho’ …not exactly displeasing, nevertheless seemed to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood” (Melville 46).
Though Claggart’s history remains nebulous in the novella, Melville maintains that “his general aspect and manner were so suggestive of an education and career incongruous with his naval function that when not actively engaged in it he looked a man of high quality, social and moral, who for reasons of his own was keeping incog” (Melville 46). Claggart acts as the main agent of evil in the novella, and the other main engine of Melville’s theme of sacrifice and betrayal, alongside Billy.
Goaded by the “tell-tale reports purveyed to his ear by Squeak, one of his more cunning Corporals , a grizzled little man,” his own envy, and what Melville describes as Claggart’s “mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate,” Claggart sets out to exact ruin on Billy, similar to the story of Jesus (Melville 76).
Squeak, the corporal, resembles the biblical figure Judas, in that “he…made it his business, faithful understrapper that he was, to foment the ill blood by perverting to his Chief certain innocent frolics of the good natured Foretopman” (Melville 77).
Claggart’s resemblance to Satan finds its way into numerous critical interpretations of Billy Budd, Sailor also. Loges draws a parallel between Claggart and Satan in his suggestion that they both appear as interlopers. “Satan in the Bible is depicted as a fallen angel, and when he enters Eden, it is as an alien presence wrapped in the camouflage of the serpent” (Loges 137).
Claggart’s suspicious past creates distance and distrust between himself and the other sailors, and “Claggart’s role as Satan is further suggested by the fact that as master-of-arms he rules the area below deck” (Loges 137). The action of the novella itself is almost a mirror of the story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, and Loges points out:
Jesus completely destroyed the forces of evil while suffering a death from which he miraculously recovered. Claggart’s destruction is total in that once his body is committed to the deep he is forgotten…Billy, although…executed…experiences a resurrection of his own: He lives on fondly in the memories and songs of his fellow seamen who cherish a piece of the spar from which he was hung as though it were a piece of the cross.
His memory even lives on in…his executioner, Captain Vere, who whispers Billy’s name at the moment of his own death (Loges 137).
Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor mirrors the story of the betrayal, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Satanic figure in the novella, the Master at Arms Claggart, represents the main force of evil which brings about the sacrifice of Billy, an innocent man, as atonement for the sins of the whole ship, in a similar manner to the sacrifice of Jesus’ innocent blood for the sins of humankind.
Melville’s later writing years contained constant wrestling with religious issues of justice, sacrifice, innocence, and resurrection, and these themes reflect strongly in Billy Budd, Sailor.
Cohen, Hennig. “Herman Melville.” Antebellum Writers in New York and the South. Ed. Joel Myerson. Detroit: Gale Research, 1979. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 3. 1-11. Web. 13 Dec. 2010.
Loges, Max L. “Melville’s ‘Billy Budd.’ (Herman Melville).” The Explicator 55.3 (1997): 137. Web. 13 Dec. 2010.
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. Washington, D.C.: Plain Label Books, 2010. Print.
Toker, Leona. “Billy Budd, Sailor: Overview.” Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Ed. Noelle Watson. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Web. 13 Dec. 2010.
Smith, Esther Marian Greenwell. “Billy Budd: Overview.” Reference Guide to American Literature. Ed. Jim Kamp. 3rd ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Web. 13 Dec. 2010.