Melville’s Billy Budd

Evil assumes many forms and shapes and changes its wardrobe from age to age.  In classical mythology it assumes the shape of the Gorgon’s Head, the repulsive head of Medusa with the locks of serpents—evil so loathsome that men who gaze at the monster turn into stone. Evil in its ugliness also wears the appearance of The Chimaera, a repulsive beast with the tail of a boa-constrictor and the three heads of a lion, a goat, and a serpent—a monster that breathes fire from each of its three mouths. Evil can assume the guise of the devils with pitchforks in Dante’s Inferno, and it can speak with the bombastic rhetoric of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost boasting of great armies prepared to wage more in heaven against God’s angels: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n,”

Evil can wear the disguise of the Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and speak in the riddles and equivocations of the witches: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” and evil can act with the diabolical cunning and subtlety of Iago in Othello who ensnares a great, noble general and a pure, loving wife with his artful lies and subtle insinuations about adultery. Evil can appear in comical, non-threatening forms that disguise their lethal intent in characters like Screwtape and Wormwood in C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters who cleverly devise enticing temptations appropriate for persons of all ages and professions, especially the temptation to believe that the devil does not exist. In its especially insidious modern appearance, however, evil does its work in the sophisticated, professional style of the elite and the educated that Melville describes in Moby Dick as “civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits,” that is, with the sanction of law, the approval of religion, the consensus of the learned class, and the cooperation of the press.

Melville’s story shows how official authorities and public figures responsible for law and order twist the actual truth, the hard facts, and all the evidence to make evil seem good and good  appear evil—to give the impression of justice and morality to evil incarnate. A beloved sailor endearing to all his mates for his jovial camaraderie and “genial, happy-go-lucky air” and a model of dutifulness and integrity, is accused for high crime on the sea and pays with his life despite his innocence. An accidental, unintended death occurs on board the ship Bellipotent when Billy Budd, known as “the Handsome Sailor” and praised by his former commander as “my best man,” strikes Claggart, the envious master-at-arms, for falsely accusing him of mutiny before Captain Vere. Infuriated at the outrageousness of the malicious lie, Billy, stuttering, inarticulate and frustrated by his speech impediment, vents his righteous anger with a blow rather than in words: “His right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck.”

Witnessing the whole incident and suspecting Claggart of bearing false witness, Captain Vere immediately judges Billy as guilty and condemns him to a death sentence: “Struck by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” Recalling the publicity regarding the recent news of the notorious Nore Mutiny that has put all captains in a state of alert, Vere determines to settle the issue of any possible hint of insurrection by firm, decisive action. Presumably following martial law and due process, he summons a drumhead court and directs their thinking to render the verdict he expects. Despite the questionable charges of Claggart that provoked Billy’s natural anger and self-defense, despite the extenuating circumstances that caused the accidental death, and despite the absence of any premeditated intention to kill on Billy’s part, Vere insists on “dispatch”—an immediate trial, a quick decision, instant punishment, and the predetermined verdict of guilt. Vere ignores the counsel of the surgeon who recommends referring “so extraordinary a case” to the higher authority of an admiral for deliberate, careful consideration of all the facts in the case.

Instead of an honest trial, an impartial jury, and a fair-minded judge, Vere rushes the whole procedure under the guise of military discipline and the martial code that exacts the death penalty for the crime of mutiny. The suspected malice and envy behind Claggart’s accusation is dismissed, and Billy’s defenseless innocence and provoked anger are ignored. Billy’s statement, “I did not mean to kill him. Could I have used my tongue, I would not have struck him” counts for nothing. Vere remarks to an officer, “Budd’s intent or non-intent is nothing to the purpose.” The image of the Bellipotent as a ship governed by rigid law and strict order and the reputation of Captain Vere as a commander strictly obeying military duty prevail over all other considerations. Appearance and perception are more important than reality and truth. Vere disguises the whole case as a simple matter of willful mutiny and deliberate homicide, not as an episode of provocation, self-defense, and righteous anger. In Vere’s judgment the paramount fact is “the blow’s consequence,” not the circumstances that preceded it. Melville writes, “In the jugglery of circumstances preceding and attending the events on board the Bellipotent … innocence and guilt personified in Claggart and Budd changed places.”

Thus under the auspices of martial law, judicial due process, and rightful authority, an innocent man is hanged on board the ship in a scene evokes Christ’s crucifixion before Pontius Pilate: pure innocence and absolute goodness the victim of hatred, revenge, envy, and political expediency. A chaplain attempting to turn Billy’s thoughts to meditation on death, God, and eternity senses the futility of his words, Billy “regarding all that in much the same way that most mariners of his class take any abstract or out of the common tone of the workaday world.” These perfunctory rituals and procedures give a sanctimonious air to the cruel death of a beloved human being executed for no moral reason. The abstraction of justice and the abstraction of religion hide the enormity of the evil and injustice inflicted on an innocent man sacrificed for the respectability and professional image of a public authority. The chaplain “lends the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which practically is the abrogation of everything but brute Force.” The bland appearance of the good matters more than the ugly reality of the evil.

In addition to the weight of the law, the decision of the court, and the complicity of religion in Billy’s cruel death, the press also offers its endorsement of the crime with its own “civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits.” A naval chronicle offers this account of the whole episode: Claggart, “a middle-aged man respectable and discreet” recognized for “his strong patriotic impulse” “was vindictively stabbed to death by the suddenly drawn sheath knife of Budd.” While to all the sailors Billy Budd was an innocent as Christ on the cross, and a chip from the spar on which the Handsome sailor was hanged was venerated “as a piece of the cross,” the secular world of the captain and his minions go about their daily business of seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and smelling no evil because it has been buried by layer upon layer of words, reports, lies, appearances, deceits, hypocrisies, and bureaucracy. Speaking with a cultivated modern sensibility, Vere says with utmost complacency, “With mankind … forms, measured forms, are everything.”


Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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