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Triumph of Good over Evil in Billy Budd
Herman Melville's Billy Budd is a classic tale of good and evil. Good is constantly attacked by evil - until good falters. Through the use of many literary devices, Melville makes a compelling story and develops his theme. He shows that the good and righteous will triumph over evil at the end, even when the evil is death.
The protagonist, Billy Budd, is the major force of good in the book. Billy is a young man who seems to have everything going for him. He is big, strong, handsome, and he has a personality that draws everyone to him. Everywhere he goes, he charms people, gaining the respect of those around him. A great deal of imagery is used in describing how aesthetically perfect Billy is. ***Give an example of this from the text*** Besides Billy's stutter, he seems absolutely perfect. Billy is a sailor. His original ship was the Rights-Of-Man, but he is later impressed by the Bellipotent and he becomes a foretop man. As usual, he charms everyone. They even call him "The Handsome Sailor." On the ship, Billy is respected by everyone except the protagonist, John Claggart.
Claggart is extremely jealous and holds a considerable amount of contempt for him. ***What is the relationship between Billy and Claggart?*** At first he tries to be nice to Billy, but soon his true jealousies surface. He begins to scold Billy for insignificant lapses and tries to degrade him. In one instance when Billy spills a bowl of soup, Claggart sardonically says to Billy, "Handsome is as handsome did it Deep inside, Claggart also thinks that Billy is secretly plotting against him. When his madness really begins to take over, Claggart starts thinking of ways to prove Billy to be a traitor. Finally, his chance comes when a guardsman approaches Billy in the middle of the night and asks him to join a mutiny effort with all the others that were impressed. The guardsman also offers Billy a bribe. Billy becomes so angry that he almost throws the guardsman overboard. When Claggart hears of this, he immediately runs straight to Captain Vere. Captain Vere is a well-educated, level-headed man. He is stern but just. He offers Billy a chance to see his accuser and Billy accepts. When Billy hears the lies that were being told of him, he goes crazy. People had warned him to be careful about Claggart, but he had not listened. He becomes so enraged that all he can do is stutter. Since he is unable to speak, his only defense is to strike Claggart as hard as he can. The blow to his head kills him as he hit the ground.
Captain Vere knows that Billy did not mean for him to die, but he still calls a trial for murder. Captain Vere also knows that Billy was not going to revolt, but because of the mutinies that had been taking place at that time, Vere does not want to show any weakness. Billy could have probably gotten off had he turned in the other men who were actually planning to revolt but he doesn't because of his loyalty to his crew. He lost the trial and was hanged, his last words being, "God Bless Captain Vere!"
The use of symbols heavily influences the book. Most of the symbols are religious ones because of Melville's belief at the time. The most compelling symbol is that of Billy being compared to Jesus. Like Jesus, he is viewed as pure and innocent and having no real character flaws. He always tries to do the right thing and stay out of everyone's way. Claggart would be compared to the Pharisees with whom Jesus had to deal. His whole purpose is to cause the downfall of Billy, and he succeeds. Billy is also a symbol of Jesus while he is at trial. While Jesus is on trial, he says nothing in his own defense that could facilitate his release. Neither does Billy. Also, when Billy dies, his last words are "God Bless Captain Vere!" By this he was asking God to save Captain Vere's soul because he didn't know what he was doing. That is the same as when Jesus said, "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do." Also, the monument raised in his honor symbolizes Jesus' resurrection. Captain Vere symbolized Pontius Pilate because he had Billy sentenced to death because he worried about what others would think of him, just as Pilate was afraid to upset Caesar with the release of Jesus.
The major conflict in the book is an internal struggle with Captain Vere. He knew that Billy didn't deserve to die and that he was not a traitor, but the common law at the time stated that he would have to be hanged. He is really distraught about what he should do. His duty is telling him that he should hang Billy just like any other murderer would be hanged, but his morality is telling him that Billy doesn't deserve to die and that he should be released because everyone knows what kind of guy Billy really is. ***This sentence is really long. I would suggest braking it into two sentences.*** In the end, though, Captain Vere's duty wins as it probably should, which is the climax of the book. Because of the point-of-view, limited omniscient, it is hard to fully understand Vere's thought process during the whole trial.
The irony in the book is subtle, the fate of each character is the opposite of what is led to be expected by looking at his nature. One might think that Claggart would be the one to kill Billy because of the obsession he had with him. It is strange to think of Claggart as the victim - but that was the case. The use of literary devices helps shape the novel into the classic that it is. The theme of the book is clear - regardless of the power of the forces of evil, and the small victory they claimed, goodness triumphed over all. Billy was a hero, even in his death