Biblical parallels in Herman Melville´s Billy Budd, Sailor: An Inside Narrative
Herman Melville was one of the most famous American writers during the 19th century. To him we owe one of the best known classical pieces of literature: Moby Dick. Billy Budd, Sailor: An Inside Narrative was the last of his works to be published in 1924. Until today critics could not reach agreement on a common interpretation of this short-story, written by Melville both in prose and in verse. And it is certainly true that you can read it on a number of different levels. Some see the piece as an examination of society which brings together embodiments of various political philosophies in Melville’s final comment on the place of good and evil in modern civilization. Others relate the short novel to a spiritual autobiography of Melville himself. In the following I would like to focus on the story as a parallel to the epic Christian battle between good and evil with examples of biblical allusions that were used by the author.
The naval story of Billy Budd at the first look represents an interesting tale of shipboard life at the end of the eighteenth century. If you take a closer look, you can clearly spot the three main characters which can be related with specific symbolism – Billy Budd, a young, handsome, innocent and inarticulate sailor; John Claggart, master-at-arms and Billy´s depraved enemy, and last but not least, Captain Vere, lieutenant of the warship, a conscientious, but also conflicted person.
So how does Melville employ metaphors to evoke associations, especially biblical ones?
At several times throughout the novel Billy is linked to Adam and Claggart to the Serpent, or the entire story of the Fall of Men. But there are also hints that Billy is compared to Jesus, as well as Claggart to the Devil.
“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” (6). This is what his former lieutenant states when Billy leaves the “Rights-of-Men” to work on the “Indomitable”, a warship. Melville took the last part from the Matthew gospel (Matt. 4) to emphasize the somehow divine appearance of Billy, who just by his presence and his innocence is able to comfort everybody around. Arvin justifies this fact in “an active and disarming good nature also, and it draws upon him the spontaneous affection of his mates” (qtd. in Stafford 136). It is something in his outlooks that makes him special compared to the others, since he has “something suggestive of a mother eminently favored by Love and the Graces” (9) and who “in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall” (39). He is instantly taken up by the crew and “soon begins to exert his benevolent influence there as well. Billy does seem a bit too good to be true, and some readers have referred to his semidivine nature and his godlike appearance on this earth” (see Kirby 160).