IN HIS NOVELLA BILLY BUDD, Herman Melville portrays a variety of characters, intentionally setting their virtues within a framework of good and evil. These virtues are seen in and even elevated by Melville’s descriptive language, specifically in passages where the narrator describes Billy Budd and further where Billy encounters evil. Thus Melville’s deliberate diction ennobles a theme of innocence.
From the beginning, Melville the narrator paints Billy as a good man, one gifted with influence and physical beauty. Before Billy even serves on the Indomitable, the lieutenant of The Rights of Man declared that “virtue went out of” Billy and “sugared” his crew (232). He further emphasized that the inherent goodness of Billy was enough to change the negative environment in his ship’s foretop. As the story progresses, the narrator adds to Billy’s physical description. Billy is quickly called “Baby Budd” because of his apparent youthfulness (230). Claggart and the Dansker, too, call him “Baby” (251). And he’s described as “welkin-eyed,” implying that his gaze and eyes are practically heavenly in their blue tone (230). “He was young . . . and had a lingering adolescent expression in the as yet smooth face, all but feminine in purity” (235). His skin is described as “lily” white with a suggestion of a rose blooming beneath the surface when he flushed (235). The very adjectives of smooth, purity, lily, and rose hint at ideals of physical perfection. Melville even goes so far as to epitomize Billy as a Greek sculpture, a masculine beauty, the Handsome Sailor (235, 237, 253).
The narrator also suggests that Billy exuded a natural grace, “another pervasive quality“ (235). There was “something in the mobile expression and every chance attitude and movement, something suggestive of a mother eminently favoured by Love and the Graces” (235-6). Thus Melville further intimates that Billy was born of nobility out of wedlock, attributing his naturally elegant mannerisms and physical beauty to his possible bloodline (236). Melville’s descriptions of Billy’s mannerisms in combination with those of his appearance magnify the reader’s awareness of his innocent nature. Yet Melville deepens this superficial picture of innocence by contrasting these descriptions with the reader’s awareness of the flaws within him and Billy’s growing awareness of the evil nature in others.
The reader first realizes that Billy is not a stereotype of perfection when Melville describes Billy’s inclination to defend himself when the sailor of the Red Whiskers literally dug at his ribs. Billy immediately reacts with a blow and proceeds to “give the fool a terrible drubbing” (232). The reader now knows that Billy does have a temper, and even skill to fight when needed, yet Red Whiskers and the other sailors now love and respect him. Ironically, the lieutenant recounting the tale terms Billy “a fighting peacemaker” (233). Another notable flaw is Billy’s speech impediment, which Melville terms “a vocal defect” (237). Melville intentionally describes it for the reader before the reader ever witnesses it. It’s as if Melville wants the reader to see Billy’s humanity, to sway the reader’s judgment as he presents him as the imperfect and thus tragic hero (237). Again, this contrast further magnifies the innate virtue in Billy, but as the story unfolds, Billy also awakens to evil.
Through brief conversations with the Dansker, Billy is first exposed to Claggart’s evil intentions. Still doubtful, Billy is puzzled most when the Dansker tells him that “Jemmy Legs is down on you” (251), for Billy had believed Claggart when he called him “the sweet and pleasant young fellow,” “the one who always had a pleasant word for me” (251, 263). Though the language is ironic since it comes from Claggart, this description still types Billy as an innocent, a man who represents goodness. In fact, part of Billy seems to deny the possible duplicity within someone in authority. This trait again draws attention to Billy’s innocent nature. Melville even says that our young sailor would never have heard of as yet the “‘too fair-spoken man’” (265).
Perhaps the strongest instance where Billy becomes aware of the evil in man is when Claggart directly accuses him of mutiny before Vere. When Billy is first summoned to Vere’s cabin, he is described as one of an “immature nature” (272), for he did not have the ability to discern Claggart’s intent at that moment. Upon hearing Claggart’s words, Billy’s normally pleasant countenance was transformed into a pall of “white leprosy” (273). Melville adds another simile and compares him to “one impaled and gagged” (273). Here, Billy’s mute response and physical agitation imply that the very accusation coupled with his acute but belated understanding of Claggart flaunt his innocent nature against the present evil. For the reader, Melville’s contrast of this dark moment illuminates the trusting innocence of Billy more than any physical description could. Melville has not only chosen words to characterize Billy, but he has also literally shown the reader Billy’s very nature.
By story’s end, Melville’s descriptions have created a singular character of innocence, one he calls a “childman” of simple-mindedness (263). Every character who meets Billy knows that he has this unique and noble quality, though they each react differently to it. Many sailors love him, the Dansker mentors him, Vere fathers him, and Claggart destroys what he can’t become himself. Through all of these experiences, Billy remains distinctly human, for an innocent nature is not perfect.