The Fall of Billy Budd in Billy Budd, Sailor

Categories: Billy Budd Novel

Herman Melville passed away in 1891 before finishing his final novel. Melville’s granddaughter had the unfinished work published in 1924 over thirty years after he had last worked on it. His work entitled Billy Budd, Sailor has been widely recognized as a great success and a riveting story. Critical interpretations may vary, but a common view on the inspiration behind Billy Budd is an unexpected allegorical meaning drawn from the story of creation and the fall of man. After the Publication of Melville’s most famous work, Moby Dick, Melville turned to a darker side of story writing that expressed a deeper meaning than what lies on the surface often questioning the nature of good and evil.

Whether or not intended, Melville’s story is quite reflective of the story of man’s fall from grace.

Even though the book of Genesis and Billy Budd are two stories not normally thought to be similar, Melville was known to draw inspiration from such books and stories and incorporate them into his novels.

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Such interpretations can bring a new meaning to this timeless tale. “The ground common to most discussion of Billy Budd is the assumption that the story is allegorical-a narrative representation of some universal truth or law or balance of contraries, a parable of Good and Evil.” (Berthoff, 32) There is plenty of evidence that suggests that Billy is the prelapsarian of his story, or the Adam. Both young men are kindhearted, innocent, and unfortunately drawn into a scheme which endangers their livelihood.

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Both Adam and Billy never had any ill intentions, but were blindly falling into a plot of their demise. “In chapter 2, rife with references marking Billy as prelapsarian, Melville makes clear that elements of Billy Budd echo the biblical story of the fall.” (Sterling, 266) Similarly, as in the book of Genesis, the story begins by introducing the main character as an innocent and naïve young man tempted by someone who only means him harm and misfortune. Billy is just a young boy unexperienced with the reality of the world, just like the biblical Adam.

The tale begins as Billy is taken away from his simple happy life on the merchant ship, “The Rights of Man.” He is described as a handsome sailor with “masculine beauty” and almost perfect except for an occasional stutter which will help to propel him into the trap that is set for him by the antagonist. The innocent boy is pressed into military service on the navy ship the Bellipotent and thrown into the middle of the Napoleonic war. He is a good sailor, but quite inexperienced in such a strict and unfamiliar environment. Although his innocence causes him difficulties with regulation, it seems to make him more likable to his fellow crewmembers and especially the captain who takes a special liking to him. This warship is a small confined space where it’s difficult to avoid conflict when Claggart out of his deep jealousy of Billy decides he does not like him and becomes determined to destroy his innocence. This concept coincides with the serpent’s temptations in the Garden of Eden.

Besides Billy Budd, the other characters in the story are quite allegorical as well. The story of the fall would be incomplete without the almighty and powerful one, and the tempting serpent. “It is shortly after this Eden reference that Melville introduces into the narrative the other main characters, both of whom recall their counterparts in Genesis.” (Kirby, 49-50) Captain Vere and Claggart both represent something allegorical. Captain Vere presides over the crew as a godlike figure, distant from the action. Claggart falls under the category of a serpent, tempting Billy and being the ultimate cause of his downfall. “The narrator’s language and symbolism make it clear that Billy is aligned with Adam, Claggart with the serpent, and Vere with God.” (Kelley, 308)

Captain Edward Fairfax Vere is a noble and just leader who has compassion for his crewmembers. He takes special notice of Billy most likely because of his innocence and naiveté. He seems to have a fatherly affection for him. Although he understood why Billy did what he did, he had to adhere to military rule to keep from making a dangerous precedent. Much in the same manner that God loves mankind, but there is a price to pay for sin. Claggart on the other hand had the outwardly demeanor of a calm and composed individual, but would later prove to be the ever clichéd, “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” He showed these characteristics by his underhanded actions against Billy. His poisonous schemes rival those of the serpent himself.

Another point where Melville shadows the fall in the Garden is when Claggart accuses Billy of being the ringleader of an attempted mutiny and conspiring against the captain. Billy is unable to defend himself. He is dumbfounded at this confrontation and is unable to speak properly, only stammering. This is where the character of Claggart has pulled Billy in his web of hate and angers him to the point that he lashes out at him in a manner uncharacteristic to Billy, but very much so present in the personality of Claggart. As in the Garden when Adam is confronted and could not accept the blame, in both these instances the once cherished protagonist stands accused as a malefactor and consequences follow.

The biggest takeaway from Billy Budd that links it to an allegorical meaning is the loss of innocence by the protagonist himself. “Billy's action carries the double burden of the lessons of scripture and modem political history. Consider its biblical background: if Adam's act of disobedience in eating of the Tree of Knowledge resulted in his expulsion from Eden, it also led to his loss of innocence, his acquisition of moral knowledge and acceptance of the existence of evil.” (Goodheart, 82) Billy Budd is likely the most innocent of the crew and it is only when Claggart claims mutiny that Billy loses his temper and strikes out against him losing his innocence. However, after the ensuing trial and ultimate conviction, Billy accepts his punishment as the consequences of his actions. No grudge is held as the last thing Billy does is forgive the captain proclaiming, “God bless Captain Vere.” Similarly, Adam accepted that it was his disobedience which led to his fall. “The symbolic resonances of the novel do not depend upon strict correspondence. Characters may depart from as well as reenact their symbolic roles—otherwise allegory would be mechanical and uninteresting.” (Goodheart, 82)

All of these points make a brilliant case for the allegorical meaning behind Billy Budd. “While all these factors may have played a role, the writing of Billy Budd was undoubtedly also based on Melville’s obsessive preoccupation with the problem of evil and the Judeo-Christian tradition of the fall.” (Cook, 178) Melville may have died before Billy Budd, Sailor was published, but he most likely would greatly appreciate the intense studies, numerous essays, and countless theories all surrounding one of his greatest works.

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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The Fall of Billy Budd in Billy Budd, Sailor. (2024, Feb 24). Retrieved from

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