Johan ship at the same time, meaning there

Johan Almonte

HJS 250

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Dichotomy of Good and Evil: A Look into Billy Budd

            Good and evil is usually very pronounced in literature. The
extreme versions of these aspects even more so. Wherever good exists, evil must
also exist somewhere in the ethos of the story one is trying to tell. Because of
this, when speaking of the idea of good and evil in terms of justice, it has to
be done right. Luckily, there is a novel that does this perfectly. The story of
Billy Budd and the Piazza Tales by Herman Melville gives a look at one who can
be seen as pure good, but also one who can be seen as pure evil. Even better,
they are both placed on the same ship at the same time, meaning there is a
place where the two opposing forces of nature can be shown in a setting where
justice has to be shown. Due to this, the overlying aspect of the dangers of
being too innocent in a microcosm that does not really allow for that, is what
will be shown. For this, looking at the two main forces in this story, those
being Billy Budd himself, and the Master-at-Arms Claggart, is of utmost importance.

            Billy Budd is the story of the sailor Billy Budd and his
time on the H.M.S Bellipotent during the last decade of the 18th century, after
being impressed from the previous ship he was on “The Rights of Man”. He was
seen as a “handsome sailor”, and was loved by his old crew. He was also innocent
to a fault. This man could not see the bad or suspicious in someone at all. In the
context of this novel, he was the purest good in this ship, which could also be
seen as a microcosm of the world as it was. Billy as a whole is seen mainly as
a man without fault. He could do no wrong in his world, because he is the
personification of all that is good. This makes his one flaw, that being his
stutter, the perfect aspect of his being to show us of the dangers of
innocence. The fact that he cannot bring words out to defend himself against
the malice tossed at him because his very being will not allow him to even
comprehend that there are people in the world with such ill intent. Ill intent
does not exist to him, and it ultimately proved to be his undoing.

            As if almost a flip of a coin, Claggart can be seen as the
complete opposite than that of Billy. An ugly man, in both the figurative and
literal sense, Claggart’s innate malice is without cause or limit. While Billy
lacks the awareness of the differences of human actions and the intentions
behind them, Claggart knows these differences all too well. He has a great
understanding of deception and ambiguity that he uses to hide his real
thoughts. As an inherently malicious and evil character, he also tends to
believe that everyone else is just like him. As such, he tends to overinterpret
what people do, in order to find that shred of hidden malice behind those
actions. His own downfall happens due to his own extreme jealousy towards anyone
with even a hint of good inside.

            The relationship between Claggart and Billy is ultimately
what shapes the thinking of the novel. Take what happens in chapter 9 for
example, when Billy speaks to Dansker, about why Claggart doesn’t like him.
“The old man, shoving up the front of his tarpaulin and deliberately rubbing
the long slant scar at the point where it entered the thin hair, laconically
said, “Baby Budd, Jemmy Legs is down on you.”” Jemmy Legs!” ejaculated Billy,
his welkin eyes expanding. “What for? Why, he calls me ‘the sweet and pleasant
young fellow,’ they tell me?”” Does he so?” grinned the grizzled one; then
said, “Ay, Baby lad, a sweet voice has Jemmy Legs.” No, not always. But to me
he has. I seldom pass him but there comes a pleasant word.” And that’s because
he’s down upon you, Baby Budd.”” (Melville). Billy cannot even comprehend that
Claggart would be out to get him, only because he’s been nice to him in their
encounters. This shows how bad Billy’s naivete really is. Although he can
acknowledge and perceive malice, he could never even dream that someone could
be nice to him while at the same time want the worst for him. Billy will
completely trust anyone, because it is against his very being to not give that
amount of trust to someone.

            Claggart plays a part in this almost poetically. He was
always seen as the antithesis to Billy. We heard of him but we never really
knew what made him tick until chapter 12. “With no power to annul the elemental
evil in him, though readily enough he could hide it; apprehending the good, but
powerless to be it; a nature like Claggart’s, surcharged with energy as such
natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon
itself and, like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible, act
out to the end the part allotted it.” (Melville). Claggart basically
runs on destroying everything that is good in the vicinity of his life. He’s is
shown as evil basically “just because”. He, however, isn’t as naïve as Billy. He
does know goodness but instead chooses not to embrace it. He sees Billy and due
to his maliciousness, he feels the need to destroy everything that he is. He is
a prisoner to his own evil, and that’s just the way he likes it.

            To truly understand how this novel portrays the danger of
innocence, one need only look at Claggart’s death. Claggart’s death can really
be seen as a double victory for the man. Since his introduction, he’s been seen
almost like a satanic character. He would always work to destroy Billy from the
shadows. In chapter 19, Claggart accuses Billy of conspiring a mutiny on the ship.
In Billy’s impulse, he strikes Claggart on the head, killing him. Claggart successfully
used Billy’s innocence against him by using his own death. He does this by not
only making Billy abandon the goodness that was in him, by committing an act of
evil, but also by using his death to also get Billy killed, thus making him have
a moral fall from grace. Even the captain, who was torn the entire time, could
only say “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” (Melville).

            “Could I have used my tongue I would not have struck him.
But he foully lied to my face and in presence of my captain, and I had to say
something, and I could only say it with a blow, God help me!” (Melville)(CH21). This is the part
of the story that personifies all the danger that innocence has. This is the
point where Billy’s naivete and innocence proves to be a detriment, rather than
a help. If he were not as flawed as “the ultimate good” in the microcosm that
is the ship, he could’ve possibly lived. It was his own foolishness and inability
to see the bad as well as the good, which ultimately led to his demise.

            Innocence is not inherently a bad thing. Everyone has a
modicum of innocence from birth. I however, believe that innocence has to be
lost for growth. To keep one’s innocence completely could spell trouble in the
future, as we’ve seen with Billy. One needs to have a level mind, and look at
not only the good in the world, but also the evil. If not, Claggart’s kind of malice
will be unchecked, and we would be back at square one.

Works Cited
Melville, Herman. “Billy Budd and the Piazza
Tales.” New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2006. Chapter 9.
Melville, Herman. “Billy Budd and the Piazza
Tales.” Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and the Piazza Tales. New
York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2006. Chapter 19.
Melville, Herman. “Billy Budd and the Piazza
Tales.” Melville, Herman. BIlly Budd and the Piazza Tales. New
York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2006. Chapter 21.
—. BIlly budd and the Piazza Tales. New York :
Barnes and Nobles Books, 2006.
Melville, Herman. “BIlly Budd and the Piazza
Tales.” Melvile, Herman. Billy Budd and the Piazza Tales. New
York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2006. Chapter 12.