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Herman Melville relies on symbols to tell a deeper and more complex story than the one explicitly presented in “Billy Budd, Sailor“. By creating characters such as Billy Budd himself who represent purity and innocence, the author is constructing a tale that draws its power from the religious significance it invokes. As a result of these presentations of particular characters (such as Billy as a symbol for perfect innocence) Melville sets up his second symbol—the story of Christ and thus the tale also functions in the realm of religious symbolism. The third main symbol in the text is Billy’s stammer which pokes holes in the theory that Billy Budd is a perfect Christ figure and reminds readers perhaps even the greatest innocence cannot be perfect.
Aside from the more vague symbols to be found in Herman Melville’s short work, Billy Budd himself is a symbol. Billy Budd stands for childlike innocence in a world of war and evil men and as it will be discussed later, this makes him a perfect Christ figure by the end of the text. It is worth noting that even Billy’s last name, Budd, symbolizes a bud in nature, something beautiful that has not yet opened itself to the world. It is also something that is protected and innocent, much like Billy Budd before he meets men such as Claggart. Billy’s innocence is immediately recognizable as he leaves the “Rights of Man" to come on board the ship of Captain Vere. He is described by the narrator as being well-liked by his fellow men and possessed of what is termed in one of the important quotes from “Billy Budd Sailor” as “unpretentious good looks and a sort of genial happy-go-lucky air" (11). Billy’s looks are also a symbol within the symbolism of him as a representative of youthful innocence and Melville takes great care in making sure the reader is well aware of how he is “the Handsome Sailor" and how his “sweet and pleasant" looks and demeanor make the other sailors his friend. Just as the many descriptions of Billy’s looks make the reader think of a innocence and purity, so too does Melville use the descriptions surrounding looks to indicate evil—the opposite of purity and innocence. For instance, the physical descriptions of Claggart are far less appealing than those granted to Billy Budd and his innocence and the narrator describes the opposite of Billy by stating of Claggart that, “his complexion…though it was not exactly displeasing, nevertheless seemed to hint something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood" (20). By creating two human symbols in the text, one innately good, pure, and innocent, and one who is full of malice and ill-will, Melville uses physical descriptions so that both characters parallel their attributes and become symbols as well as central characters.
Religious symbolism, most notably in the representation of Billy Budd as a Christ figure, is also prevalent throughout the text. To tie this statement in with that above, by using Billy Budd for a symbol of innocence and purity through his physical descriptions and statements about how he is perceived by his fellow men, Melville sets up the reader for the religious symbolism that comes later in the text when Budd is subject to the machinations of Claggart and later hanged. Like Christ, Billy is pure and blessed with good intentions. He does not realize that there is evil in the world as he is as of yet still a “bud" and not alive to negative sentiments expressed by “evil" characters such as one sees when one does even a base character analysis of Claggart in “Billy Budd”. The author chooses biblical language to express Billy’s innocence and to create him as a religious and Christ-like figure by saying quite early on in the text that, Billy Budd was “little more than a sort of upright barbarian" and “one to whom not has been proffered the questionable apple of knowledge" (13-14). By stating this, Billy Budd is only the Christ figure who suffers and dies in innocence, but he is also like Adam or Eve in the Garden of Eden, immune to the mere concept of evil and what it could mean. The death of Billy Budd is one of the most crucial scenes in terms of reading carefully for religious symbolism. For instance, Captain Vere comes to play a large role in the text after Billy deals the deadly blow to Claggart. Vere exclaims, “Struck dead by an angel of God!" and sadly, when he realizes that this innocent boy must suffer and die because of the laws he believes in, “Yet another angel must hang" (51). In many ways Captain Vere is much like Pilate who knew Christ was righteous yet still played a part in his death because of his own worldly concerns. When Billy Budd cries out before his death “God bless Captain Vere" this even further reminds the reader of how Christ was said to react when he died and forgave those who has a direct hand in his demise. There are almost too many instances throughout the text in which Billy is equated to Christ but the most important fact is that his innocence is stressed and he is a martyr for sinners such as Claggart and, to a lesser degree, Captain Vere.
In terms of Billy’s innocence and the unmistakable parallels to Christ Melville sets up, Billy’s stammer is an interesting symbol because it is difficult to consider how it fits into the text. In general, it seems that the stammer is a symbol for Billy’s imperfection. While the reader of this essay may at first think that Billy Budd is perfect because of his good looks and pleasant demeanor, by giving him a defect in his speech, Melville seems to be, by using these themes and symbols, urging readers not to think of Billy Budd as a perfect Christ figure. While the events that occur can be directly paralleled with those of Jesus, Melville seems to be suggesting that perhaps only Christ was perfect. Not only is the stammer a clear break with Christian notions of a Jesus who was an effective communicator, but it shows that Billy Budd is inherently flawed. The stammer is a symbol of imperfection and is a way of saying that although Billy may have been elevated to the status of a saint by the end of the text, his life was not entirely Christ like. For instance, we know that when Billy gets flustered at his lack of ability to express himself (especially when he is accused of organizing a mutiny) his only reaction is violence. The author uses foreshadowing early in the text to discuss Billy’s earlier instance with violence against Red Whiskers who provoked him but received punishment (a strong punch) instead of the understanding and compassion that one would relate to a true Christ figure. In sum, as this thesis statement makes clear all of these three symbols work together to make a statement about not only religious myths and stories, but of the nature of innocence and whether or not it can be truly perfect.