Biblical Allusions and Symbolism in Billy Budd – Analysis
Updated: Oct 22nd, 2019
Melville in this novel brings out two strong opposing forces between the good and the evil and how the human race has continuously failed to make the right decision because of the fallen state of humanity (Novel Guide 1). He represents Billy as pure and innocent person similar to the way that Jesus is depicted in the bible.
Claggart on the other hand is a man who symbolically represents the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. Captain Vere represents a person who is in a fallen state (Smith 1). This essay is a short summary describing how Christian symbolism is used in the story Billy Budd.
Christian Symbolism in Billy Budd
Billy is honest and everyone likes him and enjoys his presence. In Christianity, this represents the innocent Lamb of God who is Jesus Christ. Captain says that the ship crew stopped arguing when they saw Billy and they viewed him as a peace maker. This is a reflection of Christ as the prince of peace. Billy is confronted with temptation but just like Christ he overcame all the trials (Novel Guide 1).
Billy clearly is not frightened of death. The priest tried to convince him about a frightening death but that does not frighten him since he feels that he has nothing to fear. This scenario is similar to the time when Jesus was being accused by the chief priests. Though Jesus was accused by synagogue elders, this did not frighten him. He felt that he was innocent and he was only obeying the law of God (Book Rags 1).
Billy is a martyr who puts his life to an end for the sake of others in the ship. Despite Billy’s innocence, he willingly died to cleanse the ship. Moreover, he blessed the same man that convicted him. Jesus also willingly died on the cross to cleanse the sins of any person who looks up on Him. He also blessed those who convicted him and asked his father to forgive them for they did not know what they were doing (Book Rags 1).
Billy is hanged from the middle mast of the ship contrary to normality. Normally people were hanged on other masts of the ship. This is similar to the way that Jesus was crucified on the middle cross. Moreover, after Billy’s death, sailors blessed the yard-arm from which he was hanged on and it was retained for years. Similarly, some Christians think that the pieces of cross that crucified Jesus are holy.
Captain Vere is forced to allow Claggart to win by executing Billy as he falsely accused him of planning to commit mutiny. In the Bible, the governor (Pilate) did not want to execute Jesus as he knew that Jesus was innocent but due to the pressure from Chief priest and elders, he had him executed. This execution is unjust. Captain Vere insisted that the matter was out of his hands in the same way that Pilate washed his hands to absolve himself of any blame (Izubachi 3).
The poem that was composed by one of shipmates in honor of Billy’s death is a clear reference to last super that Jesus Christ shared with his disciples before his death. A part of the poem reads: “sure, a messmate will reach me the last parting cup,” (Izubachi 3)
However, Melville was careful not to mislead people about Billy as a representative of Christ. In the novel, it is very clear that Billy’s death has no significance for the human race; Christ’s death on the other hand is very significant as it is from his death that the human race is cleansed. Furthermore, there is no resurrection after Billy’s death (Books Stove 1).
Melville has made use of Christian symbolism to represent good, evil and the fallen state of man. Billy who is innocent as he lacks knowledge of what is good or evil represents Christ. Claggart represents the evil nature of Satan. Captain Vere represents the human race that always wants to do well but because of its fallen state it becomes hard.
Book Rags. Billy Budd Notes: Religion. Book Rags, 2011. Web.
Books Stove. Religious and political themes in Billy Budd, Sailor. Books stove, 2011. Web.
Izubachi, Bruce. Billy Budd and Biblical allusions. Everything, 2003. Web.
Novel Guide. Billy Budd: Metaphor Analysis. Novel Guide, 2011. Web.
Smith, Nicole. Symbolism in “Billy Budd, Sailor” by Herman Melville. Article Myriad, 2010. Web.
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