Prior to their down fall, Adam and Eve were perfect. They were innocent and ignorant, yet perfect, so they were allowed to abide in the presence of God. Once they partook of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, however, they immediately became unclean as well as mortal. In Billy Budd, the author, Herman Melville, presents a question that stems directly from this original sin of our first parents: Is it better to be innocent and ignorant, but good and righteous, or is it better to be experienced and knowledgeable?
Melville explains to us that we need to strike some kind of balance between these two ideas; we need to have morality and virtue; we need to be in the world, but not of the world. To illustrate his theme, Melville uses a few characters who are all very different, the most important of which is Billy Budd. Billy is the focal point of the book and the single person whom we are meant to learn the most from. On the ship, the Rights-of-Man, Billy is a cynosure among his shipmates; a leader, not by authority, but by example. All the members of the crew look up to him and love him, as Meliville explains:He is “strength and beauty. Tales of his prowess [are] recited. Ash
Despite his popularity among the crew and his hardworking attitude, Billy is transferred to another British ship, the Indomitable. However, I believe that through this allusion to Christ"tms crucifixion, he is showing us that perhaps we should not always only be concerned about ourselves, but also about those around us. This is a stark contrast to Billy, who keeps quiet when he learns about a conspiracy to mutiny among the crew on board. Sweet, innocent Billy immediately realizes that this man is someone he does not wish to cross and so after seeing Claggart whip another crew-member for neglecting his responsibilities, Billy "resolved that never through remissness would he make himself liable to such a visitation or do or omit aught that might merit even verbal reproof"(31). Red Whiskers tells Billy that for some reason, Claggart is after Billy, but Billy cannot believe it because he is so innocent and trusting. Such glory and beauty in death can only be achieved by those who are truly ready and without regret, as Billy was. The person he goes to is yet another type of character presented in this book. If the reader will keep me company I shall be glad. Billy recognizes the old Dansker as a figure of experience, and after showing respect and courtesy which Billy believes due to his elder, finally seeks his advice, but what he is told thoroughly astonishes him. A man: "in whom was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living but born with him and innate, in short "a depravity according to nature"tm"(38). (20) Because of his philosophy, Captain Vere always strives to do that which he believes to be right according to the laws set by his superior officers. In the book"tms climax, Claggart comes to Captain Vere and accuses Billy of conspiring to mutiny. Billy, so astonished by Claggart"tms allegation, strikes him dead with one blow to the head. These small threats and incidents establish the tension between Claggart and Billy, and set the stage for a later confrontation.