In the novel Billy Budd, Herman Melville challenges traditional Romantic values. Melville sets a stage on which the ideals of the Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers clash. His faith in the Romantic ideals is evident in his comparison of the trials of Billy Budd to the trials of Jesus Christ. He uses his characters, Billy Budd, Captain Vere, and Claggart to test the integrity of the Enlightenment and Romantic philosophies, by showing the consequences that come from total allegiance to either one.
Melville?s central Christ figure is Billy Budd, a dashing young sailor who is nearly perfect both physically and morally. Billy is Melville?s Romantic hero, an innately good figure that bears no conceit. That is, he is not aware of his own goodness. ?Of self-consciousness he seemed to have little or none, or about as much as we may reasonably impute to a dog of Saint Bernard?s breed? (2438). Melville writes that the presence of evil is manifested in Billy Budd in his stutter, and is a sign of the devil?s work. ?In every case, one way or another he is sure to slip in his little card, as much as to remind us- I too have a hand here? (2439).
If the devil slipped his card into Billy Budd, then he pinned a billboard onto John Claggart. Melville uses Claggart to challenge the Romantic idea of taubula rasa. The idea supposes that people come into the world without original sin. ?Now something such an one was Claggart, 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.?? (2453). Melville writes that Claggart is born evil. This is entirely opposite of what Melville is supposed to believe as a Romantic. He uses Claggart to show the negative of the Enlightenment viewpoint. Although he undermines his own ideals by even writing about a person born evil, he also validates his beliefs by writing this person as the villain. He is essentially writing the enlightenment thinker is the villain, not just John Claggart. Melville is showing a weakness in the enlightenment philosophy by creating a situation wherein an ideal of the enlightenment is shown to be unappealing and less popular than that of the Romantic.
While Claggart casts a negative light on the enlightenment philosophy, Melville uses Captain Vere to show the full extent of the evil therein. Vere is faced with a conflict between conscience and reason. His posistion dictates that as Captain he must enforce the law. The law states that the death of Claggart at the hands of Billy Budd warrants an execution. However, Vere knows the circumstances of Claggart?s death and knows in his heart that Billy should not be put to death. In his speech to those on board, Vere openly states that the punishment does not fit the crime but that his superiors would not see it that way. ??it would be a plain homicide committed in a flagrant act of mutiny. What penalty for that should follow, they know. But it does not follow? (2475). Vere plainly chooses reason and the word of the law over the truth and what he knows is right. Vere is not just making a decision here, he is setting the fate of another man. He chooses law and reason, Enlightenment ideals, over individual human life, something precious to the Romantics. Because of his choice, Vere sacrifices his soul and regrets his decision even at the hour of his death. ?Not long before death?he was heard to murmur words inexplicable to his attendant: ?Billy Budd, Billy Budd.?? (2485).
Melville definitely takes sides in this work. He highlights only the good of the Romantic idealogy and only the negative of the Enlightenment. Melville shows us that the Romantics would have peace and good will, but we must sacrifice order. He also shows that the Enlightenment would disregard the value of the heart and soul in order to maintain the law and the sense of reason and therefore maintain an order. However, Melville shows that the Enlightenment order is not an order that is perfect. Society and the individuals are limited in this order and the cost can, as in the case of Billy Budd, be as high as their lives.