Notes on Billy Budd Themes

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Billy Budd Topic Tracking: Religion

Religion 1: This is the first allusion to Christ in the story. Billy is a honest and pure man liked by everyone; he is called a peacemaker. The lieutenant finds humor in this and he makes an allusion to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Billy is incapable of making this change in his life, but he peacefully goes along with it. He does not struggle.

Religion 2: This section, where the man in the shadows tempts Billy, may be understood as an allusion to Jesus' tempting by the devil. At its most basic level, it is the temptation of the innocent with worldly goods. Billy is so innocent that he does not understand what is going on. He is dumbfounded.

Religion 3: Billy seems to have no need for the priest. He is not afraid of his own death. The idea of a frightening death that the priest is attempting to instill means nothing to Billy. He is innocent and he has nothing to fear. For him death is little different than his transfer from the merchant ship to the Bellipotent. The tone of the text is dismissive of religion. Although the text is very spiritual and centralized around morality, it is a morality between man and God rather than man and priest.

Religion 4: Billy's execution is a martyrdom. He is an innocent who dies for the sake of an evil (Claggart). He takes the evil away with his own hands, but must die to cleanse the rest of the ship from this crime. He doesn't complain, he accepts it. When he dies, he is so accepting that he blesses the very man who convicted him. Melville's text is full of religious language alluding to the ascension.

Even more remarkable is the symbolism of where Billy Budd was hanged. When Captain Vere makes the unavoidable decision to hang Billy, he chooses to hang him from the middle mast of the ship, contrary to normal hangings which are done on any of the other masts. This is the book's strongest allusion pertaining to Jesus Christ, for he too was put to death on the middle "cross."

Religion 5: It seems that Billy may have died before he suffered the pain of hanging. This is a parallel to the crucifixion. After so much time on the cross, God allegedly took Jesus Christ's life, freeing him from pain. Billy dies without the pain of hanging. His story becomes immortalized just as the martyrdom of Christ.

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