Billy Budd

explain imagery and biblical allusions in billy budd

how they are related to human drama and how they turn the novel into an imagery

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Christian Allegory

Although the narrator rarely alludes to the Bible explicitly, Billy Budd contains many implicit allusions to the imagery, language, and stories of the Bible, creating a sustained parallel between Billy’s story and Christ’s Passion, the story of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. Like Christ, Billy sacrifices his life as the innocent victim of a hostile society. Vere’s role in the story parallels that of Pontius Pilate in the Gospels, as he is the official who permits the sacrifice by following the letter of the law instead of his own conscience. Claggart functions as a satanic figure, tempting Billy into evil and working to destroy him throughout the novel. Satan is not a part of the story of Christ’s Passion, and Claggart’s temptation of Billy more closely mirrors the serpent’s temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden than anything in the Gospels. The narrator makes Claggart’s connection to the serpent in Genesis more explicit by comparing Claggart’s dead body to the corpse of a snake. In addition to these main parallels, the novel’s innumerable Christian references form a complex web of associations and contrasts. Critics remain sharply divided over whether Billy Budd’s religious imagery represents Melville’s embrace of religion or harsh critique of it, which illustrates the ambiguity of the religious allegory in the story. Melville leaves to each reader the decision of what the connection between Billy Budd and Christianity signifies.

Suggestive Names

Throughout the novel, Melville uses names to indicate ideas about the true nature of people and things. For example, Billy’s last name, Budd, suggests his innocence and youth by conjuring an image of a flower’s bud. Captain Vere’s name suggests his tendency to veer between attitudes. The name of the Rights-of-Man suggests the greater individual liberties enjoyed by the crew of that happier ship, while the name of the Bellipotent suggests its association with war and the power represented by its military order. The name of the Athée means “the atheist,” and when this ship defeats the Bellipotent—which carries the characters who stand for Christian figures—the event suggests that Christian society moves toward a disastrous fall from grace as it becomes more dependent on violence and military discipline.