Billy Budd

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Christian Imagery Symbol Analysis

Christian Imagery Symbol Icon
Throughout the novella, Billy Budd is admiringly compared to various Christian figures. He is often described as similar to Adam, emphasizing his complete innocence and lack of experience with the civilized, corrupt world. However, toward the end of the narrative, he is especially associated with Jesus Christ. He accepts his execution peacefully, and seems so at ease with his fate that the chaplain has no spiritual advice to give him. The mystical morning light that illuminates his body as it is hanged also paints Billy as a holy martyr. And in the days after Billy's death, the narrator notes that the sailors of the Indomitable treat the spar from which he was hanged as a special relic like the cross of Christ's crucifixion. All of this Christian imagery characterizes Billy as a martyr and emphasizes his innocence and good moral nature. Moreover, the idea of martyrdom and the association of Billy with Jesus underlines Billy's death as a sacrifice of individuality for a larger community, just as Jesus gave his own life for the benefit of all mankind.

Christian Imagery Quotes in Billy Budd

The Billy Budd quotes below all refer to the symbol of Christian Imagery. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Billy Budd published in 1986.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.

Related Characters: Billy Budd
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 301
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator begins Chapter 2 by describing Billy Budd's physical appearance in more detail, noting his striking beauty and "ambiguous smile." The narrator has compared Billy both to courtly women and Classical Greek sculptures, before explaining that as a baby Billy was found abandoned, and thus people suspect that his real family may indeed be noble. In this passage, the narrator compares Billy to the Biblical Adam before the Fall of Man, suggesting his childlike innocence and moral purity. This association means that, by this point, Billy has been linked, whether explicitly or in-explicitly, to three major Biblical characters: Adam, the first man, Moses, who was also found as a baby and raised within the Egyptian royal family, and Jesus, who was the son of God and yet was raised by a humble Jewish couple. 

Through these associations, Billy takes on a kind of holy significance within the play. His unusual beauty and moral goodness suggest that he is an exceptional person akin to a mythic or religious hero. His connection to Adam and Jesus in particular is important, as both characters end up severely punished for acts that are arguably no fault of their own. By describing Billy's similarity to these characters, the narrator hints at the tragic fate that will eventually befall the innocent Billy. 

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Chapter 20 Quotes

Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!

Related Characters: Captain Vere (speaker), Billy Budd, John Claggart
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 352
Explanation and Analysis:

Captain Vere has summoned Billy to his cabin and informed him of Claggart's accusations. Billy is so shocked that he cannot speak, and when Captain Vere compels him too, Billy strikes out his hand, accidentally killing Claggart. After the doctor pronounces Claggart dead, Captain Vere declares that Claggart has been "struck dead by an angel of God!". This dramatic language highlights the peculiarity of the events within the captain's cabin. First, despite his total innocence, Billy is unable to defend himself verbally. When he finally reacts to the accusation, it is by accidentally murdering his accuser. It is almost as if Billy's body has acted in revenge against Claggart, even while his mind and soul are unable to do so––an idea that reveals Billy's angelic purity. 

Captain Vere's words further emphasize the notion that Billy is an "angel," incapable of intentionally committing sin. Indeed, this connection furthers another comparison: the similarity between Billy and Jesus. Like Jesus, Billy is morally innocent––and yet is punished by death. Based on Captain Vere's exclamation, it seems clear that he knows it is unjust to hang Billy. However, as captain of the ship, Vere is also forced to maintain law and order, a fact that prohibits him from acting according to his own individual conscience and delivering justice. 

Chapter 22 Quotes

But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?

Related Characters: Captain Vere (speaker), Billy Budd
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

During his trial, Billy admits to accidentally killing John Claggart, but maintains that Claggart was lying about Billy's supposed plan to start a mutiny. Billy himself lies, however, when asked if he knows of any mutinies being planned and swears he doesn't. In this passage, Captain Vere ponders the difficulty of the decision facing the drumhead court. Because Billy has confessed to the "overt act" of killing Claggart, in some ways the matter is rather simple; he is inarguably guilty of committing murder, even if it was accidental. At the same time, as Vere points out, there is much more to the story than this simple picture.

Like the contradiction between Billy's outward appearance and the rumors Claggart attempted to pin to him, there is a large tension between the crime to which Billy has confessed and his evident kind and innocent character. This raises the question of whether we should judge a person based on their outer appearance or behaviors, or seek to evaluate the internal truth of their personality. As Vere points out, this becomes particularly complicated in the context of Christian beliefs about morality. Billy is seemingly "innocent before God," as God can see past superficial appearances into a person's internal motivations. However, in the context of the military, Billy is guilty and therefore must be condemned to death. 

Chapter 25 Quotes

Not that like children Billy was incapable of conceiving what death really is. No; but he was wholly without irrational fear of it, a fear more prevalent in highly civilized communities than those so-called barbarous ones which in all respects stand nearer to unadulterated Nature.

Related Characters: Billy Budd
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 372
Explanation and Analysis:

Billy, condemned to death, is being kept on the upper gun deck. He is wearing white and has a peaceful expression; the ship's chaplain approaches, but is left speechless by how serene Billy looks. In this passage, the narrator describes Billy's lack of fear about death, comparing Billy's disposition with the attitude of "so-called barbarous" peoples who have a better understanding of nature than "highly civilized communities." Although on one hand the narrator is associating Billy with non-Christian, indigenous populations, it is clear from the rest of the imagery in this scene that Billy is representative of a holy, Christ-like serenity. His calm disposition in the face of death directly resembles Jesus's (presumed) attitude to his own crucifixion, as does Billy's white outfit glowing mystically in the darkness. 

Marvel not that having been made acquainted with the young sailor's essential innocence...the worthy man lifted not a finger to avert the doom of such a martyr to martial discipline. So to do would not only have been as idle as invoking the desert, but would also have been an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function.

Related Characters: The Chaplain
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 373
Explanation and Analysis:

The ship's chaplain has come to visit Billy before his death, and has spoken to him briefly about death and the afterlife. Although Billy did not seem particularly interested, the chaplain reasons that this is due to Billy's profound innocence rather than any lack of religiosity. In this passage the narrator observes that, in spite of his affection for Billy and knowledge of Billy's innocence, the chaplain does not take action to try to avoid Billy's fate. The narrator reasons that such a choice would be impossible and would not alter the situation. 

The narrator's observations constitute a powerful and damning statement on the nature of morality, authority, and society. The chaplain is supposed to be the religious and moral centre of the ship, and yet is powerless to prevent the death of an innocent man. This highlights the force of the ship as a whole, and the helplessness of any one individual in the face of this might. Just like Captain Vere, the chaplain knows that Billy does not deserve to die; yet like Captain Vere, the chaplain places the larger community above his own moral reasoning, thereby sacrificing Billy's life. 

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Christian Imagery Symbol Timeline in Billy Budd

The timeline below shows where the symbol Christian Imagery appears in Billy Budd. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 26
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
...water, so that Billy's body hung in the light "with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision." To the amazement of all on deck, Billy's body was perfectly... (full context)
Chapter 31
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
The Present vs. the Past Theme Icon
...hanged as a monument. A piece of it was as valuable to them as a piece of the cross on which Christ was crucified. (full context)