Billy Budd

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Individual vs. Society Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
The Present vs. the Past Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Billy Budd, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon

The story's questions of duty and justice often center around a conflict between an individual and society. In deciding Billy's fate, for example, Captain Vere must decide between his own personal admiration of Billy's character and what may be best for the ship's community and the navy as a whole, as enshrined in naval law. And the entire story is set in the context of the royal navy, where sailors have all devoted their individual lives to serving the interests of their country. Throughout Billy Budd, Melville explores how individuals are often subsumed by the larger interests of society. Many of the sailors aboard the Indomitable are conscripted—that is, taken into service by force. This curtailment of individual rights is encapsulated symbolically when Billy is forced to leave his merchant ship, the Rights-of-Man, in order to join the Indomitable (in some editions, called the Bellipotent). The indomitable power of society—or, in the case of the Bellipotent (which literally means powerful in war), of war—is able to trump the rights of individual people. Captain Vere's main concern is in putting down any hint of mutiny, which means silencing individual, dissenting voices, in favor of obedience to the captain and the navy.

Billy Budd himself must also choose between his own personal honor and the well-being of the Indomitable, when he is conflicted over whether to alert the captain to a possible mutiny. Doing so would be good for the community of the ship, but would compromise Billy's individual honor, making him a tattletale. Billy ends up choosing his own individuality in this case, as he remains silent, but by contrast Captain Vere sides with society, adhering strictly to the law and not letting his own conscience guide him in ordering for Billy's execution. Billy's death makes the loss of individuality considered by Melville more than a merely abstract notion: as an individual, Billy literally loses his life because the interests of society (his ship, the navy, and ultimately Great Britain) are deemed more important. Because of the tragic sympathy with which Billy's death is portrayed, Melville's story can be seen as lamenting this prioritizing of society and as criticizing the social structures that curb individuality. However, the Indomitable is a successful ship; it is also possible to read the story as showing the tragic, but necessary, sacrifice of individuals for larger purposes.

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Individual vs. Society Quotes in Billy Budd

Below you will find the important quotes in Billy Budd related to the theme of Individual vs. Society.
Chapter 1 Quotes

And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man.

Related Characters: Billy Budd (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ship Names
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

Billy Budd has been conscripted to leave his old ship, the Rights-of-Man, to join a new ship named the Indomitable. The captain of the Rights-of-Man has complained that he is losing his best man, and that Billy has ended the quarrelling that used to take place among his sailors. As Billy leaves the ship, he says "and good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man." On the surface, this reveals Billy's fondness for his previous ship, as well as his calm acceptance of moving onto a new one.

At the same time, his farewell also has a symbolic meaning; as illustrated by the ship's name, Billy is bidding farewell to a community in which the rights of individuals were respected. The name "Rights-of-Man" comes from Thomas Paine's 1791 book, which morally condoned revolution against a government if that government does not respect the rights of individual citizens. This argument has a strong connection to the issue of mutiny aboard ships. On the new ship, the Indomitable, the rights of individual sailors are suppressed in order to ensure the absolute power of the ship over the French Republic. This tension between the authority of society and its leaders and the rights of the individual is one of the main themes of the novel. 


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Chapter 8 Quotes

Such sanctioned irregularities...lend color to something for the truth whereof I do not vouch, and hence have some scruple in stating; something I remember having seen in print, though the book I cannot recall... In the case of a warship short of hands whose speedy sailing was imperative, the deficient quota, in lack of any other way of making it good, would be eked out by drafts culled directly from the jails.

Page Number: 315
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has introduced John Claggart and described his intelligent-seeming yet strangely pale appearance. The narrator notes that the way in which John joined the crew of the Indomitable is unknown, and in this passage mentions a rumor that some warships without enough sailors would recruit men "directly from the jails." The narrator's words emphasize the theme of storytelling, rumor, and the slippery nature of the truth. He says he remembers seeing this rumor "in print, though the book I cannot recall...". Such a statement highlights the unreliability of human memory and the ease with which false statements can be given the illusion of authority. After all, even if the narrator did see this story in a book, the author of the book could also have been lying about or misremembering the truth. Furthermore, this calls into the question the narrator's reliability, particularly as he claims (in other cases) to be presenting pure fact.

The rumor itself also increases the sinister impression of Claggart, while pointing to an important paradox in the way that society treats prisoners versus men serving in the military. Prisoners are people deemed harmful to society, whose crimes theoretically warrant them being locked up. Meanwhile, military men are supposed to represent upstanding, honorable citizens who possess the skills and temperament necessary to defend the country. However, if the rumor the narrator mentions is true, there are some contexts in which prisoners are thought capable of serving in the military, a fact that suggests that in both cases, men are simply used as "pawns" by leaders in order to increase the power of the Empire. 

Chapter 17 Quotes

Every sailor, too, is accustomed to obey orders without debating them; his life afloat is externally ruled for him.

Page Number: 337
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described Billy's difficulty in understanding that Claggart disliked him. Although not stupid, Billy is nonetheless innocently naïve, and it is in fact this quality that makes him a good sailor. As the narrator explains in this passage, sailors must be "accustomed to obey[ing] orders without debating them," and thus Billy's trustful innocence is a useful quality, even while it makes him oblivious to the threat presented by Claggart.

Once again, the narrator has highlighted a troubling paradox when it comes to the life of sailors. Although Billy's ability to accept his life being "externally ruled for him" makes him an effective member of the overall community, it prevents him from seeking justice for himself and, arguably, those around him. He is unable to recognize Claggart's unfair treatment simply because Claggart is his superior. As a result, he suffers a loss of individual dignity. 

Chapter 19 Quotes

The same, your honor; but, for all his youth and good looks, a deep one. Not for nothing does he insinuate himself into the good will of his shipmates, since at the least all hands will at a pinch say a good word for him at all hazards. ...It is even masked by that sort of good-humored air that at heart he resents his impressment. You have but noted his fair cheek. A man trap may be under his ruddy-tipped daisies.

Related Characters: John Claggart (speaker), Billy Budd
Page Number: 344
Explanation and Analysis:

Claggart has gone to Captain Vere to tell him he is suspicious that a mutiny is being planned, led by Billy Budd. This rumor is false, and at first Captain Vere reacts incredulously; he doesn't believe Billy could be capable of such a deed, considering his kind, appealing manner. In this passage, Claggart agrees about Billy's "youth and good looks," but suggests that his outward appearance might be concealing internal resentment at having been conscripted onto the Indomitable. Note the cunning way in which Claggart manages to persuade Captain Vere that Billy is duplicitous. Rather than denying the assertion that Billy is handsome, Claggart agrees, but proposes that this in itself is suspicious. 

Indeed, this idea that beauty is inherently suspicious or deceitful has a long history in Western culture, although it has been much more commonly used to discredit women. This idea is particularly relevant in the context of the sea, as one of its most famous manifestations is in the figure of the siren, a supernaturally attractive woman (in some interpretations) who would lure sailors to their deaths through the beauty of her singing. Although Claggart is not accusing Billy of being a siren, he is suggesting that Billy has committed a very similar crime––luring sailors into self-sabotage through his handsome appearance. This point is emphasized by Claggart's claim that "a man trap may be under his ruddy-tipped daisies." 

Chapter 22 Quotes

For the time, did I not perceive in you—at the crisis too—a troubled hesitancy, proceeding, I doubt not, from the clash of military duty with moral scruple—scruple vitalized by compassion.

Related Characters: Captain Vere (speaker)
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

Billy's trial is taking place, and the drumhead court has heard the accusations against him as well as Billy's own testimony. Billy has confirmed that he killed Claggart by accident, but added that Claggart was lying when he claimed that Billy was planning a mutiny. When asked if he knows of any mutinies being planned, Billy hesitates, before lying and saying that that he doesn't. In this passage, Captain Vere explains that he noticed Billy hesitate, and suspects that he was deciding to act on "military duty" or "moral scruple." This is a correct assessment of Billy's behavior, proving Captain Vere's keen insight into human nature. The fact that Vere is so perceptive and yet is still overseeing Billy's wrongful condemnation makes Billy's fate even more tragic. 

Captain Vere's words also highlight that the dilemma Billy faced as an individual is representative of a larger problem within the military. If there is a "clash" between one's individual moral principles and one's duty as a sailor, does this not indicate that there is something immoral about aspects of serving in the military? As Billy's case makes clear, whatever action he took would constitute a betrayal, whether of himself, his peers, or Captain Vere. 

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

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.