Billy Budd

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Natural Character and Appearance 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.
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon

Billy Budd begins with a lengthy description of the type of person known as the "handsome sailor" and the story's narrator often takes time away from the story to describe characters like Captain Vere or Claggart at length. As this suggests, the narrator of the story tends to see character as innate: people are either fundamentally good and innocent (like Billy Budd) or fundamentally sinister and bad, like Claggart. Thus, it is important for the narrator to describe characters fully before following them in the main story. Moreover, people's natural character in the story is closely connected to their physical appearance. "Handsome sailors" are admired both for their good looks and for their virtue. Billy Budd's handsome appearance signals to other sailors his good moral nature. The crew of the Indomitable (and Captain Vere) find it hard to believe that Billy would ever plan a mutiny largely because of his beauty, which they associate with innocence and upstanding morality. And when the narrator describes Claggart, the character's physical features are specifically related to aspects of his personality. The narrator says that Claggart's brow was the sort "associated with more than average intellect." But despite the narrator's concern for getting to the bottom of character's inner natures, some aspects of characters remain unknown. We never know Billy Budd's origins for certain, for example, while Claggart's motivations remain fundamentally a mystery.

The story also offers examples of when behavior does not match one's character, and when physical appearance contrasts with inner nature. Billy Budd's sudden outburst when he strikes Claggart seems very out of line with his gentle demeanor. And his inability to respond to Claggart's accusations when Captain Vere questions him might seem to suggest guilt, but in Billy's case it is simply a product of nervousness. (Fortunately for Billy, Captain Vere recognizes his stuttering as such, and does not interpret it as an outward sign of guilt.) And Claggart deliberately dissembles his appearance to Captain Vere when he accuses Billy of mutiny. He attempts to appear to the captain as a concerned, dutiful member of the ship, while also claiming that Billy's good behavior hides his true, disloyal nature. But it is Claggart, not Billy, whose outward appearance and behavior does not match his true character.

Thus, even while narrator insists on a close relationship between physical appearance and the innate moral qualities of a person, the story's events leave one wondering whether physical appearance is really a good indicator of someone's character. And in creating this question Billy Budd reveals a deeper level of exploration of the nature of appearances: the reliability of the narrator. While the narrator continues to espouse the belief in the connection between nature and appearance, the story continually calls such connections into question, suggesting that perhaps Melville as author does not actually agree with his narrator, and therefore further suggesting that the things that the narrator asserts are true, or are simple, may in fact be not true, or not simple. This is not to say that the narrator is purposefully lying, but rather that the narrator may be fallible and that his interpretation of the story may be affected by his blindnesses, including his faith in the connection between nature and appearance.

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Natural Character and Appearance Quotes in Billy Budd

Below you will find the important quotes in Billy Budd related to the theme of Natural Character and Appearance.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The moral nature was seldom out of keeping with the physical make. Indeed, except as toned by the former, the comeliness and power, always attractive in masculine conjunction, hardly could have drawn the sort of honest homage the Handsome Sailor in some examples received from his less gifted associates.

Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has begun to describe the world within which the story is set. It is the time before steamships, when a type of seaman the narrator calls the "Handsome Sailor" was adored by the men he worked with. The Handsome Sailor is admirable for his masculine "power" as well as his trustworthy, "honest" character. In this passage, the narrator introduces the idea that a person's outer appearance usually reflects their internal personality. As the rest of the novel will show, this is a notion that is both supported and contested by the story of Billy Budd. This passage stresses that while "comeliness and power" is respected within the world of the sailors, so is morality. As will become clear, these values can sometimes prove contradictory. 


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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. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

His brow was of the sort phrenologically associated with more than average intellect; silken jet curls partly clustering over it, making a foil to the pallor below, a pallor tinged with a faint shade of amber akin to the hue of time-tinted marbles of old. This complexion, singularly contrasting with the red or deeply bronzed visages of the sailors, and in part the result of his official seclusion from the sunlight, though it was not exactly displeasing, nevertheless seemed to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood.

Related Characters: John Claggart
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has introduced John Claggart, a the "master-at-arms" on the Indomitable. Advances in weapons technology have made John's role on the ship somewhat redundant, and he is thus now charged with simply maintaining order on deck. In this passage, the narrator describes Claggart's physical appearance, noting the correspondence between Claggart's looks and his inner personality. The narrator makes use of phrenology, a branch of pseudoscience popular in the 19th century that held that the size and shape of a person's head reflected details about their intelligence, abilities, and temperament. (Phrenology has since been refuted as scientifically meaningless as well as racist.) Here, the narrator claims that Claggart's brow indicates that he is more intelligent than the average person. 

Claggart is also unusual in another way; whereas most sailors have a "red or deeply bronzed" face as a result of spending their time outside in the sun, Claggart is pale. The narrator notes that this gives the impression that Claggart is unwell or "abnormal in the constitution and blood." This description creates a somewhat contradictory impression of Claggart; he seems at once unusually intelligent and also sickly, a fact that hints at his defective moral character. As in the rest of the novel, the narrator seems committed to the idea that a person's outward appearance reflects their internal personality, even when their looks provide contrasting clues about what's inside. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!

Related Characters: John Claggart (speaker), Billy Budd
Page Number: 322
Explanation and Analysis:

On a particularly rough day at sea, Billy spills a bowl of soup in the mess hall. Claggart walks past and at first pays no attention, but once he sees that it is Billy who spilled the soup, he stops and remarks, "Handsomely done, my lad!". Claggart's remarks are clearly laced with sarcastic antagonism, but because Billy is so pure-hearted he fails to pick up on this. Indeed, it is ironic that Claggart teases Billy precisely by pointing to his "handsome" nature, while this very nature prevents Billy from understanding the true meaning of Claggart's words. Note the subtle overtone of erotic tension created by the fact that Claggart uses the word "handsome" three times, perhaps indicating he is jealous of Billy's beauty and popularity.

Chapter 11 Quotes

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."

Related Characters: John Claggart
Page Number: 326
Explanation and Analysis:

Following the incident in which Claggart sarcastically insults Billy for spilling his soup, the narrator ponders the reason why Claggart dislikes Billy. The narrator has observed that Claggart perhaps envies Billy's good looks and kindly disposition, and in this passage contrasts Billy's goodness with Claggart's "evil nature."The narrator emphasizes that Claggart did not become evil as a result of "vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living," but was simply born that way. This coheres with the theme that people conform to certain types––such as noble heroes and evil villains––and that these types are so naturally embedded within a person that they can be detected through that person's physical appearance. Note how this contrasts to the social determinist view of humanity, which posits that people's personalities are the result of their experiences. And while the narrator here seems to support this view that one's "nature" is inborn, elsewhere Melville undercuts its validity.

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 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.