Billy Budd

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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.
The Present vs. the Past Theme Icon

The narrator of Billy Budd often contrasts the present time of his story with the glorious past—for example, as he admiringly describes the valiant service of Admiral Nelson and laments the introduction of guns and ironsides to naval combat. For the narrator, earlier forms of naval combat were more poetic and honorable. In his own time, the master-at-arms does not even instruct sailors in the use of weapons anymore (since swords are no longer used), but simply acts as "a sort of chief of police" on the lower decks.

There is a general sense of decline throughout the story, an idea that the past was better than the present. Thus, when Billy Budd is praised, such praise is often in the form of comparisons to ancient things, whether Greek statues or even Adam, the first man. Closely related to the contrast between the present and the past is that between the young and the old, which the story also explores. The Dansker, for example, is admired by both Billy and the narrator for his wisdom, gained through many years of experience, in contrast to Billy's innocence and naïveté. Having served under Admiral Nelson, the Dansker is a vestige of an earlier, more valiant era in seafaring. In the narrator's conception of the world, characters are often praiseworthy precisely because of some association with the past, whether because they participated in it (like the Dansker), or, in Billy's case, because his innocence has kept him unaware of the declined state of the contemporary world.

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The Present vs. the Past Quotes in Billy Budd

Below you will find the important quotes in Billy Budd related to the theme of The Present vs. the Past.
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 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.