Billy Budd Essay: Comparing Christ to Billy

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Comparing Christ to Billy of Billy Budd

"I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head!" wrote Herman Melville in his June 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne (Davis and Gilman 3). Yet, by the time he began writing Billy Budd, Sailor in 1888, Melville must have tempered this view, for Billy Budd depicts the inevitable destruction of a man who is all heart but who utterly lacks insight. Melville no doubt intends for his reader to connect this tale with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Billy Budd endures a persecution similar to Christ's; he is executed for like reasons, and he eventually ascends, taking "the full rose of the dawn" (BB 376). Yet, in creating Billy Budd, Melville forms a character who is but a half-Christ, more
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Billy Budd is neither. He may possess the heart of Christ in that he usually unconditionally loves others, but he lacks "any trace of the wisdom of the serpent." Nor is he "yet quite a dove" (BB 300). If a peacemaker, he is a "fighting peacemaker" (BB 296). He does not, as Christ taught men to do, turn the other cheek to insults. (Unless, of course, he fails to recognize them.) When "the Red Whiskers . . . insultingly [gives] him a dig under the ribs," he hits the man (BB 295). Yet the "Red Whiskers" grows to love Billy nonetheless, probably because the sailor has a harmless heart, if not a harmless arm. Billy is like the Christ Child--loving, innocent, and never maliciously harmful--but he little resembles the mature Man.

Melville, as can be discerned from reading his novels, was clearly no orthodox Christian. However, he had a more complete view of Christ than that with which most critics credit him, a more complete view, perhaps, than is possessed by such critics themselves. Melville appears to have been at least as concerned with the mature Christ as with the Christ Child. It was the experienced Christ, the "Man of Sorrows," whom Melville referred to as "the truest of all men" (Moby Dick 392). No allegory is complete; Melville himself wrote in his November 1851 letter to

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