115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Perceptions of Evil after the Fall: Billy Budd and the Eyes of Hope

Justina Torrance, Harvard University

This paper explores how vision is related to character in Melville’s Billy Budd, with particular attention to the perception of evil. It argues Melville gives us a typology of different ways of seeing and responding to the world in three or four exceptional characters, or “phenomenal men,” and attempts to hone our perceptive capabilities through fiction. It concludes with the religious virtue of hope as a mode of seeing realistically according to character.


In John Claggart, Melville gives us a creature of despair, of motiveless malignity, as Coleridge said of Shakespeare’s Iago.  Claggart is a man of “Natural Depravity: a depravity according to nature,” a phrase the narrator indexes to Plato rather than to Calvin or the Gospels in a smart aside, with the object of appealing to modernity’s parameters of acceptable argumentation[1].  In an age that no longer looks to biblical authority for guidance, what kind of language do we have to speak about evil, and how do we recognize it?  These are the questions that obsess Melville in Billy Budd, his last work of fiction, written and revised up until his death in 1891.  Here Melville dramatizes the confrontation of good and evil personified as characters (without neglecting systems) in something like a new scripture, with particular, self-conscious attention to the role fiction plays in honing our perception of reality.  His narrator suggests that “constant rubbing” with the world “blunts” our “finer spiritual insights,” and my paper argues that this story sets out to restore our vision. 

Melville’s “Inside Narrative” (the neglected subtitle) gives us a typology of four ways of seeing, where people’s vision is tied to their character. In one case: Billy Budd of singular innocence, is described as welkin-eyed (blue-eyed, but lit. heaven-eyed!) and is incapable of perceiving negative sources of action in this man-of-war world.  As Barbara Johnson notes in her classic deconstructionist reading, Budd assumes a continuity between appearance and reality; this makes him incapable of perceiving irony, the gap between is and does (“handsome is as handsome did it,” the Claggart taunt he takes at face value).  To comprehend Claggart, however, one must “cross ‘the deadly space between’”—and “this,” the narrator tells us, “is best done by indirection”—or fiction.  This may be why the ship’s captain, the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere, is unable to see that direct confrontation, pitting the one nature against the other will lead only to tragedy.  His actions here are compatible with his preference for reading only “serious” texts of history and biography, not works of the Imagination.  His mode of seeing thus belies his trouble, not with is and does, but near and far: in “natures constituted like Captain Vere’s…honesty prescribes to them directness, sometimes far-reaching like that of a migratory fowl that in its flight never heeds when it crosses a frontier.”  That is, his directness is the opposite of what is required to deal adequately with a nature like Claggart’s; in pressing toward a goal, he loses sight of what’s happening on the ground.  He has trouble, then, with what Kant in his aesthetics identifies as the task of the faculty of judgment, the subsumption of the particular under the universal (or the finding of a universal to fit the particular). 

 In a number of his previous works, Melville had probed the connection between perception and character by repeatedly adverting to the injunction in Matthew 10:16: “Be ye therefore shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves.”  How to see evil without being evil, and then react appropriately: this is what none of the characters in Billy Budd manages to achieve, but Melville, through his masterful deployment of specific literary techniques, gives us the hope may be possible—according to the religious virtue of hope, which Billy Budd inspires.

[1] “[I]f that lexicon which is based on Holy Writ were any longer popular, one might with less difficulty define and denominate certain phenomenal men.  As it is, one must turn to some authority not liable to the charge of being tinctured with the biblical element.”