Approximately forty years separate Typee, Melville's autobiographical tale of his first encounter with the ambiguities of life and the conflict of good and evil in the universe, from Billy Budd. The themes of the later novel, however, are not greatly changed from those of Typee. In both, the main character faces the threat of destruction by an evil force he does not comprehend. The theme of the noble savage is as strong in Billy Budd as it is in Typee. That Billy is untutored in the ways of the world remains unchanged throughout the story.
One suggested theme of Billy Budd is the corruption of innocence by society. Melville seems to prefer the primitive state over civilized society. If this posthumous work is indeed the author's last will and testament, the theme may indicate his personal resignation and acceptance of the imperfection of life. It also reflects his dissociation from religion, which had always been full of contradictions and uncertain-ties for him. Finally, in this terminal work he seems to adjust to the incongruities of life as a necessary tragic factor. Through acceptance and endurance, his characters — and the author as well — discover a peace and understanding gained through suffering and reflection.
Critics shore up their interpretation of Melville's final words with an explanation of innocence and perfection in this short novel. They see the two concepts as unequal. Billy, though innocent, is not perfect. Rather, he embraces death as a means of atoning for evil and goes willingly to his death, blessing Captain Vere as Christ blessed his enemies. If this analysis is true, Billy may represent Melville's late-in-life subordination of will to God's infinite judgment.
Another view of Billy is the consummate peacemaker who brings about brotherhood of man through martyrdom. Even though evil is the ultimate victor and takes its place alongside good, natural goodness remains unconquered in the human heart. In the real world, evil exists-unmitigated, unexplained, unmotivated, and impossible to grasp. Billy, hopelessly unsuited to exist in such a world, is its obvious victim.
Melville's comparison of the two irreconcilable facets of Claggart's nature to Chang and Eng, the famous Siamese twins who were joined together in life and in death, suggests still another theme in this mysterious and complex tale. The two, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, represent two sides of human nature. On the one hand, Claggart's strength resides in his job as shipboard peacekeeper; then, when evil takes control, his evil bent rears up like a coiled snake to strike out at goodness.
Like Aristotle's golden mean, the conjunction of these two extremes is the only viable solution. Such a blend is found in the nature of Claggart's foil, Captain Vere. Perfectly proportioned, he opposes innovation and change, but remains at peace with the world. He is truly the balanced man.
Some critics view the story as a commentary on the impersonality and essential brutality of the modern state, exacting the death penalty of the innocent. Billy succumbs to a hostile universe because he lacks the sophistication and experience to roll with the punches. Unlike the shifting keel of the ship, Billy is unable to lean either way and so must break apart and sink to the bottom.
In such a state, the peace-loving Rights-of-Man cannot operate without the protection of the Bellipotent, a symbol of warfare and usurper of those rights. In turn, the Bellipotent can protect the merchant ship only by impressing men from the ship it protects. This arbitrary snatching of men to staff the warship equates with the arbitrary justice of wartime, which snatches Billy from a safe berth and makes an example of him.
Melville obviously concerns himself with the historical development of humankind and particularly with isolated episodes in which history devours a single expendable individual. Furthermore, the author sees Christianity as the center of an order which seems to be slipping away. Because these dismal thoughts invaded the peace of his declining years, Melville deserves greatness for tackling so great an inquiry.