Billy Budd by Herman Melville Examine the theme of institutional conscience versus private conscience in Billy Budd.

Essay by WillowHigh School, 11th gradeA+, March 2003

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Institutional Conscience v. Private Conscience

"When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was...desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband...then the eyes of both of them were opened." This well-known Bible verse from Genesis 3:6 was known as The Fall of Man. Symbolically, when the first humans ate from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, civilization was conceived. Its most authoritative embodiment was institutional conscience, or manmade laws to uphold order and justice. In the novella Billy Budd, Herman Melville presented a dilemma of private conscience and institutional conscience through the events onboard a British warship during the late eighteenth century. In the civilized society created by men, institutional conscience prevails over private conscience.

Billy Budd became the spoil-of-war in the conflict between institutional conscience and private conscience because of his alienation from civilization.

Dubbed the "Handsome Sailor," Billy was liked by his companions for his "unpretentious good looks and a sort of genial happy-go-lucky air." (p.11) Melville created Billy to be a perfect, naïve grown child with no self-consciousness and unaware of insidious evils. Association with fellow sailors could not bring Billy into civilization, for his companions also lacked the sophistication of the real world. Without experiences in a normal society, Billy was "little more than a sort of upright barbarian" and "one to whom not yet has been proffered the questionable apple of knowledge." (p.13-14) When Billy The Barbarian confronted the child of civilization--institutional conscience, it killed him, leaving no ground for the private conscience to defend him. Claggart was merely a tool of civilization, for Billy was destined to be destroyed. Billy's death was prophetical, for God had warned Adam that he would surely die after eating the forbidden fruit. It...