Meaning of Absolutes in Billy Budd

Melville’s Meaning of Absolute
At first glance, Herman Melville presents Billy Budd as an unambiguous story whose plot follows an innocent sailor striving to survive on a military vessel while being exposed to malicious characters and violent punishments. Melville portrays his protagonist as purely innocent and naïve, a child incapable of understanding, let alone imposing any harm.   Melville pens his antagonist as the innately evil and conniving arch nemesis. However, these two conflicting characters are more alike than perceived. Melville creates the perception of an exterior story about two unquestionable foils trying to coexist; however, beneath the surface, there lies a much deeper meaning. Melville creates his novel from personal experiences had during voyages aboard military ships, as well as from his awareness of the ascending philosophy of Existentialism. Although a dark Romanticist, Melville adopts many of Soren Kierkegaard’s existential beliefs, a confusing and contradictory philosophy accepted by many. This philosophy depicts the unconditional rule of no absolutes. Ironically, making such a proclamation as the rejection of all absolutes presents an absolute affirmation in itself. Influenced by the great complexity of Existentialism, Melville communicates his confusion of the philosophy through the rivals of his novel. Through the impressionable nature of his characters, their blatant flaws, and the process in which those flaws lead to their demise, Herman Melville both supports and contradicts the perplexing Existential belief that absolutes cannot exist.
Authors cast the first impression of each character in order to shape the reader’s expectations of how each character will behave throughout the rest of the story. The picture that Melville impeccably paints of his characters consists of individuals with seemingly distinct personalities. On the surface Melville’s “[novel] is a tale about [two] men in a boat: the innocent…[and] the devious” (Johnson...