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The novel follows the brief life of Billy Budd aboard the Indomitable and concerns itself with the puzzling problem of the purity of an innocent and how civilization perverts and destroys that purity. Billy is an exemplary sailor, and since he is so ignorant of evil, he reacts violently when he encounters it. The result is quite tragic.
Protagonist: The protagonist of the plot is Billy Budd, the symbol of goodness who unsuccessfully fights against evil. Although he unintentionally kills John Claggart, Billy Budd is the tragic loser in the story.
Antagonist: The antagonist of the novel is John Claggart, the symbol of evil who falsely accuses Billy Budd and brings about the ruin of the young innocent.
Climax: The climax of the novel occurs when Billy Budd is sentenced to death. He has struck out at his antagonist and killed him, but he must pay for it with his own life.
Outcome: The novel ends in tragedy. Billy Budd unintentionally kills Claggart and is sentenced to death for the murder. A purely good and innocent sailor dies as a result of the accusations of the evil Claggart.
The plot also needs to be viewed on a symbolic level, where the conflict is good versus evil. Billy Budd, the symbol of goodness, is defeated by the evil forces in life. Claggart, the dark and pallid sailor, falsely accuses Billy, the blonde and handsome sailor, of doing evil. To defend his honor, Billy strikes Claggart and ironically kills him. As a result, Billy is sentenced to death, not because of his own evil, but because of cruel fate. It is truly a tragedy that the good man must die. Captain Vere and the other sailors realize the tragedy of Billy's execution. They murmur about Billy's death, venerate the place where he is hung, and compose a ballad about this good man to immortalize his sacrifice. It is ironic that the "world," as seen through a newspaper report, judges Claggart to be good and loyal and Billy Budd to be a villain. It is proof that evil is afoot in the world, and innocents like Billy are helpless in their fight against it.