There are three main characters in Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor: Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Captain Vere. The first two are depicted as a pair of opposites, for one is innocent, simple and good, while the other is intelligent but hypocritical and evil. Captain Vere is a more complex character, and much harder to be defined or stereotyped. In other words, the interpretation of him may vary from reader to reader. In the story, Billy Budd is such an embodiment of beauty and purity as to be compared to Christ or sinless Adam. When he works in a merchant's ship, he is the peacemaker among the untamed sailors. When he serves in the warship, in Captain Vere's eyes he is "such a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall" (Melville, P2332). "Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company."(Melville, P2307) Moreover, just as innocent as Adam, Billy Budd is thoroughly lacking in the knowledge of good and evil. His ignorance of human sophistication is the core of his innocence. When he is warned that Claggart is "down" on him, he does not believe it, because the master-at-arms always says kind words to him. Thus when John Claggart wrongly accuses him of conspiring a mutiny, he is so irritated as to fail to defend himself with words and instead react with a heavy blow, which results in the accuser's death. .
Different from Billy Budd, John Claggart is characterized as intelligent and sophisticated. They contrast even in the appearance. Claggart has the pallid intellectual look, while Billy Budd is lit up with "the rose-tan in his cheek" (Melville, P2322). It is noteworthy that in Melville's works pallor or whiteness generally symbolizes potential evil.