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The Difficult Justice of Melville and Kleist

According to many scholars, Billy Budd is the archetypal story of good vs. evil, the injustice of an imperfect world, and the impossible decisions good people are forced to make. On a first reading of the story, Captain Vere appears to be a symbol of merciless justice, cold efficiency, and the power of the State; a godlike figure with the power to take life when and where he sees fit. The captain, whose name is loosely translated as Truth, is caught in the middle between the two. He is fond of Billy, because of his friendly open nature. He dislikes Claggart because he instinctively feels that he is evil, “No sooner did the Commander observe who it was that deferentially…