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 stood awaiting his notice, than a peculiar expression came over him. It was not unlike that which uncontrollably will flit across the countenance of one at unawares encountering a person who, though known to him indeed, has hardly been long enough known for thorough knowledge, but something in whose aspect nevertheless now for the first provokes a vaguely repellent distaste”(Chapter 19, Melville).
Vere appears to have an intuitive knowledge of what is right and just, which makes it all the more baffling why he chooses to disregard what he knows is right in favor of the expedient. Martin Greenberg, in “The Difficult Justice of Melville and Kleist,” cites two arguments for Vere’s decision to punish Billy: first, is the loss of free will that follows enlistment in the Navy; second, the fear of mutiny and chaos is extremely compelling to a high ranking official like a captain (4). Greenberg and Melville understand Vere’s predicament as a man of the military.
Had he been soft, perhaps more lives would have been lost through mutiny, and the cohesion of the Royal Navy might have been destroyed. The story is set in 1797, following the American Revolt against the Crown. In such tumultuous times, any form of clemency—especially in the armed forces—would be seen as a weakness for the unscrupulous to exploit. The story of false accusations against an innocent has a long history in the literary, Biblical, and historical traditions. Quite often, the person in charge of making such life or death decisions is either unable or unwilling to do the right thing (i.
e. Pontius Pilate). Pontius Pilate and Captain Vere have both sent innocent men to their deaths for fear of social unrest, or an end to the status quo. In the realm of ethics, their action would have been unconscionable, but in politics, leaders must abide by the Macchiavellian dictate to When Vere calls upon Billy to answer his accuser, he believed that he would be quickly exonerated because there is nothing in his nature that would give credence to such an outlandish allegation.
Until Billy strikes Claggart dead in a fit of incoherent rage, In Martin Greenberg’s analysis of Billy Budd, he remarks on the Biblical imagery immanent in the descriptions of John Claggart and Billy Budd, The two of them are the great forces of light and dark in the miniature universe of the ship, “And that world provides, like the great world itself, a Satan, harsher than his harsh name of Claggart, as sinisterly handsome as Billy is angelically—modeled on Milton’s Satan, despairing like him, but ignoble”(5).
One of the ironies in examining this supposed lack of free will, is that it is an ineffable part of the Christian doctrine; yet those that are obedient to this higher power often feel compelled to perform actions they never would have dreamt of doing. Melville makes frequent allusions to Abraham and Isaac, with respect to Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son on the mountainside.
Greenberg remarks upon this likeness at length in his analysis, “The two are imagined as embracing like father and son, like Jacob and Isaac, in the privacy of the sailor’s confinement, where as if it were a sacred precinct, the storyteller doesn’t venture to enter. Each experiences a sacrificial exaltation: Billy, sacrificing his life at the behest of the father-god of his world, exclaims “God bless Captain Vere! ” just before he drops from the yardarm; the Captain, as the one who condemns to death, makes even the harder sacrifice (according to the narrator at the behest of his father-god the King”(5).
With the death of Claggart, Vere argued for Billy’s death in a military court. The officers present knew that he was innocent of mutiny and homicide. He did not have the mental capacity to engineer such a coup, nor was he aware of his own strength. All he wanted to do was stop the lies coming out of Claggart’s mouth, and he reacted physically since he was unable to do so verbally. Would it not be a crime to kill someone that is mentally handicapped and too strong for his own good?
Would it not be better to set him ashore in England or the Americas, then restore order to the At the beginning of Chapter 23, when sentence was to be passed upon the approved, the narrator presented a rather sympathetic portrait of Captain Vere, “The austere devotee of military duty, letting himself melt back into what remains primeval in our formalized humanity, may in the end have caught Billy to his heart even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest” (Melville).
Like Christ, Billy had done no wrong, and perhaps this very perfection makes him less sympathetic than Captain Vere to Melville. As fallible human beings, some have more power than they know how to wield, and some decisions come at the price of the soul. It is Greenberg’s contention that the supernatural powers of the one true God, a pantheon of gods, heaven, or angels are no match for earthly injustice.
The crucifixion of Jesus, the execution of Billy, and the avenging of Claggart substantiates this cynical world view. Works Cited Greenberg, Martin. “The Difficult Justice of Melville & Kleist. ” The New Criterion. (March, 2005): 3-11 Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor. Retrieved 5 Apr. 2007 from <http://xroads. virginia. edu/~HYPER/bb/BillyBudd. html>
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