Billy Budd - Convictions Shaken

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In Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor, readers are introduced to the conflict of good and evil between Billy Budd and Claggart. However, there is another conflict, which, in ways is more significant than the epic clash of good and evil. Vere’s struggle between duty and conscience is more significant because it occurs in the mind. Whereas Billy Budd was clearly the noble sacrificed hero and Claggart was the vindictive villain, duty is just as noble as conscience and conscience is just as noble as duty. Melville sets up this conflict by placing a man with the intuition and innocence of a child, in the hands of a captain amidst war. In a description of Captain Vere it can be anticipated that Vere, who values peace and common good, would be in conflict with his job, which requires him to be a militaristic authoritarian. Captain Vere learns important lessons when innocent hands bring about destruction of life. Vere was moved by his beckoning duty as captain, to convince the drumhead court to convict Billy Budd. However, the paternal emotions towards Billy Budd and his rational thinking did invoke indecision. Captain Vere realizes, when he has to act, he does not have the strength of conviction he had thought. Vere’s character is written to be a medium between Billy Budd and Claggart. Vere, like Claggart, has experience that makes him a salted sailor. However, like Billy Budd, Vere has been able to hold on to his natural intelligence. Along with his intelligence, Vere has an innocent quality to him: he believes when a crisis between duty and conscience calls, he will be able to hold fast to duty as called for on the seas during war. Captain Vere learns that in the face of conflict between duty and conscience, he does not have the strength of conviction he thought he had. Captain Vere learns that to balance conscience and duty is a very hard task even for a man as conscious of his actions as he is.

Captain Vere, despite having paternal feelings towards Billy Budd, soon realizes the decision facing him. After Claggart’s last breathe, “ ‘Fated boy,’ breathed Captain Vere in tone so low as to be almost a whisper, ‘what have you done!’ ” (350). Vere’s paternal feelings can be seen when he says “Fated boy”. The fact Captain Vere whispers this implies the emotions he is feeling. He realizes the severity of Billy’s actions and reproaches him as a father would a child...

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...d conscience. The manifestation of complete opposites in the characters of Billy Budd and Claggart give readers a very clear sense of the enemy, and which character to emulate. However, Billy Budd and Claggart are very exaggerated views of balancing opposite interests. Melville, more subtly, uses the murder of Claggart by Billy Budd, to show the readers the balance needing to be achieved within Captain Vere. His struggle between duty and conscience are representative of different interests. These different interests might not be clearly right and wrong. Duty is just as noble as emotion and vice versa. Despite what people think of themselves, it is very hard to strike that balance in which both interests can be achieved. Vere’s actions when wavering between emotion and duty reflect how actions counteract one another. One minute Vere was calm and the next he was passionately exclaiming. The human condition is always shifting, always looking for that balance of interests. People believe strongly in many things, but when the strong beliefs are pitted against one another balance must be found. As Vere learned, in the face of conflict between two rights, he finds his convictions shaken.
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