Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor is evidently an extremely divisive text when one considers the amount of dissension and disagreement it has generated critically. The criticism has essentially focused around what could be called the dichotomy of acceptance vs. resistance. On the one hand we can read the story as accepting the slaughter of Billy Budd as the necessary ends of justice. We can read Vere’s condemnation as a necessary military action performed in the name of preserving the political order on board the Bellipotent. On the other hand, we can read the story ironically as a Melvillian doctrine of resistance. Supporters on this pole of the debate argue that Billy Budd’s execution is the greatest example of injustice. They argue that the execution is a testament of denunciation, deploring the shallow political order of a paranoid military regime. I do not wish to argue either side of this debate. I have pointed it out to illustrate that Billy Budd, Sailor is a text about principles of right conduct, or at least this view is held by critics. Is Vere’s conduct right or wrong? This is the basic question at stake. In this sense it is a text about moral values and ethical conduct. However, considering that Billy Budd, Sailor is an ethical text, what I find most curious about it is the mysterious absence of the emotion guilt. Here we have a story about two murders. Billy obviously kills Claggart and Vere (Although it is indirect, ultimately the decision is his) kills Budd. Neither of these murderers shows the emotion of guilt in the form of remorse. For a narrative which tries so hard to situate the reader in an ethical and moral position of choosing interpretations, isn’t it somewhat ironic that the cha...
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...g or resisting an ethical dilemma is perhaps a moot point. The ethical thrust of the story could possibly be to indict mans insatiable need to punish and requite injuries through erroneous means. As Nietzche seems to think, "we may unhesitatingly assert that it was precisely through punishment that the development of the feeling of guilt was most powerfully hindered." If we conceive of the text of Billy Budd, Sailor as situating the reader for an alignment with this viewpoint, then perhaps the reader "gags" at the death of Billy Budd not for the seemingly unfair and unjust killing of a sympathetic character, but instead for its illustration of a social system inherently disjointed at its foundation; one which doesn’t make sense considering human nature, but one which is so inextricably linked to society that it is doubtful that it could ever, or will ever, be changed.
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