Herman Melville's Billy Budd - The Tragedy of Billy Budd

Herman Melville's Billy Budd - The Tragedy of Billy Budd

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The Tragedy of Justice in Billy Budd


      Charles Reich's assessment of the conflict in Billy Budd focuses on the

distinction between the laws of society and the laws of nature. Human law says

that men are "the sum total of their actions, and no more." Reich uses this as a

basis for his assertion that Billy is innocent in what he is, not what he does.

The point of the novel is therefore not to analyze the good and evil in Billy or

Claggart, but to put the reader in the position of Captain Vere, who must

interpret the laws of both man and nature.


      Reich supports Vere's decision to hang Billy. In defense of this he

alludes to a famous English court case, in which three men were accused of

murder. However, the circumstances which led them to murder were beyond their

control; they had been stranded at sea and forced to kill and eat their fourth

companion, who had fallen ill and was about to die anyway. The Judge, Lord

Coleridge, found them guilty because "law cannot follow nature's principle of

self-preservation." In other words, necessity is not a justification for killing,

even when this necessity is beyond human control. Since Billy is unable to

defend himself verbally, he "responds to pure nature, and the dictates of

necessity" by lashing out at Claggart. I agree with Reich's notion that Vere was

correct in  hanging Billy, and that it is society, not Vere, who should be

criticized for this judgement; for Vere is forced to reject the urgings of his

own heart and his values to comply with the binding laws of man.


      First, the moral issue aside, Captain Vere had no choice but to convict

Billy. As captain of a ship under pressure of war and the constant threat of

mutiny, Vere had to act swiftly. Also, as captain, Vere had the responsibility

of making sure the laws were strictly enforced, including the Mutiny Act.

Although Vere knew in his heart Billy was innocent, Billy's actions had to be



      For Vere to have acquitted Billy would mean that he had placed the

divine law of nature above the laws he was bound to enforce as captain of a

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British ship. Although this would have been morally right, who is to say where

to draw the line? This rhetorical question is what Melville wants his readers to

think about. Melville could have easily written in the plot that Vere went along

with the captain's suggestion to call witnesses. With the testimonies of Dansker,

the afterguardsman, and Squeak, Billy could have been cleared of the mutiny

charge. But I agree with Reich that Melville wanted to use Billy as an example

of the flaws in the laws of society; that they do not take into account the laws

of nature. However, until we reform our laws in such a way that we cannot be

punished for something out of our control, we cannot expect the laws to be

interpreted that way.




Charles A. Reich, "The Tragedy of Justice in Billy Budd," Critical Essays on

Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor, pp. 127-143


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