Duty and Conscience
Captain Vere's dilemma—whether to convict Billy and hang him in spite of his sense that the young sailor is innocent—arises from Vere's very nature. Captain Vere is characterized throughout Billy Budd as a man who heeds his duty. Even before Captain Vere appears, a description of the captain by minor character Captain Graveling of the Rights-of-Man anticipates the more central captain's problem: "His duty he always faithfully did; but duty is sometimes a dry obligation." The "dryness" of duty is in its disconnection from feeling or intuition: duty is intellectual rather than emotional. And Captain Vere is described as possessing "a marked leaning toward everything intellectual," and "never tolerating an infraction of discipline." He adheres to the law and expects his men to do so as well.
Captain Vere's nickname, "Starry Vere," comes from a poem by Andrew Marvell, in which allusion is made to the "discipline severe" of a figure called "starry Vere," actually an ancestor of the captain. These early references to Captain Vere's rigidness concerning law and duty create a character who later in the novel must face a moral dilemma and choose between his duty and his conscience. When Claggart comes to Vere with his accusation against Billy, Vere is wary of the strange officer's manner and doubts that Billy Budd could be involved in such a plot as Claggart implies. Yet Vere knows he must question Billy; this is...
(The entire section is 1298 words.)
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