Captain Vere, in Herman Melville’s short novel titled Billy Budd, is one of the most complex characters in all of American literature. He is the focus of a great and enduring critical debate, with some critics seeing him as a virtuous man who does his best in enormously complicated circumstances, and others seeing him as an evil man who forces the execution of Billy Budd when there is no reason that Billy has to die. Proponents of the first view would see Captain Vere as a highly reasonable person who behaves responsibly; proponents of the second view would see Captain Vere as an individualist to the point of behaving immorally and even insanely.
Those who condemn Captain Vere often do so because they think he follows his own individual impulses rather than doing what is technically right and proper. They think that Vere, far from obeying orders and following customs, irrationally violates them and rigs Billy’s trial so that there is no way for Billy to receive a fair verdict. They think that Vere takes advantage of Billy’s innocence in ways that are, in some respects, even worse than the methods used by John Claggart. Critics who take this position see Vere as both the true villain and the truly dark Romantic individualist of this book.
Critics who think that Vere is a mentally disturbed individualist make much of the reaction of the ship’s surgeon to the captain. Thus, at one point Vere exclaims, concerning Billy, “‘Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!’” The narrator then reports that in response to “these passionate interjections . . . the Surgeon was profoundly discomposed.” Later, the narrator reports as follows:
Full of disquietude and misgiving the Surgeon left the cabin. Was Captain Vere suddenly affected in his mind, or was it but a transient excitement, brought about by so strange and extraordinary a happening? As to the drum-head court, it struck the Surgeon as impolitic, if nothing more. The thing to do, he thought, was to place Billy Budd in confinement and in a way dictated by usage, and postpone further action in so extraordinary a case to such time as they should rejoin the squadron, and then refer it to the Admiral. He recalled the unwonted agitation of Captain Vere and his excited exclamations so at variance with his normal manner. Was he unhinged?
The surgeon seems to think that Vere displays a number of characteristics often associated with Romantic individualism, including excitement, unconventional behavior, a defiance of custom, and unusual agitation. Although Vere is seen by some critics as highly rational and as very much concerned with doing the proper thing, critics who attack Vere inevitably point to the surgeon’s misgivings. The surgeon thinks that Vere is making up his own procedures rather than following strict military regulations. In this sense, Vere can be seen as a defiant Romantic individualist who trusts his own instincts rather than going “by the book.”
Such doubts about Vere are strengthened when, a few sentences after the ones just quoted, the narrator reports that other officers aboard the ship also feel that Vere should not hold an impromptu trial on board the vessel but should instead wait and refer the matter to the admiral.
The narrator, in his typically ambiguous manner, encourages readers to decide for themselves whether Vere is insane.