The question of whether Billy, in Herman Melville’s short novel Billy Budd, is justly hanged has been one of the most hotly debated issues in the history of literary criticism. It is not a question that is easily answered – at least in the eyes of anyone who has examined the issue thoroughly. Arguments have been made for and against Billy's sentence. Some of those arguments are as follows:
- FOR: Billy did indeed strike and kill a superior office during a time of war, no matter what his motives (or lack of motives) were. Therefore his punishment was just.
- AGAINST: Billy never intended to kill Claggart. He acted impulsively after Claggart had unjustly accused him of planning to lead a mutiny. A real trial would have taken Billy’s intentions into account, and Billy would have been acquitted of murder and thus not hanged.
- FOR: Billy struck and killed Claggart during a time of war and also at a time when discipline in the British navy had been threatened by recent mutinies. Captain Vere had little choice but to make an example of Billy to maintain discipline on his own ship.
- AGAINST: Vere had no legal right to try Billy as he did, on ship. He should and could have waited for a proper trial once his ship had returned to the fleet or to shore. Several of Vere’s own officers felt qualms about the captain’s behavior and even doubted his sanity.
- FOR: Billy was found guilty not by Vere but by a jury consisting of other officers. If they truly objected to Billy’s treatment, they should have refused to participate or should have expressed their doubts more forcefully.
- AGAINST: The officers were bullied by Vere into finding Billy guilty. Vere acted not as an impartial judge but as a biased advocate who had already made up his mind. The officers had no alternative but to go along with the captain’s wishes.
- FOR: Vere was in an extraordinarily difficult position. He knew that Billy did not intend to kill Claggart, but he was a captain on a ship during wartime, when an enemy ship had recently been sighted, and he was also worried about the potential for a mutiny on his ship. He acted as he thought best, and his decision should not be second-guessed.
- AGAINST: Vere was a man of little moral substance. He may even have been mentally unbalanced. He could easily have kept Billy imprisoned in the ship until a proper trial, conducted by others, could be held.
- FOR: Billy himself never complained about his treatment, his sentence, or his actual punishment. Indeed, at the end of the book he shouted “God bless Captain Vere!” He seemed to understand Vere’s excruciating situation and seemed to regard Vere almost as a father.
- AGAINST: Billy was an innocent, unsophisticated person and was not the sort of person who would protest Vere’s treatment of him. Billy may have felt that he had been treated justly, but that does not mean that readers should agree.
Typical of the novel’s ambiguity is the paragraph describing Captain Vere’s death:
Not long before death, while lying under the influence of that magical drug which soothing the physical frame mysteriously operates on the subtler element in man, he was heard to murmur words inexplicable to his attendant--"Billy Budd, Billy Budd." That these were not the accents of remorse, would seem clear from what the attendant said . . .”
“. . . would seem clear”: yet even as the word “seem” here suggests, very little is absolutely clear in Melville’s Billy Budd.