Billy Budd Questions and Answers
by Herman Melville

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In Herman Melville's short novel Billy Budd, did Billy receive justice?

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"Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!"

This is Captain Vere’s first reaction when he discovers that Claggart is dead. The Captain has decided Billy’s fate immediately. Though there is still a court hearing to come, it is Captain Vere who determines that as well, so it is no exaggeration to say that he has the power of life and death over Billy Budd. It is clear that this would be monstrously unjust in the case of any civilian employer, so the whole question really hinges on how much of an exception one is prepared to make for the military.

Insubordination of any kind, no matter the possible justifications for it, is a deadly serious matter in the navy—and doubly so in time of war. The merest suspicion of mutiny can lead to the loss of a ship and thence to the loss of the war itself. Captain Vere certainly has a responsibility to maintain tight discipline, but it may be argued that he has failed to do this already when Billy strikes Claggart, since Claggart is...

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