What is the major major problem/conflict in Billy Budd?

The main conflict in Billy Budd is the one between Claggart and Budd.

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Billy Budd is rife with various conflicts. What is a bit amazing is that, despite the fact that the book takes place on a warship during the Napoleonic Wars just after the Nore Mutiny, neither of those could really be considered the "main" conflict. I would say that the main conflict is the one that exists between Claggart and Budd.

What makes this conflict especially suspenseful for readers to read about is the fact that we know Claggart has a problem with Budd, but we aren't sure why. To make matters worse, Budd can't fathom why Claggart doesn't like him, and Budd doesn't really consider Claggart an adversary until the event in the captain's cabin. This means that the main conflict is a man versus man; however, the conflict never feels like the it a straightforward conflict between a "good" character and a "bad" character. Claggart might be using devious methods to fight against Budd, but Budd simply refuses to engage in the fight.

Another main conflict has to be the internal conflict that exists within Vere. This conflict absolutely extends to Budd's punishment and how he chooses to handle it. He likes Budd a great deal, yet as captain he has to follow procedures. What makes it especially more difficult is that he knows that he could probably figure out a different punishment for Budd, and the crew would be glad of it. Vere knows that nobody wants to see Budd die, but he also knows that he doesn't want to give his crew any reason to think that a mutiny against him might work.

This spills over into another conflict dealing with the recent Nore Mutiny. All of the sailors and officers on board the vessel know that they are working within a very fraught environment. The crew never mutinies, but that potential conflict is always just beneath the surface throughout many parts of the novel, and it is at the forefront of Vere's mind at crucial moments.

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The main conflict in Billy Bud is the man versus man conflict between the master-at-arms, John Claggart, and Billy. Claggart does not like Billy due to the threat he poses to his position and influence as master-at-arms among the shipmates. Billy is widely liked by his colleagues on the ship. He is approachable and reasonable, which endears him to the shipmates. His popular personality attracts the conflict with Claggart. The master-at-arms maliciously accuses Billy of plotting mutiny on the ship. During the hearing, Billy faces a serious challenge in articulating his position due to a speech disorder. His frustration grows into anger, and he stabs Claggart, killing him. Claggart represents a malicious man, while Billy represents a morally upright man in an unfair trial.

Another conflict in the story is the man versus self conflict experienced by Captain Vere. Captain Vere likes Billy and knows him to be a morally upright man. However, he is forced to uphold the law and try Billy for murder and mutiny.

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The central conflict in this text is the way that the individual is placed in conflict with the larger society of which he is a part. This is the theme that runs throughout this powerful text, and is apparent when Billy himself is taken from his own ship, called Rights-of-Man, and taken by Bellipotent, the war ship, in order to fight as part of the country's army. The meaning of this latter ship is "The God of War," and thus this section of the novel can be seen as symbolic of the way in which society strips individuals of their freedom and forces them to give up their liberties in order to serve society at large.

This is something that is highlighted in Captain Vere's decision to punish Billy by the letter of the law rather than go with his individual conscience and feeling that Billy is actually a good and innocent man. Captain Vere is thus a powerful example of the way that society forces men to ignore their own individual intuition and morals in order to pursue punishment according to society's dictates. Note how Vere is described in the following quote:

The father in him, manifested towards Billy thus far in the scene, was replaced by the military disciplinarian.

What Vere's natural state is, the "father in him," is replaced when Billy breaks society's law. That is, Vere is forced to act in a way that is, to him, unnatural, because of society and the way that it dictates behaviour. Again, the conflict of the individual vs. society is presented.

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