Although it is common (and correct) to say that few literary works have a single “meaning,” this claim is especially appropriate when the subject is Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd. In fact, Melville’s novella is written in a way that makes diverse, even contradictory, interpretations almost maddeningly easy to reach. Often, the effect of reading the book or even individual chapters or paragraphs is similar to suffering from vertigo. Sometimes it seems less that we are reading Billy Budd than that Billy Budd is reading us. Interpretations of the book tend to reflect, even more than is the case with most works of art, the values and perspectives we bring with us to our reading.
The central point of dispute in many readings of Billy Budd involves the justice of Billy’s execution and the moral character of Captain Vere. Some readers find Vere a sympathetic and even tragic figure who finds himself in an extraordinarily difficult ethical position. Other readers consider Vere a cold, calculating figure who engineers a guilty verdict when none is necessary. Some other readers regard Vere as a character who may be literally insane in his treatment of Billy.
After Vere tells the ship’s surgeon that he intends to put Billy on trial for killing Claggart, he surgeon immediately (but privately) wonders if Vere may be acting irrationally. He considers the decision “impolitic,” if nothing else. The surgeon thinks the trial should be postponed until the Bellipotent can rejoin its squadron, so that the matter can be turned over to the admiral. Yet although the surgeon communicates his ideas to other officers, and although they share his ideas, the trial proceeds. Billy is found guilty and is hanged.
Are we meant to sympathize with the surgeon’s doubts about Vere? Are the surgeon’s thoughts about how to handle the case ones with which we should agree? Can the surgeon fully appreciate the complexity of the situation, especially considering that the Bellipotent is indeed separated from its squadron, that the military situation is extremely tense, and that mutinies have recently occurred in the British fleet? Does Vere make a compelling case when he addresses the court? Later in the book, after all, the narrator, quoting an unidentified author, writes,
Says a writer whom few know, “Forty years after a battle it is easy for a noncombatant to reason about how it ought to have been fought. It is another thing personally and under fire to have to direct the fighting while involved in the obscuring smoke of it. Much so with respect to other emergencies involving considerations both practical and moral, and when it is imperative promptly to act. . . . (end of Chapter 21)
Who is this writer? Should we take his opinions seriously? Are the quoted opinions in fact relevant to Vere’s case? Does this passage imply the narrator’s agreement with the writer he quotes? Does the rest of the paragraph – which compares a commander in battle to the captain of a befogged ship, which must move quickly even at the risk of running someone down – work in Vere’s favor, or does it raise even more doubts about Vere’s conduct?
Critics have famously debated the “moral” of Billy Budd for many decades (especially since the 1960s), and one of the reasons the novella is so compelling is that it raises serious moral issues in a context that makes clear moral judgments, at least for some readers, difficult to adopt.