The character in Herman Melville’s short novel Billy Budd who most obviously seems to feel a tension between outward conformity and inward questioning is Captain Vere. Vere senses that Billy is a good and innocent human being, just as he senses that John Claggart is a corrupt and evil man. At the same time, Vere also knows that Billy has struck Claggart impulsively and has thereby killed a superior officer during a time of war. Vere thus apparently feels torn between his genuine sympathy for Billy and his sense that he must conform to what he perceives as his duty to punish a murderer, on board a warship, during a time when conflict with the enemy might occur at any moment.
For some readers, therefore, Vere is a tragic figure, although it must be admitted that others see him as dishonest, conniving, and manipulative. These latter readers think that Vere has many other options open to him besides having Billy hanged so quickly, if he should even have had Billy hanged at all. Some readers sympathize with what they consider Vere’s dilemma and predicament; others are not sympathetic at all. Some readers consider Vere a man torn between inward questioning and outward conformity; others suspect that he may in fact be almost insane.
Many comments made (and much evidence presented) by the narrator of the novel can often be interpreted in highly contradictory ways. Reading the novel is an intriguing, fascinating, and sometimes somewhat maddening experience, since so many of the data presented can seem to make sense from entirely opposite perspectives. Readers who sympathize with Vere often point, for instance, to the following passage as evidence that Vere was under extraordinary pressure to reach a very quick decision about Billy’s crime:
That the unhappy event which has been narrated could not have happened at a worse juncture was but too true. For it was close on the heel of suppressed insurrections [that is, shipboard mutinies], an aftertime very critical to naval authority, demanding from every English sea commander two qualities not readily interfusable – prudence and rigor.
Some readers consider Vere’s treatment of Billy highly prudent; others consider it just the opposite.
Perhaps the most famous statement by Captain Vere that is used to suggest that he feels torn between his inward perception of Billy and his sense of outward conformity is his exclamation soon after Claggart is killed: “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” Yet readers critical of Vere’s motives are quick to suggest, on the evidence of this statement, that he has already decided Billy’s fate even before a trial has taken place.
Later, the narrator, commenting on Vere’s appearance after he privately meets with Billy and tells Billy that he will be hanged, notes that apparently the condemned one [that is, Billy] suffered less than he who mainly had effected the condemnation [that is, Vere].” Yet sentences such as this one are just parts of an extremely complex puzzle that is finally very difficult to interpret with any great confidence. Melville’s purpose in the novel seems less to teach simple lessons than to provoke genuine thought.