Narration vs. Character: Self-consciousness in Billy Budd

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Esdale is a doctoral candidate in the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo. In the following essay, he analyzes the self-conscious narration that exists in contrast to the apparent lack of self-consciousness in Billy Budd.

Herman Melville's Billy Budd has produced an astonishing diversity of equally plausible interpretations. Most critics consider finally whether they approve or condemn Captain Vere's decision to try and execute the sailor Billy Budd for the murder of the officer John Claggart. Invariably critics include in their analysis a statement made by the novel's narrator near the end that ostensibly apologizes for the meandering style and the unresolved questions: "Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges." Following this proposition, the narrator concludes the history of Billy with three sequels—on the further adventures of the ship, the doomed captain, and the venerated spar from which Billy was hung—and a poem describing Billy's final moments in between life and death. The narrator includes as well a naval report that contradicts the version of events just given. This naval report is anything but ragged. It justifies the execution of Billy in the strongest terms, claiming that he "vindictively stabbed" the honorable John Claggart.

Judging by this report alone, there is no doubt that Billy's death answers for the life he took. For the good of the English nation Billy is hung. But there is no judging anything alone; everything has a context that, if explored, will lead to the digressions and ragged edges that the narrator understands both as a burden on the mind that desires order, and as a liberation from closure. With the narrator, the reader will feel both disoriented and empowered—like the vertigo a person feels close to the edge of an abyss. Attention to all the facts puts the narrator in the impossible position of offering an endless series of contradictions, leaving readers uncertain about the intentions of the characters, and about the events themselves. Finally, the inclusion of other perspectives, like the naval reports, not only throws the truth of each account into doubt, but truth itself seems unreachable, a vanishing point on the horizon.

The novel—and language in general—structures itself through the use of binaries, such as child and adult, innocence and guilt, inner being and appearance, compassion and military or legal duty, the individual and the nation, sea and land. Looking carefully at all the facts tends to blur the difference between these "opposites." In a digression on the line between sanity and insanity, for instance, the narrator asks, "Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other?" A question central to Melville's novel is where does the character "Billy Budd" end, and the character "John Claggart" begin? The two men appear to be utterly distinct, the one intent on doing good and the other intent on doing evil, but also, at times, the one seems to have merged with the other.

When does the past end, and the present begin? When does the future begin? These questions haunt the narrator, and the history of Billy Budd becomes itself a questioning of how history is written: the narration is self-conscious, which means that every general statement is qualified by a particular and contradictory statement, and that the lines among a character, the narrator, and the reader are blurred. The ragged edges of the story refer also to the rags or fragments of history the narrator finds and picks up as the story is...

(This entire section contains 2317 words.)

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written. An infinite number of sequels will still leave the story unfinished (as Melville left the manuscript unfinished at his death in 1891), and the narrator will consciously draw attention to this incompleteness. Critics have since 1924, whenBilly Budd was first published, chosen either to write about the ragged edges, or write something like a naval report. Usually the critical imperative is to produce the latter; the chaos of events as they happen (in language) may be revealed, but everything will finally be put in order.

Is it possible to reach truth, or is truth only that which those with authority agree to call "truth"? The latter happens in the case of Billy Budd: the officers sentence him, not according to his innocence of fomenting mutiny and committing murder, which they believe, but according to military law. History records that Billy is "guilty." The narrator claims to be telling the truth about events that happened in 1797, decades earlier than "now" (for the narrator). In so doing, the narrator questions the truth of the naval report made at the time, and suggests that only at an objective distance from the events, something Captain Vere and the officers judging Billy lacked, can history be accurately written. In other words, the truth about the past can only be told once the past has ended. But is this possible? As readers (including the narrator) evaluate and judge the case, they realize that achieving objective distance is next to impossible. Perhaps the narrator tells us only what he wants to be true, slanting the facts to suit his purposes. And what is the reader's purpose?

This process of ordering chaos is habitual in us. Sailors live according to this habit. They need to trust in each other to survive. Any given ship was marked by diversity, "an assortment of tribes and complexions," so that the sailors, officers, and warship all appear together symbolically as a miniature nation. Some sailors chose to be on board, and some were forced (like Billy). Especially during war, when all differences among the enemy are ignored, any given nation glosses difference by transforming the characteristic habits of the people into instincts. "True" instinct, or that which defines the individual, are repressed. Common to all sailors was the "mechanism of discipline": "True martial discipline long continued," the narrator notes, "superinduces in average man a sort of impulse whose operation at the official word of command much resembles in its promptitude the effect of an instinct." In other words, what may appear natural or inherent in our behavior may be in fact merely habitual, in work on ship or on land. For writers this means that the discipline of writing creates the illusion of order; and critics are false witnesses (like Claggart) to readers and to themselves if they attempt to propose a single, totalizing account.

The lack of a stable ground upon which to build an orderly interpretation of events is an effect of the story's setting—the ocean. The ocean is "inviolate Nature primeval," or chaos, and resistant to mapping. The ocean and its effects on the story must have been implicit all along, but are not explicitly felt until well into the story, when Captain Vere meditates on the consequences of the two choices (between instinct and discipline) facing himself and the three officers of the drumhead court. Vere "to-and-fro paced the cabin athwart; in the returning ascent to windward climbing the slant deck in the ship's lee roll, without knowing it symbolizing thus in his action a mind resolute to surmount difficulties even if against primitive instincts strong as the wind and the sea."

Just as throughout the story the ship has been teetering back-and-forth, so too does the decision on Billy's fate move between innocent and guilty. This teetering might have continued indefinitely had Captain Vere not decided to prosecute Billy according to his deed (murder) and not his intention (defend himself). Vere eliminates ambiguity by executing Billy. Ultimately, the rights of the individual must be upheld in favor of the general "good." At the time, England was at war with France, and the navy had recently experienced two serious mutinies. "War looks but to the frontage, the appearance," Vere says, himself at war with indecision. Vere argues that the judgement must be made as if they were on (stable) land. He puts the ship back on even keel.

Naval battles are more explicitly described once we "sail away" from Billy's body on the surface of the ocean. Most striking in the sequels is the return to land—a return also to the beginning of the story, which opens on the border between land and ocean: "In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a stroller along the docks of any considerable seaport would occasionally have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war's men or merchant sailors in holiday attire, ashore on liberty." There are at least four liminal spaces—or, as in the story, those "deadly spaces between" two opposites—that affect the mood of indecisiveness, two of which are in this first sentence: the time or history that has passed between 1797 and "now"; and the dock or shore. The other two are the ocean surface, and the forehead of the human body.

Steamships are less determined by the arbitrary forces of nature than those powered by wind and sail, which implies that as time has proceeded, the forces (or instincts) themselves have not changed, but we have become further civilized or buffered from their strength and effects. Civilization, the narrator says, "folds itself in the mantle of respectability." Notice also that sailors ashore or along a dock are in the space between water and land, and are at "liberty." This particular reference to liberty or freedom suggests that on either side of a "dock space," people are subject to the "mechanisms of discipline." In a dock space or in the ocean, however, the diversity of forces is at play. An ocean surface can appear calm and serene, yet the struggle for life continues underneath between, simply enough, big and small fish.

Finally, in this short list of liminal spaces, the forehead marks the point between inside and outside, between body and mind. The forehead is the particular place Billy strikes on Claggart's body. Before this scene occurs, the narrator makes an odd comparison which helps explain the surprising effectiveness of the blow: "consciences are as unlike as foreheads." Why does Billy strike Claggart's forehead? Perhaps he did so because Claggart's "brow was of the sort phrenologically associated with more than average intellect." Phrenology claims that much about a person's character is revealed in the shape of the head. Billy was fooled by the humane aspect of Claggart's face (an ocean surface), never believing that Claggart harbored malicious intentions; but Billy seems also to know, unconsciously perhaps, that staking Claggart's (guilty) "conscience" would kill him. Billy stakes what was individual to Claggart. Had Billy struck elsewhere, Claggart probably would have lived. How did he locate Claggart's weak spot? What does Billy know about himself and Claggart?

Whether Billy lacks self-consciousness or comprehends the destructiveness in others and in himself is finally the question on which the novel turns. Billy Budd may well represent the complex tensions in American literature as a whole. Under pressure, Billy stutters: with "sudden provocation of strong heart-feeling his voice, otherwise singularly musical, as if expressive of the harmony within, was apt to develop an organic hesitancy, in fact more or less of a stutter or even worse"— silence. Poet and critic Susan Howe has said in The Birthmark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, that it is "the stutter in American literature that interests me. I hear the stutter as a sounding of uncertainty. What is silenced or not quite silenced. All the broken dreams."

Set in the Mediterranean Ocean on an English boat during a war with France, Billy is yet distinctly American. Given the chance to formulate dreams and ideals, America and "Billy Budd, the Handsome Sailor" (both are born in 1776) fail to realize them. Speculations on malice or difference "into which [Billy] was led were so disturbingly alien to him that he did his best to smother them," and so does America (consider in its history up to 1891 the silence on the slaughter of the natives as well as slavery, and that the majority of the population— including all women—do not have the right to vote, and are, in other words, unable to speak). Billy says at his trial, "Could I have used my tongue I would not have struck him" (consider the violence used in the making of history).

Melville stopped writing fiction for almost thirty years because his books received an almost uniformly hostile response. Out of this silence, Billy Budd surfaced and critiques an American reading public understood to be functionally illiterate. Billy is a big dumb kid, who certainly does not deserve to die, as the story is told, but who is— Claggart was right—dangerous. Claggart accuses Billy of harboring plots that would disrupt civil order. This accusation brings Billy's unconscious anger and fear to light and results in the deadly blow. The anxiousness on board about mutiny was caused by the sailor revolts just a few months earlier at British naval bases. But older captains in the British navy would have remembered the American Revolution, a mutiny on a national scale, in which the sailors (the colonies) overthrew the captain (the King). Melville wonders how an illiterate nation, one unable to speak for itself without using violence, is to survive.

There exists in Billy a refusal to be self-conscious, just as there exists in him an inability to speak during crisis moments, when ambiguity surfaces. Billy cannot and will not speak. The narrator attempts to repair this defect by writing a self-conscious history. Billy Budd represents the wildness of reading, and what is repressed during reading and interpreting. From the start, and at the end, both narrator and reader rock between writing an orderly report, or a self-conscious essay that tests the ragged edges, the gaps, or stutters in fiction and in history—a "sounding of uncertainty."

Source: Logan Esdale, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.

Billy Budd and the Law

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In the following essay, Goldstein delves into the legal profession's view of Billy Budd.

It is a story of innocence and evil, of crime and punishment, of rationality and insanity, of motives tainted and pure. In short, material that lawyers thrive on, and since it was published posthumously in 1924, Billy Budd, Sailor has gripped the collective imagination of the bar.

Lately, a cottage industry has grown up in legal circles on the interpretation of Herman Melville's novella. It is taught in courses in jurisprudence, and books and law journal articles delve into whether Billy Budd, the protagonist, was unjustly executed and whether the man who sent him to his death, Captain Starry Vere, was a jurisprudential hero or villain.

Last fall, a two-day colloquium on the law and Billy Budd was held at the Washington and Lee School of Law in Lexington, Va. And last week 150 lawyers listened to a prominent judge and professor debate the novel's meaning at the New York City Bar Association.

The novel, said one panelist. Prof. Richard Weisberg of the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, causes lawyers "to reflect constantly upon our own values".

While some lawyers have long written fiction and some writers have long been fascinated by lawyers, only recently have law and literature become a fashionable and respectable area of legal scholarship. Courses are now offered at the best law schools, legal periodicals are filled with articles exploring [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky. [Franz] Kafka and [Herman] Melville, and at summer retreats, judges are as likely to discuss [William] Shakespeare as Tom Wolfe.

"Literature enriches our understanding of law", said David Saxe, an acting Supreme Court justice in New York City.

In the novel, Billy Budd, a popular sailor, has been impressed into service on a British warship. Soon afterward a petty officer, John Claggart, falsely accuses Billy of being a mutineer. When confronting his accuser, Billy cannot speak. The captain comforts him, saying there is no need to hurry. But Billy strikes Claggart dead with a single blow. The captain convenes a court-martial, whose members are inclined to leniency until the captain intercedes. Within 24 hours, Billy is hanged.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, men were often conscripted for the British Royal Navy because of the deplorable conditions and cruel mistreatment sailors suffered aboard such ships as the Man-of-War, pictured here. Consequently, rebellious sailors, hungry for revenge, were likely to consider mutinious acts and turn on one another.

Literary and legal critics have often viewed Captain Vere as an honorable man and able administrator who was forced to perform a distasteful task.

This view has been sharply challenged in lectures and articles by Professor Weisberg, who holds a doctorate in comparative literature as well as a law degree. He argued that the captain had acted improperly as witness, prosecutor, judge, and executioner. In calling for summary execution, the captain, according to the professor, misread applicable statutes and committed procedural errors.
The professor presented a detailed review of court-martial procedures in effect in the 18th century, when the story took place, and concluded. "From the legal point of view, there was no justification of what Vere did."

His interpretation was disputed by Judge Richard Posner, a Federal appeals judge in Chicago who is a prodigious writer on the side; 13 books and 130 law review articles bear his name. The judge chided the professor for going beyond the text of the book for his evidence. Melville, he said, was "not writing the story for people expected to do legal research."

For Judge Posner, Vere was merely fulfilling his obligation. "We cannot bring a 1980's view of capital punishment to the story," Judge Posner said. "It was utterly routine in the 18th century".

Source: Tom Goldstein, "Once Again, Billy Budd Stands Trial," in The New York Times, June 10, 1988, p. 15, p B9

Justice, Law, and Man in Billy Budd

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In the essay below, Reich provides a detailed look at justice as portrayed in Billy Budd, arguing that human law must address a man's actions as seen objectively within his situation.

To read Billy Budd is to feel an intense and indelible sense of helplessness and agony. A youthful sailor, loved by his shipmates for his natural goodness, is put to death for the sake of seemingly formalistic, insensate law. In this final work of Melville's, law and society are portrayed in fundamental opposition to natural man.

The confrontation takes place in a stark and somber shipboard drama. Billy, the Handsome Sailor, is falsely and malicously accused of mutiny by Claggart, the master-at-arms. Momentarily losing the power of speech while trying to answer, Billy strikes out at Claggart, and the blow kills. Captain Vere, who witnesses the act and must judge it, is caught in a "moral dilemma involving aught of the tragic." Knowing full well Billy's goodness, and that he did not intend to kill, Vere sees no choice but to apply the inflexible law of a military ship in time of war. Billy is hanged.

The problem of Billy Budd has produced much argument. Some critics have considered it Melville's "testament of acceptance," a peaceful, resigned coming-into-port after a stormy lifetime. Some have thought that Billy, though dead, triumphs because his sacrifice restores goodness to the world. Others have found the novel a bitter and ironic criticism of society. Most recently and persuasively, it has been called a Sophoclean tragedy, a contemplation of life's warring values. All of these views have merit. But there is still more to be seen in Billy Budd.

Melville's last book seems clearly to be different from his earlier works. It is true that Billy and Claggart are archetypal Melville figures. But in Billy Budd, neither of these characters is developed or explained; each remains static. Instead, the focus is upon a new kind of character—the civilized, intellectual Captain Vere. He is the only character whose feelings we are permitted to see, and his is the only consciousness which seems to grow during the action. In addition, the book's focus is upon a new situation: not the old clash of good and evil, but an encounter of these natural forces, on the one hand, with society and law on the other. Significantly, Vere, and the dilemma of this encounter, were the last elements to be added when Melville was writing, as if he had started out to repeat an old drama but ended up with something new and unexpected. Billy Budd is also different in that the central theme is presented through the medium of a problem in law. And "law" is used not merely in the general sense of order as opposed to chaos. Instead we are given a carefully defined issue. This issue receives an extraordinarily full treatment which, together with its crucial position in the story, makes it the major focus of action and conflict.

In approaching Billy Budd, almost all critics, whatever their ultimate conclusions, have started with the assumption that Billy is innocent, and that the issue is an encounter between innocence and formalistic society. But to say that Billy is innocent is a misleading start, for it invites a basic confusion and oversimplification. By what standard is he innocent? Is it by law deriving from nature, from God, or from man? And to what is the concept of innocence applied—to Billy's act or to Billy himself? Billy is innocent in that he lacks experience, like Adam before the Fall, but he is not necessarily innocent in that he is not guilty of a crime. The problem of justice in the book is a profoundly difficult one; its possibilities are far richer than is generally recognized. In turn, such recognition affects the reader's view of Vere and, ultimately, the understanding of the novel as a whole.

There are at least three basic issues in Billy Budd. First, how and by what standards should Billy, or Billy's act, be judged?

In 1884, close to the time when Melville wrote Billy Budd, there came before the courts of England in a great and famous case a true-life sea tragedy, one which also presented a dilemma for the law. Three English seamen, Dudley, Stephens, and Brooks, and Richard Parker, an English boy of seventeen or eighteen, were cast away in an open boat 1600 miles from the Cape of Good Hope. For eighteen days they drifted, with no fresh water except occasional rain caught in their oilskin capes, and nothing to eat but two tins of turnips and a small turtle which they caught and which was entirely consumed by the twelfth day. On the eighteenth day, when they had been seven days without food and five without water, Dudley and Stephens, spoke of their having families, and resolved, if no help arrived by the next day, to kill the boy, who was lying helpless and near death in the bottom of the boat.

On the twentieth day, no ship appearing, Dudley and Stephens, offering a prayer for God's forgiveness, told the boy his time was come, and put a knife into his throat, and the three men fed upon his body and blood. On the fourth day after the act they were rescued, in the lowest state of prostration. The three survivors were carried to Falmouth, and Dudley and Stephens were committed for trial on a charge of murder.

The decision of the case was rendered, for the Queen's Bench, by the Chief Justice of England, Lord Coleridge. It had been found that at the time of the killing there was no reasonable prospect of help, that had the men not fed upon the boy they would probably all have died before the rescue, and that the boy would probably have died first. In these circumstances, it was argued, the killing was not murder. In an elaborate and scholarly opinion which drew on the views of philosophers and legal authorities from the time of Henry III forward, Lord Coleridge rejected this defense. He found that no writer except one considered necessity a justification for killing, except in the case of self-defense, which differs because there it is the victim, and not some external element, who actively threatens the killer's life. The defense of necessity must be rejected, said the Lord Chief Justice, because law cannot follow nature's principle of self-preservation. "Though law and morality are not the same, and many things may be immoral which are not necessarily illegal, yet the absolute divorce of law
from morality would be of fatal consequence ."

Contrasting that morality with the law of nature, Lord Coleridge said:

To preserve one's life is generally speaking a duty, but it may be the plainest and highest duty to sacri-fice it. War is full of instances in which it is man's duty not to live, but to die. The duty, in case of a shipwreck, of a captain to his crew, of the crew to the passengers, of soldiers to women and children, as in the noble case of the Birkenhead, these duties impose on men the moral necessity, not of the preservation, but of the sacrifice of their lives for others, from which in no country, least of all, it is hoped, in England, will men ever shrink, as, indeed, they have not shrunk. It is not needful to point out the awful danger of admitting the principle which has been contended for who is to be the judge of this sort of necessity? By what measure is the comparative value of lives to be measured? It is to be strength, or intellect, or what? Such a principle once admitted might be made the legal cloak for unbridled passion and atrocious crime. There is no safe path for judges to tread but to ascertain the law to the best of their ability and to declare it according to their judgment, and if any case the law appears too severe on individuals, to leave it to the Sovereign to exercise that prerogative of mercy which the Constitution has intrusted to the hands fittest to dispense it.

It must not be supposed that in refusing to admit temptation to be an excuse for crime it is forgotten how terrible the temptation was, how awful the suffering; how hard in such trials to keep the judgment straight and the conduct pure. We are often compelled to set up standards we cannot reach ourselves, and to lay down rules which we could not ourselves satisfy. But a man has no right to declare temptation to be an excuse, though he might himself have yielded to it, nor allow compassion for the criminal to change or weaken in any manner the legal definition of the crime.

Dudley and Stephens were sentenced to death. But the history does not end there. After an appeal for mercy, the Queen commuted their sentences to six months' imprisonment.

There are striking similarities between the history of Dudley and Stephens and the tale of Billy Budd. Billy, falsely accused before the Captain by Claggart, and unable to defend himself verbally because at the critical moment he cannot utter a word, responds to pure nature, and to the dictates of necessity. He is overwhelmed by circumstance, placed in the greatest extremity of his life. He stands "like one impaled and gagged," "straining forward in an speak and defend himself," his face assumes "an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold." Suddenly he stakes a blow at the master-at-arms, and the blow kills. "I had to say something, and I could only say it with a blow, God help me!" Billy testifies later.

Captain Vere renders his judgment in much the same words as Lord Coleridge. He says "In natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered?" Budd purposed neither mutiny nor homicide, Vere acknowledges. "And before a court less arbitrary and more merciful than a martial one that plea would largely extenuate. At the Last Assizes it shall acquit." But under the law, Billy's blow was a capital offense; the Mutiny Act made no exceptions for palliating circumstances. The officers' responsibility is to adhere to it and administer it. The exceptional in the matter moves the heart and the conscience, but it cannot move the upright judge.

In the discussion of the law that takes place aboard the Bellipotent among the members of the drumhead court, the first argument for Billy's innocence is based upon what is natural in the circumstances. Billy's act took place under the most extreme provocation. And it is described as almost automatic or instinctual, the unbearable tension of Billy's violent thwarted efforts at utterance suddenly finding outlet in a blow. If Billy is innocent for these reasons, it must be because of what Captain Vere calls "natural justice." Such justice, so Vere implies, looks to circumstances like self-defense, extreme provocation, or dire necessity. Natural justice exonerates, presumably, when the crime was forced upon the killer; when he did not kill by his own free choice. Billy was overcome by forces beyond his control. From the moment he was taken off the merchant ship Rights-of-Man and impressed into the King's service, until on the last night he lay prone in irons between two cannon upon the deck, Billy was "as nipped in the vice of fate." At the crucial moment when he was beset by Claggart's evil, society was not able to protect him; his separation from civilization is symbolized by the sea: in Vere's words, "the ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval...the element where we move and have our being as sailors." The mood of the drama is all inevitability; against the impersonal movement of events Billy is but "Baby Budd." No wonder Vere whispers "Fated boy, what have you done!"

Billy, moreover, is presented less as a rational being than as a child of Nature. Illiterate, unself-conscious, "one to whom not yet has been proffered the questionable apple of knowledge," Billy was "little more than a sort of upright barbarian," one standing "nearer to unadulterate Nature." "Like the animals...he was...practically a fatalist." And although Claggart has the surface appearance of reason, he is as natural as Billy underneath. Like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, he personifies a nonhuman force. Although he has some very human qualities, the force that moves him is "Natural Depravity: a depravity according to nature," "born with him and innate." Like a storm or tidal wave, he represents "an unreciprocated malice." Billy's "mere aspect" calls up in Claggart "an antipathy spontaneous and profound." Thus their clash is as unavoidable as that of natural forces like fire and water.

The opinion of Lord Coleridge speaks to Billy's case as well as that of Dudley and Stephens. Like Billy, they found themselves in an extremity of circumstances, overwhelmed by forces beyond their control. Like Billy, they were called upon to act in the isolated universe of the sea and a boat, far removed from the protective influence of civilization. Like Billy, they acted as natural men.

Indeed, if Billy is innocent, why not Claggart? Is it just to blame Claggart for evil that was not his choice but was innate and inborn? His nature, "for which the Creator alone is responsible," must "act out to the end the part alloted to it." His antipathy was no more within his control than Billy's fist was under Billy's control. Billy's very existence and nearness was an excruciating, unbearable provocation to Claggart, as D. H. Lawrence's young soldier is to his superior in The Prussian Officer. In Lawrence's story, a striking parallel to the Claggart-Billy aspect of Billy Budd, a cold and haughty officer is assigned a youthful orderly, "an unhampered young animal" whose presence was "like a warm flame upon the older man's tense, rigid body." Something about the boy so disturbs and enrages the officer that he goads and torments the orderly until the boy, seized by a flaming, nearly suffocating instinct, breaks the officer's neck with his bare hands, then dazedly awaits his own death. In yielding to a similar provocation, Claggart only shows the same inability to control his nature that Billy and, for that matter, Dudley and Stephens (who could not control the primal drive of hunger) have shown.

Nature contains both Billy's goodness and Claggart's evil. But in times of stress and extremity, the law of nature offers no support to goodness, and no check to evil. It interposes no objection when Dudley and Stephens kill the weak boy. And it allows Billy to kill a weaker man who was not immediately threatening his life. Human law must set a higher standard. To do so, it must look beyond the immediate theatre of action. Harsh though this may be, we must be judged by a universe wider than the one in which our actions are played out. The actions of Dudley and Stephens must be judged from England, and not from within the narrow universe of a lifeboat in the open sea. The act of Billy must be judged from outside his desperate "struggle against suffocation," and from beyond "the inner life of one particular ship."

In addition, man's law must posit a free will, an ability to choose. Not because free will always exists—or ever exists—but because law must rest on the assumption that man can control his own conduct, so that he may strive to raise himself above his natural state. Even psychiatry and psychoanalysis, the sciences which most strongly support a deterministic view of human nature, insist that an area of choice exists, and the patient can change his course. Even the psychotic makes some response to rules or law. Man must reject the concept of determinism if he is to live in and adapt to the society of others, whether that society is our complex twentieth-century world or the primitive grouping of four beings in an open boat. Not only Vere and Coleridge, but all men, wear the buttons of the King.

Natural justice, as the drumhead court sees it, has a second aspect; the guilt or innocence of the mind. Billy did not intend to kill. He testifies, "there was no malice between us...I am sorry that he is dead. I did not mean to kill him." Moreover, Billy's whole character shows an innocent mind. The sailors all loved him. His virtues were "pristine and unadulterated. He was the Handsome Sailor, blessed with strength and beauty, of a lineage "favored by Love and the Graces," with a moral nature not "out of keeping with the physical make," "happily endowed with the gaiety of high health, youth, and a free heart." Vere calls him "a fellow creature innocent before God." The chaplain recognizes "the young sailor's essential innocence." Even Claggart feels that Billy's nature "its simplicity never willed malice."
Of course Billy cannot escape all responsibility for the consequences of his blow. He intended to hit Claggart, although possibly not full on the forehead. Intending the blow, Billy took upon himself the responsibility for the possible consequences. But should not his responsibility be limited because this was an unintended killing? At first thought, we agree. The law does not punish children; it does not punish the insane. An accidental killing is not murder. The law recognizes the difference between premeditated killing and killing in hot blood, or by provocation, or in fear. Should not Billy's innocent mind be considered in extenuation? But although modern law is more flexible than the Mutiny Act, its basic approach is similar; primarily it judges the action and not the man or his state of mind. The law stands at a distance from the crime and the criminal, and judges "objectively." And while such an approach may not satisfy the demands of divine justice, it is the only possible basis for human law. Justice Holmes, in The Common Law, says:

When we are dealing with that part of the law which aims more directly than any other at establishing standards of conduct, we should expect there more than elsewhere to find that the tests of liability are external, and independent of the degree of evil in the particular person's motives or intentions. The conclusion follows directly from the nature of the standards to which conformity is required. These are not only external, as was shown above, but they are of general application. They do not merely require that every man should get as near as he can to the best conduct possible for him. They require him at his own peril to come up to a certain height. They take no account of incapacities, unless the weakness is so marked as to fall into well-known exceptions, such as infancy or madness. They assume that every man is as able as every other to behave as they command. If they fall on any one class harder than on another, it is on the weakest for it is precisely to those who are most likely to err by temperament, ignorance or folly, that the threats of the law are the most dangerous.

The problem of subjectivity is shown by the case of Dudley and Stephens. They were, for aught that appears, the most upright and God-fearing of men, perhaps even the real-life equivalents of Billy. Possibly their motives were wholly altruistic. Maybe they would actually have preferred death to eating the flesh of the boy, but felt responsibility to wives and children. The necessity for their killing was far greater than the need which directed Billy's arm. Perhaps they, too, were men incapable of malice.
The divine law of the Last Assizes, a law that judges the totality of man, is beyond human ability to administer; more, it is beyond human ability to imagine. Such justice must ever remain unknowable to humans. When Claggart, the lying Ananias, is killed, Vere exclaims "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!" But this is no paradox. Men cannot enforce divine judgements.

Human law must accept the fact that the mind is largely unknowable, that motives can seldom be ascertained. How are we to judge a man who kills because he thought the other was threatening his life, or because he thought the other had killed his child, or because he thought God had commanded him to do the act? In such cases, the law ordinarily resorts to some objective test of the supposed state of mind. In a case of self-defense, we do not simply ask the killer what he thought at the time. We seek to determine on an objective basis whether the victim was actually approaching with a weapon in circumstances where the killer had no reasonable opportunity to escape. Provocation must likewise be determined not only by reference to the state of mind of the person provoked (he may be hypersensitive, or even paranoid) but by an objective look at the nature of the provocation. To some extent all law, and even more so the military law, "looks but to the frontage, the appearance." In sum, human law looks primarily to men's actions, the one objective reality that is presented. Human law says that men are defined by their acts, they are the sum total of their actions, and no more.

In this light, the initial conflict in Billy Budd can be reassessed. Billy is not innocent in the sense in which that term is used in resolving issues of justice. Billy is innocent in what he is, not what he does. The opposite of his Miltonic type of innocence is not guilt, but experience. The conflict is not a "catastrophe of innocence;" it is a conflict between society and Nature that contains—even in Billy's case—both good and evil. It is "catastrophe of Nature." His inability to adapt to society is the inability of nature to be civilized. Billy is incapable of acquiring experience. And the failing that leads to his execution in his incapacity to use the civilized man's weapon of speech. In society, natural forces cannot fight out their battles; Billy cannot use his physical strength to strike back at Claggart. The novel, then is not an analysis of Billy or of Claggart. Instead, it asks the question how did it fare with Billy in the year of the Great Mutiny?

Source: Charles A Reich, "The Tragedy of Justice in Billy Budd," Yale Review, Vol. 56,1967, pp. 368-89.


Critical Overview