Billy Budd Themes

(Novels for Students)

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Duty and Conscience
Captain Vere's dilemma—whether to convict Billy and hang him in spite of his sense that the young sailor is innocent—arises from Vere's very nature. Captain Vere is characterized throughout Billy Budd as a man who heeds his duty. Even before Captain Vere appears, a description of the captain by minor character Captain Graveling of the Rights-of-Man anticipates the more central captain's problem: "His duty he always faithfully did; but duty is sometimes a dry obligation." The "dryness" of duty is in its disconnection from feeling or intuition: duty is intellectual rather than emotional. And Captain Vere is described as possessing "a marked leaning toward everything intellectual," and "never tolerating an infraction of discipline." He adheres to the law and expects his men to do so as well.

Captain Vere's nickname, "Starry Vere," comes from a poem by Andrew Marvell, in which allusion is made to the "discipline severe" of a figure called "starry Vere," actually an ancestor of the captain. These early references to Captain Vere's rigidness concerning law and duty create a character who later in the novel must face a moral dilemma and choose between his duty and his conscience. When Claggart comes to Vere with his accusation against Billy, Vere is wary of the strange officer's manner and doubts that Billy Budd could be involved in such a plot as Claggart implies. Yet Vere knows he must question Billy; this is the proper way to handle such an allegation. When Billy strikes Claggart, killing him, Vere reacts in "an excited manner [such as the surgeon] had never before observed in the Bellipotent's captain." In this situation, Vere's duty is made unclear by his emotional response to "so strange and extraordinary a tragedy." Yet he immediately calls the drumhead court, leaving the surgeon to think that the captain has perhaps come "unhinged."

The members of the drumhead court, believing in Billy's innocence, are pulled by their conscience to vote to "convict and yet mitigate the penalty," but Captain Vere stands fast by his duty and reminds the court that they should not "Let warm hearts betray heads that should be cool." Billy's execution goes forward because of Captain Vere's intense focus on duty. As naval officers, he tells the court, "in receiving our commissions we in the most important regards ceased to be natural free agents." He goes on to ask them to "tell me whether or not, occupying the position we do, private conscience should not yield to that imperial one formulated in the code under which alone we officially proceed?" Essentially, the captain and his officers face a problem of whether to ignore their consciences, which speak strongly to them of Billy's innocence, or to follow their duty as officers in the King's navy and order Billy's death. The accusation of mutiny aside, the simple fact is that Billy, a foretopman, has struck and killed his superior, the master-at-arms. This fact, viewed objectively and according to the law, must result in execution of the sailor, regardless of his innocent nature. Captain Vere, at his own death, appears still to be haunted by his decision in favor of duty: his last words are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd."

Billy Budd's innocence—"his blinder," according to the narrator—is his tragic flaw. His innocence is what makes him the Handsome Sailor—it radiates from his laughing "welkin eyes" and makes him a peacemaker and a friend to all, drawing others to him. Yet aboard the Bellipotent, one of the men who is drawn to him is motivated by envy and malice: Claggart. Here, in his encounters with the scheming master-at-arms, is where Billy's innocence is his weakness. He cannot comprehend the evil in Claggart, nor can he grasp that it is directed at him.

A foundling with no knowledge of his parents, Billy is illiterate and has had little experience with the world, having spent much of his life on board ship. Billy is "little more than an upright barbarian, much such perhaps as...

(The entire section is 1,298 words.)