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Billy Budd & Captain Vere

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In the story Billy Budd, By Herman Melville, readers are introduced to the conflict of good and evil between Billy Budd and Claggart. However, there is another conflict, which, in ways is more significant than the epic clash of good and evil. The conflict of Captain Vere's struggle between duty and conscience; Melville sets up this conflict by placing a man with the innocence of a child, in the hands of a captain worried about war. This moral dilemma brings forth the question of whether or not Captain Vere was justified in the hanging of Billy Budd.

In a description of Captain Vere it can be anticipated that Vere, who values peace and common good, would be in conflict with his job, which requires him to be a militaristic authoritarian (Wikipedia 2). Captain Vere learns important lessons when innocent hands bring about destruction of life. Vere was moved by his beckoning duty as captain, to convince the drumhead court to convict Billy Budd. This is clearly stated in this quote: 'But something in your aspect seems to urge that it is not solely the heart that moves in you, but also the conscience, the private conscience. But 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?' (Melville 2473-2474).

However, the paternal emotions towards Billy Budd and his rational thinking did invoke indecision. Captain Vere realizes, when he has to act, he does not have the strength of conviction he had thought. Like Billy Budd, Vere has been able to hold on to his natural intelligence. Along with his intelligence, Vere has an innocent quality to him: he believes when a crisis between duty and conscience calls, he will be able to hold fast to duty as called for on the seas during war (Wikipedia 1). Captain Vere learns that to balance conscience and duty is a very hard task even for a man as conscious of his actions as he is.

Captain Vere, despite having paternal feelings towards Billy Budd, soon realizes the decision facing him. After Claggart's last breathe, "'Fated boy,' breathed Captain Vere in tone so low as to be almost a whisper, 'what have you done!' (Melville 2466). The fact Captain Vere spoke this in a low tone, implies the emotions he is feeling. Vere's first instinct is to reach out towards Billy. Duty, though, changes Captain Vere, "and the effect was as if the moon emerging from eclipse should reappear with quite another aspect than that which had gone into hiding" (Melville 2467). Captain Vere's expressions are described as a moon. The use of moon also shows that Captain Vere's emotions are pure and bright against the black, night sky (Wikipedia 1).

After putting Billy Budd in confinement, Vere regains his composure as captain and is able to order the surgeon in. The surgeon confirms Vere's fears and "with one hand to his brow, was standing motionless" (Melville 2467). His duty renders him motionless as not to show emotion in front of the surgeon. His duty keeps him from reacting, but "Suddenly, catching the surgeon's arm convulsively, he exclaimed... 'It is the divine judgment on Ananias! Look!' (Melville 2467). He proclaims the death of an officer "divine judgment", showing he is siding with Billy's actions: clearly departing from his duty. His exclamations reflect uncharacteristic excitement over the death. "Vere was now again motionless, standing absorbed in thought" (Melville 2467). Vere is again drawn back to duty and stands pondering the actions he will take. Motionless, like before, is describing a stoic captain mindful of his duty to remain unmoved by emotion. While he is "absorbed in thought" Captain Vere comes to the decision that Billy must be treated as anybody would. "Again starting, he vehemently exclaimed, 'Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!' (Melville 2467) Vere's wavering between emotion and duty reflect the battle going on in his mind over what to do. He has made a decision as to how he will act, but he exclaims it in uncharacteristic excitement. This is a clear voice of conscience, for as a captain, Vere is supposed to condemn this violent act. He even goes as far as to call the murderer "an angel of God". Referring to Billy that way shows that his biased feelings can be seen in his outbursts of passion. Then he exclaims his decision by saying, "Yet the angel



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