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Billy Budd Sailor

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Melville’s Testament of Resistance in Billy Budd, Sailor

Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor is about the necessity for law and order and

deciding whether to follow your personal beliefs versus following the laws that have been set by

your society. In the novella, there is a situation where Billy Budd strikes Claggart. Captain Vere

is trapped with the predicament in dealing with Billy. “The way in which Captain Vere deals

with the situation exemplifies how society requires the division of one’s internal thoughts from

one’s societal responsibilities” (Davidson 127).

“The deepest controversy over Billy Budd hinges upon our estimate of Captain Vere.

Unlike Billy and Claggart, Vere is an ordinary man of the world; unlike every other character in

the novel, he is called upon to make a moral decision вЂ"for even the members of the drumhead

court, after they have expressed their reservations , merely agree to accede to the verdict Vere

has directed. The central question, to put it as bluntly as possible, is whether Vere’s decision, that

Billy must be hanged, is the right one. Vere was seen as embodying Melville’s acceptance of the

tragic conflict between divine and human law, and of the horrible necessity, upon occasion, of

doing what goes against one’s natural feelings for the sake of upholding society’s demands”

(Richter 23).

Chapter 64 of Moby Dick gives us a very in depth look at how the world would be if laws

were not set for society to follow. “Fellow-critters: I’se ordered here to say dat you must stop dat

dam noise dare. You hear? Stop dat dam smackin’ ob de lip! Massa Stubb say dat you can fill

your dam bellies up to de hatchings, but by God! You must stop dat dam racket! You is sharks,

sartin: but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is noting more dan

de shark well goberned.” (Melville, Dick, 251). Melville is trying to illustrate that without law

and order in our world, we would all be like the sharks. People would do as they please and not

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think of anyone other than themselves. Melville is also telling us that if you govern your urges to

go against the laws that have been set for you, you will be looked upon as an angel. Controlling

your negative urges is just like governing the shark in you to become the angel.

In Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government, he tells us “That government

is best which governs least” and “That government is best which governs not at all” (Thoreau

1857). Thoreau goes on to ask the question, “Can there not be a government in which majorities

do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?-in which majorities decide only those

questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Why has every man a conscience, then?

I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a

respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume,

is to do at any time what I think right” (Thoreau 1858 ). Thoreau argues that people should do

what they believe is right or wrong. He states that people should not have to conform to what

everyone else believes is right or wrong, or even what the law states as legal or illegal.

Captain Vere would have been deeply interested in Henry David Thoreau’s, Resistance to

Civil Government, but he would have opposed almost everything Thoreau mentioned. Captain

Vere believed everyone was to always follow the rules, regulations, and laws that have been set

by the government. Captain Vere believed that government is enforced for our own well being

and security. It is put in place for the laws to be followed. If those laws are broken the

punishment is decided according to the crime. Thoreau on the other hand believed that you were

to always hold faith and beliefs above what the government deems as right or wrong. He also

said if what the government believes as right or wrong goes against your faith and beliefs, you

should always follow your faith. Captain Vere and Henry David Thoreau have completely

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opposite beliefs when it comes to how much government is too much.

“At one point, Vere asks his drumhead court, “Ashore in a criminal case, will an upright

judge allow himself off the bench to be waylaid by some tender kinswoman of the accused



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