Critical Essay on Billy Budd
Charles Reich's assessment of the conflict in Billy Budd focuses on the
distinction between the laws of society and the laws of nature. Human law says
that men are "the sum total of their actions, and no more." Reich uses this as a
basis for his assertion that Billy is innocent in what he is, not what he does.
The point of the novel is therefore not to analyze the good and evil in Billy or
Claggart, but to put the reader in the position of Captain Vere, who must
interpret the laws of both man and nature.
Reich supports Vere's decision to hang Billy. In defense of this he
alludes to a famous English court case, in which three men were accused of
murder. However, the circumstances which led them to murder were beyond their
control; they had been stranded at sea and forced to kill and eat their fourth
companion, who had fallen ill and was about to die anyway. The Judge, Lord
Coleridge, found them guilty because "law cannot follow nature's principle of
self-preservation." In other words, necessity is not a justification for killing,
even when this necessity is beyond human control. Since Billy is unable to
defend himself verbally, he "responds to pure nature, and the dictates of
necessity" by lashing out at Claggart. I agree with Reich's notion that Vere was
correct in hanging Billy, and that it is society, not Vere, who should be
criticized for this judgement; for Vere is forced to reject the urgings of his
own heart and his values to comply with the binding laws of man.
First, the moral issue aside, Captain Vere had no choice but to convict
Billy. As captain of a ship under pressure of war and the constant threat of
mutiny, Vere had to act swiftly. Also, as captain, Vere had the responsibility
of making sure the laws were strictly enforced, including the Mutiny Act.
Although Vere knew in his heart Billy was innocent, Billy's actions had to be
For Vere to have acquitted Billy would mean that he had placed the
divine law of nature above the laws he was bound to enforce as captain of a
British ship. Although this would have been morally right, who is to say where
to draw the line? This rhetorical question is what Melville wants his readers to
think about. Melville could have easily written in the plot that Vere went along
with the captain's suggestion to call witnesses. With the testimonies of Dansker,
the afterguardsman, and Squeak, Billy could have been cleared of the mutiny
charge. But I agree with Reich that Melville wanted to use Billy as an example
of the flaws in the laws of society; that they do not take into account the laws
of nature. However, until we reform our laws in such a way that we cannot be
punished for something out of our control, we cannot expect the laws to be
interpreted that way.
Charles A. Reich, "The Tragedy of Justice in Billy Budd," Critical Essays on
Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor, pp. 127-143