Billy Budd Essay

1920 words - 8 pages

Billy Budd

Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor is evidently an extremely divisive text when one considers the amount of dissension and disagreement it has generated critically. The criticism has essentially focused around what could be called the dichotomy of acceptance vs. resistance. On the one hand we can read the story as accepting the slaughter of Billy Budd as the necessary ends of justice. We can read Vere’s condemnation as a necessary military action performed in the name of preserving the political order on board the Bellipotent. On the other hand, we can read the story ironically as a Melvillian doctrine of resistance. Supporters on this pole of the debate argue that Billy Budd’s execution is the greatest example of injustice. They argue that the execution is a testament of denunciation, deploring the shallow political order of a paranoid military regime. I do not wish to argue either side of this debate. I have pointed it out to illustrate that Billy Budd, Sailor is a text about principles of right conduct, or at least this view is held by critics. Is Vere’s conduct right or wrong? This is the basic question at stake. In this sense it is a text about moral values and ethical conduct. However, considering that Billy Budd, Sailor is an ethical text, what I find most curious about it is the mysterious absence of the emotion guilt. Here we have a story about two murders. Billy obviously kills Claggart and Vere (Although it is indirect, ultimately the decision is his) kills Budd. Neither of these murderers shows the emotion of guilt in the form of remorse. For a narrative which tries so hard to situate the reader in an ethical and moral position of choosing interpretations, isn’t it somewhat ironic that the characters themselves don’t exhibit that which would seem to be the most ethical and moral of emotions following the taking of a persons life? Where is the guilt? This is the question I have sought and found a possible answer for in this paper.

I have said that neither Billy Budd nor Captain Vere exhibit remorse following their acts of killing. Immediately following the fatal blow to Claggart we are shown no outlet of emotion stemming from Billy. Whatever emotion he may be experiencing is not accounted for by Melville. Indeed, he is silent and nothing is revealed of his physiognomy as Vere orders Billy to exit the scene: "This order Billy in silence mechanically obeyed." This is not behavior one would typically expect from someone who just accidentally murdered someone. An ethical or moral reaction would seem to be one of surprise and inquiry such as, "My god, What have I done!" or something to that effect. Instead Billy is mechanical. When he reemerges for the trial, Billy says this to account for his actions: "I did not mean to kill him. But he foully lied to my face and in presence of my captain, and I had to say something, and I could only say it with a blow, God help me!" This statement illustrates Billy’s...

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