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Billy Budd, Sailor

Herman Melville

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

Does Billy Budd face his trial at the hands of a kangaroo court, one that is characterized by irresponsible, unauthorized, or irregular status or procedures? If Billy’s trial is illegitimate, how does its illegitimacy relate to the overall theme of the novel?

Some members of the ship’s crew question Captain Vere’s right to pass such swift judgment upon Billy, and, to a certain extent, their misgivings are reasonable. The assembled jury is certainly competent enough, yet Vere takes the dubious dual role as chief witness and direct superior, or judge. Melville shows that illegitimate courts prevail in a time of war. Moreover, because Melville insists that life fundamentally exists in a state of perpetual war and natural depravity; to him, life is nothing more than a kangaroo court. Indeed, the narrator points out that when the crew members begin to “murmur” following the trial and Billy’s execution, the superiors on the ship quickly squelch these grumblings by blowing their whistles, forcing the men back to their duties.

2.

What moral issues arise with the jury’s decision to sentence Billy to death? Do you think the jury makes the right decision?

Here we have the classic dilemma between the spirit and the letter of the law, or, as Vere frames it, the conflict between conscience and law. Because laws exist to support the integrity of a society and because laws receive their strength from those who enforce them, logic calls for the equal and firm application of those laws. Traditionally, people think of justice as being blind, and for good reason: once the adjudicator begins to base his judgments on mitigating, particular, or personal circumstances and considerations, he threatens the very fabric of the law and, by extension, the very fabric of society. However, the firm application of the law means little if that law itself is unjust. Despite the logic of Captain Vere’s arguments, especially as applied during a time of war, we are likely to be left feeling that Billy is sacrificed unnecessarily to the greater glory of an abstract, dehumanized cause. In most courts of law, intention and motivation carries weight in the consideration of an action. What might be considered wrongdoing when performed in the service of a noble cause, is undoubtedly justified. This constant sensitivity eventually inspires the revision and improvement of laws, representing how the just prevail in their revolution against the iniquitous hand of their oppressors.

In Billy’s case, the jury initially questions, but ultimately conforms to Vere’s harsh reliance upon military justice, a system of law that rejects consideration of motive and intention. Certainly, the question of whether Billy is truly guilty of treason due to his silence concerning a possible conspiracy complicates matters. Yet, judging based upon what they know, the jury still makes the unjust decision to condemn a man without considering his situation.

3.

Ultimately, who bears the most responsibility for Billy’s death: Claggart, Vere, or Billy himself?

This is one of the many difficult problems that Melville’s book raises. A strong argument could be made against the provocative Claggart, who drove Billy to the deed in an act of bald contempt. One could say that Claggart got what he deserved for he knowingly dragging Billy down with him in the process of his muckraking.

On the other hand, it was Billy himself who made the largest transgression, committing homicide in the face of a simple, if mean-spirited, accusation. All he had to do was simply defend a verbal accusation with a verbal defense, and the Captain, doubtful as he was of Claggart’s allegation, probably would have dismissed the matter entirely.

Finally, one could pin the ultimate blame on Captain Vere, the inflexible stickler who insists on carrying out the law to the exact letter, even against his own better judgment. In placing principles above people, one could argue that Vere has committed the gravest sin of all, moreover attempting to wash his hands of responsibility in the very process.

Still, Melville shows that Vere operates under the negative influence of greater forces, social situations, and laws motivated by a hunger for power and a drive to war. In this sense, Melville draws attention to the idea that, in the modern world, people grow up in an inherently flawed and evil society that causes them to harden to the needs of their fellow human beings. Therefore, this laundry list of guilty parties could go on and on, including men like the Dansker as well.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. How does war function in Billy Budd, both in the narrative itself and in the allegory? Which images symbolize war? How does war affect law? Thinking about the romantic tales of Captain Graveling and the narrator’s descriptions of Captain Nelson, how does the war of the past differ from the warfare at the time the novel takes place? According to Melville, what ultimately accounts for this difference?

2. What role does the chaplain play on the ship? How is he perceived by the crewmen and Billy, respectively? What impact does he have on the novel’s exploration of religious and moral themes?

3. Why might Melville have called Billy Budd “an inside narrative”? What do you make of the controversy over the novel’s title? Does the title of the book have any bearing on how we interpret the story?

4. What role does irony play in Billy Budd? To what extent is the novel sincere?

5. In what ways does Melville dramatize the conflict between a person’s inner self and that person’s role in society? In particular, think about the Dansker, Captain Vere, and the jury.

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