Vere symbolizes the conflict between the individual’s inner self and the role society forces the individual to play. Vere likes Billy and distrusts Claggart, and he seems not to believe Claggart’s accusations against Billy. When Billy strikes Claggart, Vere feels sympathy toward Billy; he does not seem to believe that Billy has committed a terrible sin. However, Vere ignores his inner emotions, convenes a court to try Billy, and urges the jury to disregard their own feelings of compassion and punish Billy according to the letter of the law.
As a man, Vere exonerates Billy, but as a ship’s captain, he finds himself duty-bound to punish him, allowing his role as a captain to supersede his inner conscience. He does this partly to avoid taking responsibility for Billy’s death, making him the parallel of Pontius Pilate in the novel’s Christian allegory. But he also sacrifices Billy because he believes in the ultimate supremacy of society’s laws over the desires and impulses of individuals. With this belief, and in his actions throughout the later part of the novel, Vere demonstrates that he places greater faith in reason and rational philosophy than he does in the dictates of his own heart. Famous for his wide reading and his love of philosophy, Vere is in some ways too cerebral to be a leader of men, and in his rigorous adherence to the rule of law he fails in his moral responsibility to Billy.
We are likely to feel that Vere is wrong in applying the letter of the law rather than following his heart, and one of the basic questions that this novel poses is why Vere is wrong to do this. One possible explanation may be that the rules governing the treatment of someone in Billy’s situation are predicated on mistrust and cynicism about human beings. In the eyes of the law, someone who strikes and kills his accuser, as Billy does, must be guilty of murder, and is probably guilty of the crime for which he was initially accused, as well. Billy’s individual circumstances are too unique and complex to be taken into consideration within the law. The novel remains ambiguous about which is paramount, the good of society or the good of the individual; still, it does make clear that Vere is racked with guilt after putting the law ahead of his conscience. Vere’s last words before he dies are a repetition of Billy’s name, suggesting that he is unable to let go of his sense of debt to Billy.