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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
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.