“Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!”

Vere speaks these words in Chapter 20, as he commits himself to pursuing the letter of the law and seeking the death penalty for Billy despite his own feelings. Vere equates Billy with an “angel of God,” but at the same time says that even if a real angel of God had committed murder on his ship, the angel would have to hang. Vere’s duty is to oversee the application of the written law, and the law prescribes hanging as a punishment for murder, particularly when the murderous act could be attributed to a conspiratorial plot of mutiny. In choosing to obey law over conscience, Vere commits himself to society at the expense of own individuality. Before he dies, he appears to rue this decision—his last words, “Billy Budd,” apparently indicate that he dies haunted by his perceived betrayal of the young sailor whom he admired. Reminiscent of Kant’s famous claim that justice must happen though the heavens fall, the quote simultaneously connects Billy’s plight to the religious allegory of the novel and the question of justice. In this quote, Billy almost recalls the devil himself. The Bible asserts that Lucifer originated as an angel in heaven who fell from grace.