Summary: Chapter 20

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

See Important Quotations Explained, p. 5.

Plagued by doubts about Vere’s state of mind, the surgeon exits the cabin. He considers Vere’s impending prosecution of the affair a rash move and thinks that a more sensible course would be to detain Billy until the case can be referred to the admiral. However, the surgeon’s low rank prevents him from arguing with Vere’s wishes, and he carries out orders without so much as a single word. Upon hearing of Claggart’s death, the lieutenants and captains share the same dismay at Vere’s hasty prosecution of Billy. Each one concludes independently that any trial would be better reserved for the judgment of the admiral.

Summary: Chapter 21

Nevertheless, in order to circumvent any potential mutinous activity that might develop when Billy’s plight becomes public, Vere resolves to keep the matter secret and to act on it quickly. He appoints a small drumhead court consisting of the first lieutenant, the captain of marines, and the sailing master; without further delay, Billy’s arraignment proceeds. As sole witness, Vere relates the events of the day to the court, detailing Claggart’s accusations against Billy, and Billy’s reaction to Claggart. When the first lieutenant asks Billy to corroborate Vere’s account, he does so but denies the truth of Claggart’s accusations. Vere responds to Billy’s claim with a vote of confidence, and Billy thanks the captain graciously, almost breaking down in a fit of emotion.

Upon being questioned about his relations with Claggart, Billy recovers himself, explaining that there was no malice between them. He declares that he had not meant to kill Claggart, but that in reaction to Claggart’s lies in the presence of the captain and without the ability to explain verbally, his only defense was to strike a blow. The court next asks Billy about any knowledge he may have had regarding a potential conspiracy. After hesitating, Billy decides to declare that he has no such knowledge. Interpreting his pause as a function of his condition, the court is satisfied with his response.

Finally, the court asks Billy why Claggart invented a lie against him if no malice existed between them. The narrator explains that Billy is unable to muster an answer due to the spiritual nature of the question. Billy looks to Vere for assistance and Vere rises, declaring that the only person who could answer such a question is the dead man, Claggart himself. Moreover, Vere declares that the question is not relevant, explaining that the matter at hand is to judge the pertinent actions and their consequences, regardless of their causes, motives, or intentions. This formula inspires a deep-seated sense of surprise in both Billy and in the court. When the court presses for a more complete understanding of the context in which Claggart accused Billy—and by extension, of the context in which Billy struck Claggart—Vere once again dismisses the court’s wish. He argues that such contextual information is irrelevant to the question of guilt or innocence with regard to Billy’s deed.

Not entirely understanding the import of Captain Vere’s words, Billy sits silently in the aftermath of Vere’s declaration. Vere shoots an authoritative look in the direction of the first lieutenant, who then asks Billy if he has anything else to say in his defense. After a quick glance at Vere, Billy announces that he has nothing left to say. With this, Billy is removed from the courtroom and escorted back to the stateroom where he was initially detained. As the adjudicators silently deliberate, Vere turns his back on their proceedings, gazing out of a porthole upon the sea and later pacing back and forth in the cabin.

Shortly thereafter, Vere confronts the adjudicators, declaring that he would have been content to remain simply in the role of a witness had it not been for their reluctance to make a decision. He reminds them of their practical, military duty and implores them to place their responsibilities to the law of the kingdom above any reservations they may feel within their individual consciences. His argument only serves to agitate the judges further, and an emotional debate ensues between Vere and the officer of marines regarding the wide gulf between the effects of Billy’s actions and the nature of his intentions.

Concluding his remarks on the wartime imperative to observe the rule of law absolutely, Vere demands swift and decisive action by the court, either to acquit or to condemn. The sailing master proposes to convict but to lessen the penalty, an alternative that Vere dismisses as damaging to the integrity of authority and discipline on board the Bellipotent and potentially leading to mutiny. With this, Vere returns to the porthole to contemplate the sea once more, leaving the adjudicators to make a decision. The adjudicators decide to convict Billy Budd and sentence him to death by hanging at dawn.

Analysis: Chapters 20 & 21

Vere’s decisions in these chapters represent the heart of Billy Budd, because the central moral problem posed by this novel is the question of what the just response to Billy’s crime would be. Vere, notwithstanding his sophisticated grasp of the complexity of the situation, is never truly in doubt about what must happen to Billy. He has known from the moment he witnessed Billy strike Claggart dead that Billy has to hang. In these chapters, Vere plays the part of Pontius Pilate to Billy’s Jesus, because Vere refuses to use his authority to do what he thinks is right, just as Pilate washes his hands of the question of Jesus’ fate. (Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judaea—from 26 BC to 36 BC—responsible for the execution of Jesus of Nazareth.) But if Vere plays Pilate’s role, he does not do so by abdicating responsibility for making a decision—if anything, he is even more aware than Pilate of the consequences of his actions. His summoning of the drumhead court is not intended as a way to shift the responsibility for the decision away from himself, because he knows that the court will defer to his judgment. Vere’s proceedings are all calculated to create the appearance of due process and fairness for the benefit of the crew—the outcome, however, is never in question.

Vere knows that Billy must be executed quickly. Otherwise, regardless of the extenuating circumstances, the rest of the crew will only understand that Billy killed his superior officer and got away with it. Consequently, the crew will either be outraged that mutiny was treated with such unfair lenience, or tempted to similar action because of Billy’s success, or both. Moreover, Vere does not bend the law at all in his strict instructions to the court. The Mutiny Act, under which Billy is condemned, was implemented precisely in order to deter mutiny by punishing any act of violence against a superior officer with death, no matter what the circumstances. Vere upholds the spirit as well as the letter of this law, and if we feel that the outcome in this case is unjust, as we probably do, then we have to consider why the Mutiny Act itself is unjust.

Vere provides all the clues to what is wrong about executing Billy. In the first place, he says that God would certainly acquit Billy, and no doubt will do so on judgment day, but that naval officers are forced to set aside considerations of God’s law in rendering a decision according to military law. Furthermore, the decision that Vere urges upon his reluctant subordinates clearly violates own conscience, every bit as much as theirs. Vere feels that Billy is fundamentally innocent, even angelic, and when he visits Billy to inform him of the verdict, he seems to feel that he owes Billy something, both as a friend and as a fellow human being, that conflicts with his duties as a captain. Apparently Vere feels that his duty as a soldier is at odds with God, morality, and his own conscience—all of which oppose the sacrifice of an individual life for the sake of another end, in this case, the security and success of the British navy.

Ultimately, Vere makes plain that judging Billy under the Mutiny Act is no different from killing an enemy soldier in a war. In war, the soldiers on one side will kill those of the other side, even if they were forced into service against their will, and perhaps even sympathize with the cause against which they are forced to fight. The essence of war is to sacrifice individual lives in the service of larger ends, and as Vere sees it, that is what has happened to Billy as well. What Melville tries to show through the case of Billy Budd is that waging war requires a nation to be as brutal to its own subjects as it is to its enemies. It is worth noting, in this context, that military law is very different in principle from civilian law. There are many different views of what laws are and what they mean, but one way to view law is as the embodiment of principles of justice, and when courts apply a law in a particular case, they seek to bring about a just outcome. Whether or not this is true of civilian law, it is clearly not true of military law, particularly not in the case of the Mutiny Act.