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MonkeyNotes-Billy Budd by Herman Melville
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Melville spends little time in elaborating on action in these chapters. Claggart is quickly dead, Billy is held in an adjoining room, the surgeon comes and goes, and the court is convened. The majority of the text is occupied with the psychological drama surrounding Vere and the process of the court's decision-making. Melville does not supply all the answers surrounding the drama. The reader is left to answer some difficult questions. Is Captain Vere crazed, or is he an efficient commander? Would Vere have acted differently if the murder had occurred at another time -- not right after the recent mutinies and not during the middle of a war? If the Indomitable were not separated from the British fleet would Vere have turned the matter over to the admiral? Should the court have considered motive or merely fact? If the court challenges Vere, would they also be accused of mutiny? In the military, should duty be more important than morals?

Vere's arguments are maddeningly decisive, with no gray areas or room for interpretation; according to the captain, it is a question of black or white, guilt or innocence. The three officers of the court do not argue with Vere; either they are not bright enough to construct their own arguments or they fear being charged with mutinous behavior themselves. In their minds, they are practically forced to go along with Vere. Melville has the narrator explain that it is impossible to judge right from wrong after the fact; one has to be present to fully know and understand the circumstances of space and time. Nonetheless, the reader is made to feel that Vere's decision is of tragic proportion and that Billy's conviction is a hard decision for every man in the room.

In these chapters, Captain Vere appears emotionally charged, somewhat unstable, and nervous for his own safety. After all, he is the commander of a ship in wartime, there have been recent mutinies, and now he must influence a very difficult decision concerning right and wrong. In the midst of his many challenges, however, Vere's feelings for Billy are constant. His high regard for the young victim is made clear. The court also looks favorably upon the Handsome Sailor. Much of the ironic tragedy of the book rests on the idea that no one dislikes Billy, except the evil Claggart, and Billy has rid them of Claggart. It is also ironic that the roles of victim and instigator are switched, with the evil Claggart becoming the "innocent" victim and the innocent Billy becoming the "evil" instigator.


It is truly tragic that the innocent Billy is convicted of murder and sentenced to hang at the morning watch. Circumstances, especially the recent mutinies, have greatly influenced the decision of Vere and the court. In addition, the immediacy to action can be blamed on wartime, and the desire for speed helps to obscure the case. It is ironic that Vere says Billy will understand all these circumstances and gracefully accept the verdict. The captain still has great faith in the young sailor.

It is important to note that Melville uses several Biblical references in these chapters. For instance, Vere refers to Claggart as an Ananias, recalling the man who falls dead for lying to God. Claggart lies and similarly falls dead. In this case, Billy is made god-like, an "angel of judgment." He is also made Christ-like, for he is sacrificed for the sins of others, in particular Claggart. It is not the first time in the novel that he has been portrayed as a Christ symbol.

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