Critical Essay on Billy Budd
Charles Reich's assessment of the conflict in Billy Budd focuses on the distinction between the laws of society and the laws of nature. Human law says that men are "the sum total of their actions, and no more." Reich uses this as a basis for his assertion that Billy is innocent in what he is, not what he does. The point of the novel is therefore not to analyze the good and evil in Billy or Claggart, but to put the reader in the position of Captain Vere, who must interpret the laws of both man and nature.
Reich supports Vere's decision to hang Billy. In defense of this he alludes to a famous English court case, in which three men were accused of murder. However, the circumstances which led them to murder were beyond their control; they had been stranded at sea and forced to kill and eat their fourth companion, who had fallen ill and was about to die anyway. The Judge, Lord Coleridge, found them guilty because "law cannot follow nature's principle of self-preservation." In other words, necessity is not a justification for killing, even when this necessity is beyond human control. Since Billy is unable to defend himself verbally, he "responds to pure nature, and the dictates of necessity" by lashing out at Claggart. I agree with Reich's notion that Vere was correct in hanging Billy, and that it is society, not Vere, who should be criticized for this judgement; for Vere is forced to reject the urgings of his own heart and his values to comply with the binding laws of man.
First, the moral issue aside, Captain Vere had no choice but to convict Billy. As captain of a ship under pressure of war and the constant threat of mutiny, Vere had to act swiftly. Also, as captain, Vere had the responsibility of making sure the laws were strictly enforced, including the Mutiny Act. Although Vere knew in his heart Billy was innocent, Billy's actions had to be punished.
For Vere to have acquitted Billy would mean that he had placed the...
Bibliography: Charles A. Reich, "The Tragedy of Justice in Billy Budd," Critical Essays on
Melville 's Billy Budd, Sailor, pp. 127-143
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