Billy Budd

Natural Law vs. Man-Made Law

To read Herman Melville's Billy Budd is to experience feelings of intense agony and helpless injustice. Billy Budd, a "Handsome Sailor," adored by his shipmates for his intrinsic goodness, is condemned to death by a seemingly formalistic and unfeeling legal system (279). Falsely accused of mutiny, Billy strikes the incriminating Claggart, and his single blow kills. As sole witness and Captain of the ship, Edward Vere must determine Billy's fate. Privately sympathizing with Billy's innocence, publicly Vere chooses naval duty over the morality of heart, condemning the young sailor to death according to the "Articles of War." Vere's painful dilemma reflects the invariable friction arising from natural man living in a society governed by man-made laws. The controversial decision to hang Billy "leaves us with a strong[ ] feeling that the formal demands of the legal system inevitably exclude some important aspect of human existence" (Thomas 53). The legal system's failure to consider the natural law that impels Billy's blow and his innocent intentions induces many readers to question the justice of Vere's verdict and the justice system's inherent flaws.

In Billy Budd,...

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