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For one thing, Melville suggests that Captain Vere, in steadfastly doing his duty, may also have had partially selfish motivations. The narrator bemoans Vere's early death, which cut off the possibility of Vere participating in the great battles at Trafalgar and the Nile. But listen to why: "The spirit that spite its philosophic austerity may yet have indulged in the most secret of all passions, ambition, never attained to the fullness of fame" (382). Passion is the same word he used to describe Claggart's secret obsessions. Melville is hinting that another side of Vere may have existed, one interested in earthly rewards and renown as much as duty. But it is only a possibility.
The ship responsible for Vere's death has a symbolic name: Athée, or the Atheist. Crude allegory cannot be imposed here, but the name suggests that the specter of disbelief and cynicism haunts the novella's story. Billy's beautiful sacrifice, his transfiguration; perhaps after all they were only tricks of light. Maybe his death was nothing more than a waste, the product of a petty officer's hate and a captain's misguided sense of duty. Maybe his death was without meaning. Captain Vere, for one, cannot seem to escape his own conscience. He mumbles Billy's name on his deathbed, unable to put aside his thoughts about the boy. And though the narrator seemed gung-ho enough at the start of the novella about the glories of war, he here does not shy away from its dark side, suggesting that the Athée is the most apt name imaginable for a war ship. War, when revealed in all of its ugliness, tends to pulverize the stories we tell to justify it.
The news article further problematizes our comfort with Vere's decision and Billy's seemingly acquiescent martyrdom. Both men served a cause that has some undeniably ugly machinery. The biased news article is clear propaganda, designed to keep up moral and convince readers of the navy's goodness and necessity. There is a fiercely xenophobic strain as well, as the article suggests that Billy may have been a foreigner masquerading as a true Englishman. Earlier, Melville also reminds us that war is business when he speaks of "oil supplied by the war contractors (whose gains, honest or otherwise, are in every land an anticipated portion of the harvest of death)" (370). At the start of the novella, the narrator praised the heroics of Nelson and the glories of naval victory. As the novel closes, he hits a very different note. He mentions the business profits of war, suggests ambition as part of the makeup of even the most dutiful and honorable man, and shows the biased and unjust reporting of officially sanctioned wartime papers. These dark notes are not constitutive of an anti-war polemic; what Melville is doing is far subtler. Captain Vere is undoubtedly an honorable man. But we might become too comfortable with his viewpoint and Billy's death if Melville did not show us the ugly machinery of war.
In turning the spar into a relic, he brings Billy's parallels to Christ back to the forefront. But we are left to consider, as Vere did on his death bed, the difficult questions surrounding the boy's execution. Following these unsettling ending notes, we have the eerie sailor's song, where the waiting Billy imagines being dead at the bottom of the sea. Though the sailors think of Billy as a kind of Christ, the song does not imagine Billy waking up in heaven. The final note is dark and unsettling, as the speaker of the song imagines death in the deep: "I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist" (385). Fable and allegory elucidate and instruct. Billy Budd does something else. Melville gives us difficult situations, with difficult questions, but refuses to resolve them for us. The final images of the novel are disconcerting, dark. We are left in imagined darkness, with Billy's corpse, forced to come to our own conclusions about the events surrounding Billy's death.
That Billy was an innocent is inarguable, but he's done things for which punishment has been deemed necessary, and for the sake of Vere and the other officers things can't be seen as lax or further problems will arise.
Everyone has a part in Billy's death; I've cited information on Vere above because he broke protocol to exact Billy's punishment and execution. He was wrong, and if things had been left to the proper authority the end may have been different.
Who caused Billy Budd's death? Was it claggert, Vere or Budd himself?
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Billy Budd created his own end, but he was young and Claggert knew what he was doing when he pushed the boy. Claggart, like Billy brought about his own end albeit unexpected (even I didn't expect Billy to strike him the first time I read the novel). Vere's decision brought about Billy's quick execution. As I stated above, if everything had gone through the proper channels this may not have happened........ Vere made his decision based upon the uncertainty of his crew rather than his uncertainty of Billy's conduct.