Billy Budd

Billy Budd Summary and Analysis of Chapters 20-22

Vere's orders surprise the surgeon, because normal procedure would be to hold Billy until later, when his case can be referred to the admiral. The surgeon worries that perhaps Vere is not completely well mentally. The other officers, on receiving Vere's orders, also feel that the case should wait for the admiral.

The narrator asks how one can distinguish the colors of the rainbow. No one can delineate the exact line where one color ends and the other begins; the same, he says, is true of sanity and insanity. The surgeon is concerned about Vere's breach of normal protocol, and though Vere seems reasonable enough in other ways, the surgeon wonders if perhaps Vere is just slightly off his balance.

The narrator reminds us of the period. News of Billy's case might spread and ignite mutiny, and so there is a need to deal with the case quickly. Vere is not insensitive to the difficulties of the case. He knows now that Claggart was lying, and the Billy is innocent of evil intent. But the Captain also knows that he must make a decision quickly; with an ever-aggressive France flexing its muscles, the navy is critical for Britain's safety.

At the trial, the three officers making up the court are the first lieutenant, the captain of the marines, and the sailing master. Captain Vere is the only witness. The officers are amazed by the case, not expecting Billy to be capable of either the false charges brought up by Claggart or the true crime that Billy has undeniably committed. After Vere presents his version of events, Billy confirms it. But he also denies Claggart's accusation, and Vere says before all that he believes Billy. When questioned, Billy has to admit that he was aware of no malice between himself and Claggart. Billy tells one lie: when they ask if he is aware of a mutiny brewing, he says no, not wanting to inform on his shipmates. When an officer asks why Claggart would lie about Billy if there were no malice between them, Billy is unable to answer. He turns to Vere for help. Captain Vere says that the question cannot be answered, nor is it relevant: they must deal only with the blow and the consequences of the blow. Billy does not understand the import of his words, but the other officers do: Vere thinks that Billy must be hanged.

Billy is returned to his compartment, and Vere and the officers have to deliberate. For a while, there is silence. Then Vere addresses the court. He argues passionately that despite Billy's innocence before God, he must hang. Their duty is not to natural conscience, but to the king, and in the midst of this war and considering the recent mutinies, no chances can be taken. According to the Mutiny Act, the penalty for a crewman striking and killing a superior officer is death.

The threat of mutiny is still real. Even if the court explains the mitigating circumstances of Billy's case, the crew would think that a light penalty means that the officers fear them. Mutiny could result. There is no way out.

The court finds Billy guilty. He is to be hanged the next morning.

Captain Vere himself tells Billy of the verdict. The narrator says that no one knows what happened in that cabin, but probably Vere told him the whole truth about the court proceedings. He speculates that Vere, old enough to be Billy's father, "caught Billy to his heart, even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest" (367). When Captain Vere leaves the compartment, his face reveals an intense, terrible suffering.


Melville's rainbow of unclearly delineated colors is a metaphor not only for the permeable barrier between sanity and insanity, but the ambiguity and difficulty of the moral dilemma facing the drumhead court. In Billy's situation, compassion and justice are ranged against duty and necessity. The line between right and wrong is not clear. Captain Vere makes his choice, prioritizing his duty as an officer of the king. Melville does not come down in so definite a way. Billy Budd is a book about questions. The text invites us to make our own judgment: "Whether Captain Vere, as the surgeon professionally and privately surmised, was really the sudden victim of any degree of aberration, everyone must determine for himself by such light as this narrative may afford" (353).

The Christ reading of Billy Budd includes an interpretation of Vere's choice, drawing parallels between Captain Vere's decisions and the divine plan of God the Father. Just as God sent his son to be sacrificed for the good of all, Captain Vere sacrifices Billy for the good of the fleet and the safety of Britain. In the brief time that Billy and Vere have been involved in this situation, they have developed a father-son bond. Captain Vere is old enough to be Billy's father, and Melville throws the connection into relief by making Vere a childless bachelor and Billy a foundling. These two men, without family attachments, come to a strong mutual understanding in the brief time they know each other. The relationship is tender, despite its newness. Yet the Captain is going to sacrifice Billy for the common good. Melville reminds us of another biblical sacrifice, when Abraham, in obedience to God's will, prepares to kill young Isaac. The parallels here perhaps work better than in the Christ reading. As Abraham was bound by duty to God's will, Captain Vere is bound by duty to the security of his nation. Vere, because of his firm belief in his principles and his loyalty to the British Empire, must ignore questions of guilt and innocence.

But even as both the narrator and Captain Vere explain the forces necessitating Billy's execution, the text continues to pose questions. The duties of war are explicitly admitted by Vere to be against Nature: "But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King" (361). Remember also the word that Melville uses earlier, when the narrator tells us that we must decide if Vere suffered from an "aberration." The world is not simple; Vere cannot simply choose his system of values and then escape the consequences of what he admits to be natural justice. Nor does he try to. He sees his duty in a particular light, and then acts accordingly. The theme of an individual's place in society is in full force here. Vere's decision is a problematic one. Particularly in light of the twentieth century's history, readers may become uncomfortable when Vere asks, rhetorically, if "private conscience should not yield to that imperial one formulated in the code under which alone we officially proceed" (362). Vere's values, though here in defense of a free England (whose freedom depends in part on the impressments of unwilling civilian sailors), would not be completely unfamiliar to, say, a loyal German soldier under Nazi Germany.

Melville has already made sure that we understand some of Vere's key characteristics. When introducing Vere, he tells us that Vere is a man of deep principle. He is committed to defending Britain against the revolutions on the continent, "not alone because they seemed to him insusceptible of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind" (312). Captain Vere serves the crown out of real loyalty to British institutions and British conceptions of freedom and the welfare of man. He is not an unthinking, obedient Nazi; from the start, his philosophical bent has been impressed upon us by Melville. His opinions do not come without consideration. His talk to the court shows "the influence of unshared studies modifying and tempering the practical training of an active career" (360). Unshared does not have a negative connotation here; the studies are unshared because Vere has no minds as fine as his own in his peer group. But the important part is that Captain Vere's book learning goes hand-in-hand with his experiences as a military man. Vere's name is symbolic: although some read "vere" as "to swerve," that hardly seems appropriate. It's the one thing Vere does not do. He is sure in his duty, sure that his principles stand for something. He departs from normal protocol, but with the good of the ship and his nation's safety ever in mind. "Vere" puns on "verity," truthfulness and integrity.

We must reach our own judgments about Vere. Melville has his narrator heap regular praise upon the captain; judging from the tone and intelligence of the praise, to dismiss it all as ironic seems absurd. We are forced, in part, to judge Captain Vere on his own terms. But Melville also makes sure to let us know that Vere's principles come at a price.

Billy, at any rate, seems to understand Captain Vere. Vere's decision, rather than drive the two men apart, seems to bring them closer together. Later, we will see that Billy harbors no malice toward his captain.