New Light on the Trial of Billy Budd
20 Pages Posted:
Date Written: November 3, 2018
We add to the extensive literature on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor, with a careful inquiry into the legal questions it poses. Our ultimate position is that Captain Vere is neither clearly a hero nor clearly a villain. Instead, the novel embraces ambiguity by intentionally arming each side of the debate with considerable firepower, leaving readers with a quandary that would have been familiar to Herman Melville’s contemporaries, as it was parallel to the national debate over the 1842 case of the USS Somers, where the captain had ordered the summary execution of three suspected mutineers. In his influential writing on Billy Budd, Professor Richard Weisberg is correct to criticize what was, previous to him, an unreflective consensus valorizing Vere. However, Weisberg and his defenders are equally wrong to offer a one-sided attack on Vere, as if there were no case for his decision to summarily try and execute Billy Budd. To the contrary, the background history of the “Great Mutiny” of 1797, the narrator’s description of naval law and custom, and a careful analysis of the Somers case, all demonstrate that the case for Vere is as strong as the case against.
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