Billy Budd

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Themes and Colors
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
The Present vs. the Past Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Billy Budd, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Justice Theme Icon

Closely related to duty in the story is the idea of justice. While the two are very similar, duty and loyalty tend to have more to do with interpersonal relationships. They are how the community of sailors aboard the Indomitable hold each other accountable. Justice, on the other hand, is a more abstract concept, having to do with larger issues of right and wrong. Because the central event of the story is the false accusation of Billy Budd and his subsequent trial, one of the main questions in the story is whether justice is served to Billy. There is even some ambiguity in the story regarding who is fit to judge Billy. Captain Vere insists on assembling a drumhead court onboard the ship to have a trial immediately, even though others agree that it might be better to wait and have an admiral decide Billy's fate.

In deciding the case, Captain Vere and his drumhead court have a number of aspects of the situation they can choose to consider or disregard. First, there is the personal conscience of those judging Billy, who are quite fond of him. There is also Billy's generally good nature and upstanding moral character. If striking Claggart was an unusual aberration in Billy's behavior, should Vere punish an ultimately good man? Most important, though, for Vere and his court, is the law itself and Billy's action. Regardless of Billy's intentions, his character, and other sailor's affection for him, he killed another sailor and under naval law has earned the punishment of death. But Vere's judgment is also motivated by practical considerations. He fears that if news of Billy's possible plot spreads or if Billy's trial is dragged on, dissent may spread among his sailors, potentially leading to a mutiny. He therefore wants to finish Billy's trial as quickly as possible, and this may be a motivating factor in the speed with which he decides that the court should not consider the circumstances and motives behind Billy's striking Claggart, but only "the blow's consequence, which consequence justly is to be deemed not otherwise than as the striker's deed."

As this quotation makes clear, Vere adopts an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth idea of justice: for killing Claggart, Billy now deserves to be killed. But is this a just punishment? Earlier in the story, the narrator informs us that those involved with the Nore Mutiny were able to absolve their wrongs by serving valiantly afterwards. Why should Billy not get a chance to redeem himself with better future behavior? Part of the reason for his sentence may be to deter any other sailors from considering mutiny. After all, Billy Budd's good behavior was largely the result of his witnessing a sailor being harshly punished for bad behavior. Vere's sentencing of Billy might not be just, but it is practical, and ensures the continued well-being of his ship. Nonetheless, in attempting to be an effective, practical captain, Vere neglects broader questions of right and wrong; Melville leaves these questions open-ended, for the reader to decide.

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Justice Quotes in Billy Budd

Below you will find the important quotes in Billy Budd related to the theme of Justice.
Chapter 20 Quotes

Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!

Related Characters: Captain Vere (speaker), Billy Budd, John Claggart
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 352
Explanation and Analysis:

Captain Vere has summoned Billy to his cabin and informed him of Claggart's accusations. Billy is so shocked that he cannot speak, and when Captain Vere compels him too, Billy strikes out his hand, accidentally killing Claggart. After the doctor pronounces Claggart dead, Captain Vere declares that Claggart has been "struck dead by an angel of God!". This dramatic language highlights the peculiarity of the events within the captain's cabin. First, despite his total innocence, Billy is unable to defend himself verbally. When he finally reacts to the accusation, it is by accidentally murdering his accuser. It is almost as if Billy's body has acted in revenge against Claggart, even while his mind and soul are unable to do so––an idea that reveals Billy's angelic purity. 

Captain Vere's words further emphasize the notion that Billy is an "angel," incapable of intentionally committing sin. Indeed, this connection furthers another comparison: the similarity between Billy and Jesus. Like Jesus, Billy is morally innocent––and yet is punished by death. Based on Captain Vere's exclamation, it seems clear that he knows it is unjust to hang Billy. However, as captain of the ship, Vere is also forced to maintain law and order, a fact that prohibits him from acting according to his own individual conscience and delivering justice. 


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Chapter 22 Quotes

Feeling that unless quick action was taken on it, the deed of the foretopman, so soon as it should be known on the gun decks, would tend to awaken any slumbering embers of the Nore among the crew, a sense of the urgency of the case overruled in Captain Vere every other consideration.

Related Characters: Captain Vere
Page Number: 355
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has commented that it is difficult to assess whether or not Captain Vere acted fairly in summoning a drumhead court (a court assembled "in the field" of battle for urgent matters). While the doctor was concerned that Captain Vere was suffering from momentary madness, in this passage the narrator suggests that Vere's actions were necessary in order to prevent a mutiny like the one that took place aboard the Nore. In this passage, the narrator describes historical events as being akin to "slumbering embers" that can be awakened within the present, thus recreating the "fire" of the original event. Within this analogy, Vere takes on the role of a fireman, extinguishing the embers before they destroy his ship. This also recalls the earlier comparison of the Nore Mutiny to a fire brigade strike in the middle of an arson attack. 

For the time, did I not perceive in you—at the crisis too—a troubled hesitancy, proceeding, I doubt not, from the clash of military duty with moral scruple—scruple vitalized by compassion.

Related Characters: Captain Vere (speaker)
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

Billy's trial is taking place, and the drumhead court has heard the accusations against him as well as Billy's own testimony. Billy has confirmed that he killed Claggart by accident, but added that Claggart was lying when he claimed that Billy was planning a mutiny. When asked if he knows of any mutinies being planned, Billy hesitates, before lying and saying that that he doesn't. In this passage, Captain Vere explains that he noticed Billy hesitate, and suspects that he was deciding to act on "military duty" or "moral scruple." This is a correct assessment of Billy's behavior, proving Captain Vere's keen insight into human nature. The fact that Vere is so perceptive and yet is still overseeing Billy's wrongful condemnation makes Billy's fate even more tragic. 

Captain Vere's words also highlight that the dilemma Billy faced as an individual is representative of a larger problem within the military. If there is a "clash" between one's individual moral principles and one's duty as a sailor, does this not indicate that there is something immoral about aspects of serving in the military? As Billy's case makes clear, whatever action he took would constitute a betrayal, whether of himself, his peers, or Captain Vere. 

But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?

Related Characters: Captain Vere (speaker), Billy Budd
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

During his trial, Billy admits to accidentally killing John Claggart, but maintains that Claggart was lying about Billy's supposed plan to start a mutiny. Billy himself lies, however, when asked if he knows of any mutinies being planned and swears he doesn't. In this passage, Captain Vere ponders the difficulty of the decision facing the drumhead court. Because Billy has confessed to the "overt act" of killing Claggart, in some ways the matter is rather simple; he is inarguably guilty of committing murder, even if it was accidental. At the same time, as Vere points out, there is much more to the story than this simple picture.

Like the contradiction between Billy's outward appearance and the rumors Claggart attempted to pin to him, there is a large tension between the crime to which Billy has confessed and his evident kind and innocent character. This raises the question of whether we should judge a person based on their outer appearance or behaviors, or seek to evaluate the internal truth of their personality. As Vere points out, this becomes particularly complicated in the context of Christian beliefs about morality. Billy is seemingly "innocent before God," as God can see past superficial appearances into a person's internal motivations. However, in the context of the military, Billy is guilty and therefore must be condemned to death.