Melville and the Social Injustices of His Day

Veres decision is a result of his fear of mutiny vere

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Vere's decision is a result of his fear of mutiny. Vere calls a court martial. During the trial the members of the court seem reluctant to hang Billy, and the Captain has to talk them into it. But it is hard to understand why Vere calls the court at all. What purpose does it serve? Is it called to guide him to a right decision? But Vere has already made his decision. In any case the court does not guide him; he guides the court. Perhaps he thinks the court will overrule him and release Billy. But Vere has reserved for himself the right of supervising the proceedings. Obviously all Vere wanted is to have on record a trial agreeing with his decision. Withim talks about the psyche of Captain Vere: Stripped of verbiage, Vere is saying that men cannot think for themselves, that form and habit can control men as if they were no more than beasts. Vere, in an earlier passage, had thought to himself that Billy was a "'Kings Bargain,' that is
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to say, His Britannic Majesty's navy a capital investment at small outlay or none at all". In this light, Vere, far from being a wise man, balanced in his judgements and fair in his attitudes, is discovered to be narrow, literal, prejudiced, completely circumscribed by the needs of the navy, less compassionate than his officers, and lastly, guilty of that worst of naval sins, over-prudence. (84) Vere's fear of losing control shapes his actions throughout the book. Vere shows that he would rather sacrifice innocence than give up control. Franklin questions, "There is only one ambiguity about Vere: is he sane or mad? Insofar as the story focuses on Vere, it is the study of an apparently rational, humane man who can argue with learning, calm, and some plausibility that the most ethical course of action is to kill the most innocent and beloved person in your world to preserve the military law and order necessary for monarchy and empire" (207). Melville shows throughout the book that Vere is a careful man and that he is well read, well mannered, and basically a gentleman. Yet, slowly through the course of the story we see that sanity is a façade; twisted into Vere's thought patterns are the Naval Code--that archaic code that prizes obedience over all else. The very crew he is worried about mutinying is the same that holds Billy in such high regard. None except Claggart, whom he kills, had ever said anything unbecoming about Billy Budd. So by his actions, the "gentle" captain shows himself to be quite insane. This was obviously what Melville thought. He had always prized the heart over the head. Captain Vere is of two minds throughout the story. His evil side is represented by the spectre of war in his communications with Claggart, and Billy represents his good side. Good and evil are always two sides of the same coin. Melville uses poetic concepts to illustrate humankind's values and morals. It is a tragedy that in the end Vere upholds Claggart's ideals and ignores Billy's values (Schiffman 53). Vere attempts to be portrayed as a just and moral man. But when it is not the easy way out, he chooses his duty over his heart.
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