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Billy Budd Essay: Moral Shades of Grey

Moral Shades of Grey in Billy Budd

Vere’s decision, according to the Wartime Acts under which he was subject, was lawfully justified. To do anything else would be a direct violation of the law, and thus, the position in which he was placed. The captain could not follow any twinge of conscience that he felt, for it was not his position to do so. As Vere put it, “But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King.” He and the judges were forced to follow their duty, which was to carry out the law. As officers of such a law, the morality of the decision was not their choice, as that same law dictated what they were to choose. The decision fell finally to Vere as he gave the speech which condemned Billy. “Our vowed responsibility is in this: That however pitiless that law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.”

This was, however, not the only factor to be looked after. What options they had does not dictate the morality of an act, it is only one part of a larger whole. Law is, in itself, morality, by nature of the fact that to defy law results in chaos. Originally the law was created to serve as a means of carrying out Justice, but the sheer nature of the fact that it has since, as in this case, acted in some way other than to uphold such a concept proves that it is a separate entity unto itself. Rather than considering the morality of a decision in the administering of Justice, it is now reasonable and required to consider the law as a factor in determining the morality of a decision. When the virtue of the decision is determined, then can Justice, and thus punishment, be considered. It is important to understand this concept: law is no longer a means of carry…

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… choice, his decision is justified. Justification is as close to virtue as can be expected in this case. Life is not black and white, as theories of morality would dictate, but merely a complex set of shades of grey. Vere’s final choice was only the highlights on a painting, the end of a process, and the selection among a set of distasteful colors on a palette of grey.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Chase, Richard. Herman Melville: A Critical Study. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1971.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories. Ed. Frederick Busch. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Richards, Lawrence O. The Bible Reader’s Companion. Wheaton: SP Publications, Inc., 1991.

Stern, Milton R. The Fine Hammered Steel of Herman Melville. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1968.

The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Dallas: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1979.

Billy Budd Essay: Themes of Good and Evil

Themes of Good and Evil in Billy Budd

Many themes relating to the conflict between Good and Evil can be found in Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd. Perhaps one of the most widely recognized themes in Billy Budd is the corruption of innocence by society (Gilmore 18).

Society in Billy Budd is represented by an eighteenth century English man-of-war, the H.M.S. Bellipotent. Billy, who represents innocence, is a young seaman of twenty-one who is endowed with physical strength, beauty, and good nature (Voss 44). A crew member aboard the merchant ship Rights of Man, Billy is impressed by the English navy and is taken aboard the H.M.S. Bellipotent. As he boards the H.M.S. Bellipotent, he calmly utters, “Goodbye, Rights of Man,” a farewell to his ship and crewmates. However, this farewell is not only meant for his ship, but for his actual rights as well, the rights that would have kept him innocent until proven guilty under a normal society (Gilmore 18). The society represented by the H.M.S. Bellipotent is much different from that of the outside world, as the various laws and regulations in effect during war turn a civilized society into more of a primitive state. The rights that are fought for during war were no longer possessed by the men on board the Bellipotent in an attempt to keep order as best as possible (Gilmore 18).

Billy was impressed by the English navy because of a need for good sailors. The Rights of Man cannot survive in the war-torn waters of the ocean without the protection of the Bellipotent, and the Bellipotent cannot protect the Rights of Man if it does not impress sailors (Tucker 248). On the H.M.S. Bellipotent, Billy faces destruction from a force which he does not …

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…ic Encyclopedia. 1994 ed.

Bloom, Harold. The Chelsea House Library of Literary Criticism. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Views of Herman Melville. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

Foster, Edward, ed. Six American Novelists of the Nineteenth Century. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1968.

Gilmore, Michael T., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Billy Budd. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 1971.

Tucker, Martin, ed. Moulton’s Library of Literary Criticism of English and

American Authors. 4 vols. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1966.

Van Doren, Carl. The American Novel. New York: The Macmillian Company, 1968.

Voss, Authur. The American Short Story. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.

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