14 Jul 2009

Sample Essay: Vere's Dilemma


In the Book Billy Budd by Herman Melville, Vere’s dilemma was due to his love and sympathy to the innocent, handsome and illiterate man named William Billy Budd. Captain Starry Vere was the only witnessed of the incident that happened in the captain’s cabin during the confrontation of Billy Budd and John Claggart- master at arms. Claggart was accusing Billy Budd as part of the conspiracy in the British fleet, that time Billy remains tongue tied and by just a blink of an eye Billy (without thinking the consequences) hit the forehead of Claggart that causes Claggart’s death. Captain Vere was shocked, and in spite of his love for Billy and his knowledge that the act was unintentional, immediately calls a drumhead court to try the foretop man.

The book was not only telling about the story of Billy, it also includes some historical events such as French and American Revolution. In 1797, there were uprisings in the British navy, first at Spithead in April, then at the Nore in May. This latter incident was called the Great Mutiny. As a matter of fact, many sailors who rebelled served heroically later under Nelson at the Nile and at Trafalgar.

The Bellipotent one of the British fleet sails for the Mediterranean. Many of the abuses have been rectified, but impressments still continues, and every officer in the fleet watches for signs of discontent and trouble. Nelson, the greatest naval hero of his time, has great personal influence over the men, but in battle some officers still stand over the gunners with drawn swords (Melville).

In the story there were only three major sailor characters, first the protagonist namely William Billy Budd and Captain Starry Vere. The antagonist played by the character of John Claggart- master at arms, who at the beginning of the story hated Billy Budd because of his beauty and innocent.

After a short investigation, late that afternoon, Captain Vere informs Billy in private of his conviction and sentence: to be hanged from the yardarm in the early morning watch.

At 4:00 a.m., all hands answer the summoning whistle to witness Billy’s execution. Some sit on booms; others observe from the tops of masts. At the last minute his words ring out-“God bless Captain Vere!” These words have a phenomenal effect on the crew especially to Capt. Vere (Melville).

Upon returning to the English fleet in the Mediterranean, the Bellipotent encounters the French battleship Athée (the Atheist). In the engagement that ensues, Captain Vere, while spearheading an attempted boarding of the enemy ship, is hit and seriously wounded by a musketball (Melville).

He successfully guides both ships to the port of Gibraltar, not far from the scene of the fight. There, Captain Vere and the other wounded men are put ashore. Dying and under the influence of a soothing drug, the captain murmurs, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.” The words are inexplicable to the attendant, but significant to the senior officer of the marines, to whom they are repeated by the attendant. This incident shows that even until his death Capt. Vere still feel sorry for the unconstitutional death of Billy Budd.


Nearing home after a long voyage, the H.M.S. Bellipotent, a British man-of-war in need of men, halts the merchant ship Rights-of-Man. Lieutenant Ratcliffe impresses one-and only one-sailor, Billy Budd, who is happy to serve his country and offers no objections. As he leaves, he calls the Rights of Man by name and bids farewell (Melville).

Aboard the Bellipotent, Billy assumes the duties of foretop man. He quickly endears himself to his mates and the officers under whom he serves. The captain of the ship, “Starry” Vere, is a quiet, just, and well-read officer. In contrast, Claggart, the master-of-arms, although outwardly placid, is inwardly malevolent and moody (Melville).

At first Claggart is friendly toward Billy and seems pleased with his performance of duty. Later Billy is surprised when he is admonished for petty errors. Fearing punishment, Billy seeks advice from a veteran sailor called the Dansker, who says Jemmy Legs (Claggart) is “down on him [Billy].” The Dansker’s observation proves correct. Squeak, one of Claggart’s corporals, furnishes desired false information to the master-at-arms (Melville).

One night, an after guardsman awakens Billy, who is sleeping on deck, and dispatches him to a secluded spot on the ship. There he asks Billy to join a group of impressed sailors in an insurrection and offers him a bribe. Enraged, Billy begins to stutter and threatens to throw the sailor overboard. The sailor flees (Melville).

Shortly after the Bellipotent gives chase to a French vessel, the master-at-arms reports to Captain Vere that Billy is involved in an attempted mutiny. Shocked, the captain orders Claggart and Billy to come to his cabin. When Claggart faces him with charges of conspiracy, Billy is so dumbfounded that once again he is unable to speak; he can only stammer. To vent his feelings, Billy strikes Claggart so forcibly that he kills him (Melville).

Captain Vere, in spite of his love for Billy and his knowledge that the act was unintentional, immediately calls a drumhead court to try the foretop man. England is at war. During that same period there have been widespread mutinies in the British fleet. The officer’s panel finds Billy guilty. The next morning at sunrise he is hanged from the yardarm. He dies with a blessing on his lips-“God bless Captain Vere” (Melville)!

While returning to join the Mediterranean fleet, the Bellipotent encounters the French battleship Athée (the Atheist). In an attempt to capture it, Captain Vere is seriously wounded. The British vessel defeats the French ship and escorts it to Gibraltar, where Captain Vere dies. In his last moments, the captain murmurs, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.”

Although Claggart is exonerated and Billy Budd executed as a traitor, the spirit of Billy Budd lives on. The common sailors remember Billy’s nobility. They keep track of the spar upon which Billy was hanged. “To them a chip of it is a piece of the Cross.” A fellow foretop man memorializes Billy in a ballad (Melville).


The novel Billy Budd written by Herman Melville is a typical kind of novel–a sea story, the author’s favorite genre. It reminds the real life of the author as a sailor. The story treats rebellion, directs attention to needed reforms (impressments), contains rich historical background about Christian and mythological allusions, concentrates action on actual incidents, and concerns ordinary sailors.

During the trial of the case, Billy doesn’t answer any question ask by the marine officer. He just keeps his tongue tied, and glance to Capt. Vere’s direction. Foremost it symbolized the Crucifixion of Christ. Billy, a Christ-like figure, hesitates to defend himself before the judges. Like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Billy shares a moment with Captain Vere in the stateroom before his death.

Although Billy is not perfect, we can conclude that the trial is not legitimate. Especially to those illiterate person who doesn’t know how to defend himself in a courtroom.

However, Billy’s character conveys the idea that his soul belongs to the heavenly and not the earthly world, as is apparent to the chaplain. The courts that try them realize that the charges are only superficial. Billy, like Jesus, dies with a prayer upon his lips. After the hero’s death, all nature responds as the sky and sea alter their appearance. The birds cry out a “cracked requiem.” Later, the men elevate Billy to the status of a saint.


“Billy Budd by Herman Melville” Clifffs Notes 2006, Accessed December 12, 2007.


“Melville, Herman, 1819-1891 . Billy Budd” Electronic Text Center. Accessed December 12, 2007


“Billy Budd by Herman Melville” Amazon.com, Accesed December 12, 2007.


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