The Pequod Review:
Herman Melville’s final novel, published posthumously, is a short work that at its core is about rival conceptions of law and justice. The book is the story of Billy Budd, a sailor who is drafted to serve on a Royal Navy warship in the late 1700s. While at sea, Billy is falsely accused of mutiny by the ship’s master-at-arms, leading Billy to attack and inadvertently kill him. The ship’s captain, despite thinking that Billy was justified in his response, believes he must uphold the law; as a result, Billy is court-martialed and eventually convicted and sentenced to death.
Billy Budd has a simplicity and moral consistency unusual to most of Melville’s work as he explores Billy’s legal guilt but his essential innocence. The ship’s captain, despite his firm sympathies for Billy, ultimately stands behind the rule of law:
What [Captain Vere] said was to this effect: "Hitherto I have been but the witness, little more; and I should hardly think now to take another tone, that of your coadjutor, 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. For the compassion, how can I otherwise than share it? But, mindful of paramount obligations I strive against scruples that may tend to enervate decision. Not, gentlemen, that I hide from myself that the case is an exceptional one. Speculatively regarded, it well might be referred to a jury of casuists. But for us here acting not as casuists or moralists, it is a case practical, and under martial law practically to be dealt with.
"But your scruples: do they move as in a dusk? Challenge them. Make them advance and declare themselves. Come now: do they import something like this? If, mindless of palliating circumstances, we are bound to regard the death of the Master-at-arms as the prisoner's deed, then does that deed constitute a capital crime whereof the penalty is a mortal one? 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?--Does that state it aright? You sign sad assent. Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval, tho' this be the element where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King's officers lies our duty in a sphere correspondingly natural? So little is that true, that in receiving our commissions we in the most important regards ceased to be natural free-agents. When war is declared are we the commissioned fighters previously consulted? We fight at command. If our judgments approve the war, that is but coincidence. So in other particulars. So now. For suppose condemnation to follow these present proceedings. Would it be so much we ourselves that would condemn as it would be martial law operating through us? For that law and the rigor of it, we are not responsible. Our avowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.
"But the exceptional in the matter moves the hearts within you. Even so too is mine moved. But let not warm hearts betray heads that should be cool. Ashore in a criminal case will an upright judge allow himself off the bench to be waylaid by some tender kinswoman of the accused seeking to touch him with her tearful plea? Well the heart here denotes the feminine in man is as that piteous woman, and hard tho' it be, she must here be ruled out."
Billy Budd may not have the all-encompassing power and scope of Melville’s masterpieces — and his prose is rougher and sparer, possibly the result of its unfinished status at the time of his death. But it builds to three excellent character studies, and effectively explores the tension between human laws and natural laws, and between freedom and social order.