Narrators of questionable credibility are common in American literature, forcing readers to think for themselves and make decisions about what to believe. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd: Sailor contain multiple examples of how the unreliable narrator can be used and interpreted. This analysis suggests that while the unreliable narrator is not exclusive to American fiction, the qualities it brings to novels make it especially appealing to the American mind.From the opening lines of James’ novel, the credibility of the text is suspect. Relayed through the perspective of an unknown first-person narrator, the reader receives no information on the storyteller, other than the fact that he or she is in attendance at a Christmas party where stories are being told for entertainment. Coupled with the lack of information provided about the narrator, the atmosphere of the first scene creates questions. Because the party within James’ story revolves around tale-telling and ghost stories in particular, the reader has to wonder whether the story provided by Douglass that will consume the rest of the novel proper is being told merely as entertainment for the party or as a retelling of actual events. With an unknown narrator and a questionable party atmosphere, the story that is to be told for the remainder of the novel seems to have lost its credibility even before it began. Because so many questions are raised at the beginning of the novel, the physical description of the manuscript and the story that surrounds it need to be convincing before the reader can trust the story. To achieve this effect, James has the character of Douglass provide an extensive back-story for his tale. Douglass notes that the manuscript “is in old faded ink and in the most beautiful hand…. A woman’s. She has been dead these twenty years. She sent me the pages in question before she died” (James 24). This selection is provided to reestablish both Douglass’ credibility and that of the novel. This passage tells the reader that Douglass has in his possession a physical copy of the story, and that it was written by another person. By including the extensive physical description of the manuscript, James effectively establishes Douglass as a credible source. There is no doubt as to the origins of the manuscript, and Douglass’ refusal to tell the story from memory assures the audience (both within the text and those reading the novel as a whole) that he is accurately recounting the events of the story. While Douglass’ description and presentation of an actual manuscript attest to the validity of the story he is about to read, the structure of the novel has become convoluted by the time the novel even reaches Chapter I. Though the novel begins in first person, and the story that Douglass reads is told through first person, readers of The Turn of the Screw encounter several layers between themselves and the material. Rather than a straightforward account of events, the reader encounters an unknown narrator’s account of a man reading a woman’s diary. It is almost as though the reader is placed in a fifth-person perspective. This, again, creates credibility issues. Instead of experiencing the events of the novel and forming an opinion, readers are asked to form their interpretations based on the retelling of a retelling of one woman’s experience. From here the novel is narrated in first-person by the Governess, a simpler format to read. This simplification does not, however, eliminate the novel’s credibility questions. The Governess’ first-person account of the events at the Bly estate is the only information on which readers can base their judgments, and her credibility can be questioned early in her account. Upon meeting Flora, the young girl that would be in her care, the Governess is taken on a tour of the house in which she will be staying. On this tour, the Governess describes the house as “a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite,” but then as “a big ugly antique but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half-displaced and half-utilised” (James 32-3). The first images present a glorified portrait of the estate, while the second conveys a harsh reality. This scene warns readers that the Governess seems to slip seamlessly between fantasy and reality. As the Governess’ story progresses, she begins to believe that she sees ghosts within the estate. At the end of Chapter III, she tells of how she witnessed, from a considerable distance, a “man with no hat” inside the house (James 40). This encounter is her first mention of the ghost, but because the Governess and the apparition are “too far apart to call to each other,” there is some doubt as to what the Governess could have actually seen (James 40). The Governess waits until Chapter VI, which presumably occurs a couple weeks later, to disclose her encounter to the only other adult on the estate, Mrs. Grose. The discussion between these two women is strange to say the least. In this discussion, the Governess provides many more details about the man than she did in her account of the actual encounter. The lone detail of a hatless man remains constant, but the Governess seems to be taking her cues from the questions that Mrs. Grose asks. At one point, in response to Mrs. Grose’s question about the handsomeness of the ghost, the Governess writes, “I saw the way to help her. ‘Remarkably!’” (James 48). This one line, when read with the rest of the exchange between the two women, shows the Governess taking her description from information presented in Mrs. Grose questions. The Governess description to Mrs. Grose relies heavily on the powers of suggestion, and the event has become further exaggerated. The Governess’ reliability is tested further in her encounters with the children she has been hired to watch. Chapter XIV presents a conversation between Miles and the Governess which seems like a matching of wits. At one point in the discussion, the Governess admits, “I felt I might perhaps after all succeed in keeping my wits about me” (James 84). This passage suggests that the Governess could just as easily lose her sanity as she could keep it. A simple discussion about the behavior of a child has challenged the Governess’ sanity, and she has no problem reporting that fact. The case against the Governess’ reliability seems to be mounting, and the ghosts look increasingly to be figments of her imagination. Because the Governess is usually alone when she sees the apparitions, it is difficult to ascertain the truth about their existence. James uses the Governess’ questionable narration as well as the distance he has created between the reader and the material to generate a sense of mystery around the novel. By employing an unreliable narrator, James effectively destabilizes the narrative to force the reader to make judgments about the text. The Turn of the Screw allows readers to decide what to believe for themselves. Herman Melville’s Billy Budd: Sailor was published in 1924, some twenty-six years after the publication of James’ novel. The narrator is a seemingly omniscient combination of the first-person and the third-person. Throughout the story, the anonymous narrator seems to merely report the events that transpire, while also providing insight into the thoughts of the characters on which the story reports. Upon Billy Budd’s impressments in Chapter One, the narrator reports that the Lieutenant who had come to take Billy viewed Billy’s farewell salute as “a covert sally on the new recruit’s part, a sly slur at impressments in general, and that of himself in especial” (Melville 49). Of the same scene, the narrator also reports that Billy’s intentions were “by no means of a satirical turn” (Melville 49). This early exchange demonstrates what would seem to be an omniscient narrator. In this scene, the narrator is able to report the inner thoughts of two characters – a trait that is usually only available to the omniscient. The omniscience of this narrator soon manifests itself as self-awareness. The narrator directly addresses his audience at the end of Chapter Two when he says, “the story in which [Billy Budd] is the main figure is no romance” (Melville 53). In addressing the genre of the story that he is telling, the narrator has crossed into a different plane. This admission forces the reader to acknowledge that, though the story is not a romance, it is still a story which must be assigned a genre. In suggesting genre to the audience, the narrator acknowledges that his story must follow certain conventions. As the story progresses, the narrator seems to be building a melodrama by pitting goodness against evil. The narrator juxtaposes the pure goodness of Billy Budd with what he classifies as pure evil in John Claggart. Though the narrator does not come out in direct denouncement of Claggart, his initial description of the character is less than flattering. In Chapter Eight, the narrator introduces Claggart by saying that his complexion “seemed to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood” (Melville 64). The description of Claggart continues by creating an air of mystery surrounding his background. Though the narrator has not denounced Claggart outright, the sense of mystery surrounding the master-at-arms paired with the seeming defect in his constitution prejudices readers against Claggart. A seemingly impartial narrator has imparted a bias into the story being told, and this forces the reader to question the narrator’s motives for doing so.As the story progresses, the narrator continues to show Claggart scheming against Billy. These schemes all build to a final confrontation between the two in Captain Vere’s cabin. The report of the events within the Captain’s cabin as well as the events following create and interesting problem in the narration. In Chapter Nineteen, the narrator describes the scene in which Billy kills Claggart by stating that, “quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck,” (Melville 99). The only three characters present for this scene were Billy, Captain Vere, and Claggart. Now that Billy has killed Claggart, only Captain Vere and Billy remain as witnesses to the killing. However, the narrator still reports the events. This would not be a problem if it were not for a scene presented in Chapter Twenty-Two. In this chapter, Captain Vere and Billy are alone once again, but this time the narrator notes that “Beyond the communication of the sentence, what took place at this interview was never known” (Melville 114). The narrator has no problem reporting the events of Claggart’s murder at which only Billy and Captain Vere were present, but when it comes to the communication of the sentence at which Billy and Captain Vere are the only characters present yet again, the narrator mysteriously cannot provide details. This creates serious reliability issues. Either the narrator has chosen to leave details out about the scene in Chapter Twenty-Two, or the report of Claggart’s murder in Chapter Nineteen is pure speculation. As Billy Budd: Sailor creeps toward its conclusion, the narrator becomes less and less reliable. The novel’s second to last chapter, Chapter Twenty-Nine, provides a short newspaper article detailing the events of the novel. The narrator acknowledges that the article, “was doubtless for the most part written in good faith” (Melville 130). The article goes on to report a story in direct opposition to the one reported by the novel’s narrator, and the article is said to be the only surviving account of the incident. This final chapter contradicts the twenty-eight chapters that proceeded it, and it forces the reader to make choices about the text.While James’ unreliable narrators forced readers to make choices throughout the novel, the twist at the end of Melville’s story forces the reader to make a single choice at the end of the novel. The common thread between the narration of the two is that of reader choice. By presenting a narrator of questionable authority, authors compel their readers to decide whether or not they can accept the events of the presented fiction as an actuality inside of the fictional world. The unreliable narrator stimulates more engagement with the text and provides the reader with more freedom of interpretation than conventional narratives. It appeals to Americans’ strong sense of individuality and personal freedom, making it a particularly (but not exclusively) American literary device that James and Melville utilize with skill. Works CitedJames, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Bedford St. Martin’s, Boston, MA. 2004.Melville, Herman. Billy Budd: Sailor. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 1962.
To read Herman Melville’s Billy Budd is to experience feelings of intense agony and helpless injustice. Billy Budd, a “Handsome Sailor,” adored by his shipmates for his intrinsic goodness, is condemned to death by a seemingly formalistic and unfeeling legal system (279). Falsely accused of mutiny, Billy strikes the incriminating Claggart, and his single blow kills. As sole witness and Captain of the ship, Edward Vere must determine Billy’s fate. Privately sympathizing with Billy’s innocence, publicly Vere chooses naval duty over the morality of heart, condemning the young sailor to death according to the “Articles of War.” Vere’s painful dilemma reflects the invariable friction arising from natural man living in a society governed by man-made laws. The controversial decision to hang Billy “leaves us with a strong[ ] feeling that the formal demands of the legal system inevitably exclude some important aspect of human existence” (Thomas 53). The legal system’s failure to consider the natural law that impels Billy’s blow and his innocent intentions induces many readers to question the justice of Vere’s verdict and the justice system’s inherent flaws.In Billy Budd, man-made law is not merely the “general sense of order as opposed to chaos,” but rather codes that must judge Billy’s blow (Reich 128). Because the crime carries multifaceted implications, Billy’s trial tests man-made law’s ability to treat man as a flawed creature. Billy’s tragic execution exposes that man-made laws (society’s legal codes) often punish actions driven by natural laws, or laws instinctive to humans. When British warship Bellipotent’s envious officer John Claggart falsely and maliciously accuses the innocent foretopman of attempting mutiny, Billy deals a fatal blow “full upon the forehead of Claggart,” in self-defense impelled by natural law (331).Billy’s intention to protest this false incrimination is justified according to natural law. Although disagreement still abides, natural law is generally defined as a “system of right conduct or justice… common to all humans and derived from nature rather than from the rules of society” (“Natural”). Proposed by philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the theory’s core postulates declares that natural law condones man’s actions when he “behave[s] in a way that conforms to his rational nature,” in preserving one’s own good or fulfilling “those inclinations which nature has taught to all animals” (“Natural”). While determining man’s “true nature” is a tricky concept, most natural law theorists believe that murder to preserve own life, or by any other rational excuse, overrides society’s man-made and Divine commandments: “Thou shall not kill” (McElroy 110). Likewise, there are rational excuses for Billy’s blow, as he himself explains when testifying to the drum court:Could I have used my tongue I would not have struck him. But he foully lied to my face and in the presence of my captain, and I had to say something and I could only say it with a blow, God help me!” (338)Known to have a speech impediment when agitated, Billy stands “like one impaled and gagged” and could only dumbly “gesture[e] and gurgle[e]” (331). Obviously in a “convulsed tongue-tied,” the foretopman’s only natural instinct is to act (331). Any such defense to “preserve his own good” would be in accord with natural law, including his fatal blow.Captain Vere is now faced with an awful choice: uphold naval codes (man-made laws) or follow his conscience, siding with intuitive natural law. The British Articles of War XXII at the time states: “if any…person in the fleet shall strike any of his superior officers…[he] shall suffer death” (333). The Articles are exemplary of man-made laws, for they are rules imposed by society requiring or prohibiting certain actions (“Law”). However, the Articles are unique in that they make provisions for mandatory death penalties. While discretionary penalties allow courts to adjudicate the sentence’s severity based on mitigating factors and crime’s circumstances, mandatory death penalties narrow courts to consider only the “overt act” and its consequences. If convicted of committing the crime, the perpetrator must be sentenced to death, no matter what his motivation or compelling situation.Theoretically, summarily executing one life for murdering another life may appear just (or at least numerically balanced), but Melville pokes holes in the case for mandatory death penalties when he creates sympathy in readers for Billy and subsequently in his innocent intentions. Melville portrays Billy as embodying the “purity” of “Adam before the Fall,” with a “reposeful good nature” that somehow causes even the most cantankerous sailors to smile (286, 287). It is obvious to shipmates as well as Captain Vere that Billy is “incapable of malice” (361). Clearly, Billy did not intend to murder Claggart, only to defend himself from a life-threatening accusation, an intention consistent with natural law. Convening a drumhead court to try Billy, Vere’s insists on disregarding Billy’s intentions to his officers, whose surprised and saddened response further underscores the strained artificiality of Vere’s reasoning for man-made laws when it entails suppressing the heart’s conscience, one intrinsically schooled in natural law.Captain Vere and his drumhead officers are clearly torn between “military duty and moral scruple… vitalized by compassion.” Betraying “a suppressed emotion” in his voice, Vere reassures Billy that he knew the young sailor intended neither mutiny nor murder (337). Yet in an immediate turnabout during the drumhead court, the Captain resolves that his court must “confine its attention to the blow’s consequence,” for as proceeding under the Articles, “Budd’s intent or non-intent is nothing to the purpose (339, 343). Forcibly demanding the reluctant officers to assent to Billy’s execution, Vere assures them that he too feels “troubled hesitancy,” but reminds them that “but in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner’s overt act to be considered” (341). In other words, Vere fully understands that had natural law considered Billy’s intentions, it would have declared him innocent. Yet because he is Captain of a British warship, Vere has little choice but to reason:”Is our allegiance [to] Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval, though this be the element where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King’s officers lies our duty…” (342)His subsequent declaration on the incongruent natures of the ocean’s law and the King’s law almost suggests a lament at the incompatibility of man-made laws governing human actions. The British civilization is too far removed and different from the sphere of the ocean, perhaps symbolizing the natural in heart of man. Artificial laws originating from such a civilization seems insufficient and inadequate in addressing the issues encountered on the primitive ocean on which the story of Billy Budd and human nature unfolds. Criticism of Billy’s execution therefore should not be directed entirely at Vere, but more at the insensate, man-made Articles. When an execution provokes agony and sadness for both the adjudicators and the public (Bellipotent’s sailors whose murmurs reveal “sullen revocation”), such should all be indicative of some flaw in the legal mandate (356). In the early 19th century, a British intellectual movement denounced the Articles of War as “inflexible brutality and cruelty [of mandatory death penalty] codified into law” (Franklin, NA). Their protest signified man’s desire for man-made laws to encompass more natural laws. Similarly, when the United States established her own “Articles of War” modeled after Britain, an American anti-mandatory capital punishment movement sparked debates across the nation from 1830 to 1895 (Franklin, NA). Written in 1886 in New York, Billy Budd coincided with the crucial years when the majority of state criminal laws gradually shifted from mandatory to discretionary capital punishment, while military law refused to follow suit and still preserves its mandatory death penalty for espionage during wartime today (“Mens,” 1032). Although Melville’s general intention in writing Billy Budd may be much broader, his portrayal of Billy’s tragic death for the sake of an unfeeling legal mandate seems to express great disproval of laws that do not consider the prisoner’s mentality and circumstances.Although criticism of law’s inadequacy should, in principle, apply only to those special laws mandating capital punishment, in practice it aptly describes criminal law as well, both in Britain and the United States as countries with similar criminal laws. While court-martials under laws such as the Articles of War are not legally required to consider factors mitigating the crime’s severity, criminal courts in both countries are legally bound to consider the state of mind of a defendant during the crime and adjust the sentence accordingly (“Mens,” 1028). The legal term “mens reas” refers a “guilty mind,” where theoretically, a crime is defined only when the perpetrator commits it with a “guilty mind” or premeditated guilty intentions. Therefore, a “harmful action done by one honestly ignorant of its harmful quality ought not to be condemned and punished” (“Mens,” 1028). In this aspect, British and American laws have already made important strides to incorporate natural law in man-made law.However, in practice it appears that mens rea, ever since its establishment in the seventeenth century has been “primarily an explanatory construct, not a working rule of law” (“Mens,” 1029). A recent survey in 1970 revealed seventy-six different ways of expressing mens reas in US criminal law statutes (“Mens,” 1030). The “consequence of this chaos is the administrative burden that legal uncertainty causes” because lawyers “engage in full-dress battle on interpretative questions concerning mens rea” (“Mens,” 1030). At best, mens rea can only “differentiate between the seriousness of the crime,” which in the end, “may not matter,” and the crime’s sentence (“Mens,” 1029).Fundamentally similar to Billy’s story, an historical case substantiates the blatant disparity between justice by natural law and justice by man-made law, while highlighting the inconsistency of criminal law verdicts with mens rea. In 1884, two years before Melville began Billy Budd, a shipwreck cast three sailors and a boy of sixteen onto the open sea in a lifeboat off the Cape of Good Hope. Having drifted for eighteen days, they had not eaten or drunk during the last five days and the young boy was near death from starvation. With no rescue in sight, two of the sailors, Dudley and Stephens, decided to murder the boy. Four days after they ate the boy, the three sailors were rescued and sent back to England, whereupon Dudley and Stephens were promptly condemned to death (Reich 132).In delivering the verdict, England’s Chief Justice Lord Coleridge writes that “we are often compelled to set standards that we cannot reach ourselves” (Reich 133). This statement implies although certain crimes may be inherent in human nature, society does not tolerate them even though tolerance is legally required. Although Lord Coleridge acknowledged that all four would have died had they not eaten the boy, he still refused to accept the “necessity” of survival as an excuse for murder. Yet “necessity” to preserve one’s own life is exactly what mens rea, founded upon natural law, condones. Just as mens rea would absolve guilt for Claggart’s unpremeditated murder, mens rea also accepts “necessity” as a valid exoneration of the perpetrator (“Mens,” 1028). Yet if Dudley and Stephens are not judged by the “Articles of War” but rather by discretionary criminal law, why does Lord Coleridge refuse to abide by mens rea and absolve them from their crime? He defends the death sentence, saying that there is an:…awful danger of admitting the principle [of necessity]. Who is to be the judge of this sort of necessity? By what measure is the comparative value of lives to be measured? Such a principle once admitted might be made the legal cloak for unbridled passion and atrocious crime… there is no safe path for judges to tread…” (Reich 133)Because of mens rea’s elusive “measurement,” Lord Coleridge’s statement implies that mens rea (like natural law) would legally “condone” too many crimes, in which more crimes and chaos would ensue. He echoes the similar concerns of other judges who have delivered verdicts inconsistent with mens rea. It may seem Lord Coleridge’s criticism is directed at mens rea’s inadequacy, but one can turn his statement into a criticism of general law’s insufficiency.The verdicts for Dudley-Stephen and Billy seem to hinge on the judges’ acceptance that punishment for the sake of law may sacrifice innocence. Billy, Dudley, and Stephens acted as “natural men,” committing crimes when “overwhelmed with forces beyond their control,” namely natural self-defense and the primitive urges of hunger (Reich 139). Yet all three are guilty of committing a legal crime, because the courts completely ignore natural law and mens rea. This clear-cut standard for determining guilt and innocence seems inadequate in addressing the complexity of human nature. It seems that the human mind is too unknowable with its multifaceted motivations for present and past laws to properly gauge. As verdicts ignoring mens rea illustrate, even when society’s laws theoretically account for man’s complexity, this is difficult to implement in practice. Presently, it is seemingly impossible for even today’s comprehensive laws to mete the most appropriate punishment for every case.However, man-made laws do not always have detrimental effects on justice. Choosing the logic of man-made laws over the instincts of natural law derives from a long, complex history which reveales the advantages and disadvantages of a system of absolute standards. Several decades before the time of Billy Budd, the middle classes and nobility appealed to the authority of artificial, man-made laws to reduce the power and the authority of King James I, who had the power to adjudicate verdicts based on natural law or his own arbitrary whims, with the latter as a much more probable outcome (Thomas 59). England’s Chief Justice Lord Coleridge struggled to persuade the King that he could not personally adjudicate cases because verdicts are “not to be decided by natural reason [of the King’s untrained legal mind] but by the artificial reason and judgment of law, which… requires long study” (Thomas 57). In this historical context, society opting for the logic of man-made laws over the natural whims of the King seems to be a progressive milestone in civilized society. One can immediately see the benefits of a society ruled by absolute laws, not by the arbitrary inclinations of an absolute ruler, whose verdicts may or may not abide by natural laws.In Billy Budd’s time, man-made law shifts to ally with the King and his military. Man-made law becomes a formidable method of preserving the might of a military defending against the French invasions, whereupon it takes on its present role of demanding sacrifices of individual rights. Yet one may justly wonder, doesn’t the state have a right to impose stricter laws curbing individual rights during the wartime?The narrator in Billy Budd emphasizes the “pertinence of such forces to the individuals and events of his tale” (Franklin, NA). Making great effort to “situate the events of his story within a particular historical context,” the narrator evokes the historical events such as the mutinies at Spithead and Nore (320). Known as the “Great Mutiny,” sailors at Nore rebelled against the ship authorities and demanded equal wage increases. Although eventually quelled, the mutiny instilled a prevailing and legitimate fear in navy commanders of more rebellions from their sailors, many of whom were unhappily impressed into service. Billy’s “treason” in striking Claggart occurs only six months after the “Great Mutiny,” when “reasonable discontent growing out of practical grievances… had been ignited into irrational combustion” still proved “menacing” to the British Empire (293). When deciding Billy’s verdict, naturally Vere is largely concerned with its impressions on the crew. As the narrator imputes, “feeling that unless quick action was taken on it, the deed of the foretopman… would tend to awaken any slumbering embers of the Nore among the crew” and therefore a “sense of urgency of the case overruled in Captain Vere every other consideration” (336). Therefore, Vere adheres to the Articles and refuses to mitigate Billy’s sentence, reasoning:most of [the crew] is familiar with our naval tradition; how would they take it… to the people the foretopman’s deed… will be plain homicide committed in the flagrant act of mutiny. What penalty for that they know. It does not follow. Why? They will ruminate… will they not revert to the recent outbreak the Nore? (344)Since one goal of punishment should serve to deter future crimes, if Vere mitigates Billy’s sentence, then the crew will interpret this leniency as encouragement to mutiny. In turn, they would feel more encouraged to rebel. To not adhere to the Articles might be to fail in his duty as Captain and Vere has little choice but to act in the ship’s interest. In the clash between “desire for individual freedom and need for social order,” historical context often illuminates why society chooses one extreme over the other (Thomas 54). As Billy Budd demonstrates, the general welfare of society often necessitates a curtailment of individual rights.What makes Billy Budd so controversial is that Vere’s decision is completely legal, yet completely unnatural. It is the black and white dichotomy of innocence and guilt that troubles many. Vere must either “condemn or let go” and the gaping void in between seems to point to penal law’s inadequacy in reflecting and accommodating the different natures of the crime. When Vere pronounces Billy “innocent before God,” he acknowledges that the Articles of War is far from the “perfect” legal system that can comprehend man’s total humanity, rather than just the appearance of the crime. Yet Billy Budd’s tense, historical context also seems to suggest that in the clash between public duty and the freedom to follow natural law, justice is not simply a matter of man-made law versus natural law, but a factor espousing society’s general welfare.
In the novel Billy Budd, Sailor, Herman Melville attempts to convey underlying truths regarding human nature through the people, whom grow to represent a larger aspect of society. The story revolves around the titular character, a virtuous and naïvely incorruptible young seaman who finds himself in a regrettable situation due to a flaw that surfaces when faced with threatening situations. The author employs an extended comparison dealing with the essence of faith versus circumstances and choosing between the two through the three main characters in the novel. Billy Budd’s moral purity is contrasted with the malicious character of John Claggart and the middle ground between the two ultimately becomes the intelligent and objective Captain Vere and his ethical dilemma. The outcome of the situation, arguably, represents society’s concept of “divine justice” and elucidates the archetypes of the good, the bad, and the balanced. Therefore, by juxtaposing the moral standards of Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Captain Vere, Melville is able to examine the constant battle between rationality and faith.
Billy Budd, from the very beginning of the story, is portrayed as the pinnacle of rectitude. His Rights of Man shipmates praise his ability to “[sugar] the sour ones” with virtue (6) and the author makes Billy Budd’s innocence very clear when he states that “to deal in double meanings and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to [Billy’s] nature”(9). Furthermore, through the narrator, Melville details his exceptional goodness when he declares that “his simple nature remained unsophisticated by those moral obliquities” (12). Through this implication that Billy Budd lacks the intelligence to formulate any sort of vindictive thought, the author reveals how someone who is such a paradigm of purity can assemble into the real world. If the Bellipotent is society, then Billy Budd represents the remaining naïveté and decency that ultimately becomes not his downfall, but his legacy. He is the personification of acting by faith, as he blindly accepts authority and never succumbs to his own will. His lack of personal courage is illustrated in his blatant acceptance of death and faith, shown even in his actions before the fatal moment. The ship’s chaplain, as expressed through the narrator, states how fearlessly committed Billy is to his own “dogma” (78) and the way in which he confronts death without abandon, even “bless[ing]” (80) Captain Vere upon the moment of his execution, disregarding ration and instinctively relying on his own belief in the moral integrity of Vere.
John Claggart, on the other hand, is the epitome of a malicious man whose motivations are cruel and vengeful. The author portrays him as “the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short ‘a depravity according to nature'” (34). His internal “depravity” confines him to live without faith, as everything Claggart does seems to spur solely from his own conscience and entirely distrusting of those around him. He acts by ration, but not by any defined set of rules. Instead, he relies entirely on his selfish desires and volition, vastly different from Billy Budd’s blind trust, in that his reasoning is that everyone is out to get him. Therefore, Claggart’s conscience is really “the lawyer to his will” (39) and he is unable to escape this “innate” evil because it is the basis for his rationale and decision-making. Claggart can justify his wrongdoings, such as framing Billy Budd, because his resentment and envy towards Billy translates to a necessity to be punished and he “[makes] ogres of trifles” (39).
Melville utilizes his character to portray the dangers of an overly self-reliant and one-sidedly rational mind, because Claggart’s inability to sympathize will be his fatal flaw. Melville utilizes the character of Captain Vere to form the perfect balance between Budd and Claggart as well as emphasizing the division between injustices and mistakes. Captain Vere is established as a heavy rule-follower since his introduction as the practical, intelligent philosopher of the ship. In deciding what to do with Billy Budd, Vere concludes that “he [is] not authorized to determine the matter on [a] primitive basis”(61). Nevertheless, he settles on the more “rational” option after debating with both himself and the court for quite some time. Vere declares that he will rule solely based on “the prisoner’s overt act,” (67) even though he “[believes]”(63) in Billy Budd. Melville uses Vere’s definitive decision, in which the captain settles on ration and ignores his “gut feeling” and natural justice, to elucidate the tangible struggle between law and belief, and Vere’s refusal to incorporate faith into his decision becomes his downfall as well. Despite his strong feelings against choosing the “[pitiless] law,” (68) he still hangs Billy Budd, yet cries before the trial that Claggart was “struck dead by an angel of God,” (59) acknowledging the sincerity of faith and even displaying signs of remorse. However, his disregard for instinctive belief will eventually kill him in battle. Melville employs the other ship in the conflict at the end of the novel (not coincidentally named “Atheist”) to indicate that Vere’s unwillingness to consult his faith is his most significant hamartia.
Melville creates these characters of Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Edward Vere in order to contrast the difference in principles between faith and rationality and how, ultimately, faith is the more honorable choice. Melville deliberately manifests Billy Budd as both the most morally sound character as well as the most faithfully reliant and driven by impulse. The implication that relying strictly on rules invokes some sort of cowardice is an interesting lesson taught by the narrator, if not Melville, and could even be interpreted as Melville following his own beliefs and disregarding “natural law” by writing this book.