Capital Punishment in Melville’s “Billy Budd, Sailor” Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Sep 8th, 2020


Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Sailor, represents a variety of societal, moral, and philosophical issues. For that reason, it was met by critics with a great level of success, when it was first introduced to the public (Floyd 28). However, some issues that Melville touches in his work were spared a detailed analysis that this novella deserves. Among the issues addressed by the author, there is the problem of capital punishment and the interpretations of its rejection or justification.

One of the reasons for the triumph of Billy Budd, Sailor in America and the United Kingdom, was the precision, with which the author portrayed the historical and cultural context, particularly Melville analyzed both issues contemporary to him and problems that are always tangible for humankind (Floyd 28). According to Franklin, the question of capital punishment was in the center of public debate when the book was written (338).

Given that fact, the author addresses those discussions and philosophical implications of the problem of capital punishment, and on the basis of them creates his own universal perspective of this problem.

Thus, Melville depicts the problems of how people justify capital punishment as a question of conflict between rational and poetic outlook though the symbolism of relationships between the characters of Billy Budd, Sailor. Although the era of economic development and societal change demands rationalization and manifests the priory of justice over mercy, through the events happened to Billy Budd, Melville tries to explain that irrational and poetic side of the human nature could not be ignored because the pure reason cannot possibly anticipate all the nuances of each particular case and the price of mistake in such cases is too high.

The conflict between rational and poetic sides of human nature

One of the major arguments regarding the need not only for justice but also for mercy comes from the philosophical framework inherent in the text. It is mainly based on the interpretation of the personalities’ confrontation in the novella. According to Franklin, it concerns the opposition between two facets of human nature (Franklin 341). That opposition is represented by the rational side that incorporates justice and strict following the law and the aesthetic, irrational side manifesting itself in ethics, natural morals, and mercy. The three characters that stand in opposition to each other are Billy Budd, Claggart, and Capitan Vere.

The former two characters represent the extremes of those two human features – Billy Budd is the embodiment of the poetic side of a human being, and Claggart adheres to following the rules to the stereotypical extent. At the same time, it is also important to note that Capitan Vere is somewhere in the middle. Naturally, Billy Budd, with all his passion, symbolizes the irrational, emotional, and poetic sides of personality for the reason that he is an adventurous dreamer. Moreover, even when he is innocent, “in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of [being a villain], the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it” (Melville 37).

It can be interpreted in a way that Billy Budd’s impulsive rather than stern personality, even at a crucial moment, puts aesthetics over common sense and reason. Billy Budd represents natural moral that is perceived by people through aesthetics. On the other hand, when he realized that Claggart accused him of something that had no aesthetic side and was indecent, he became furious without a reasonable limit and killed the Master-at-arms (Floyd 39).

Meanwhile, Claggart manifests the embodiment of choosing reason over emotions. He resents Billy Budd because Billy’s charm and the fact everyone admires him seems unjust to Claggart. Furthermore, Claggart seems to believe that any action is justified if it is within the rules that were once set and within the laws that are supposedly objective. Claggart is the character who would not hesitate, for a moment, to use the notorious Mutiny Act.

He justifies his actions towards Billy Budd by suggesting that the latter ruined discipline aboard. However, the problem with such reasoning is that, in many ways, Claggart is jealous because of Billy’s popularity among the sailors. In other words, trying to proclaim the superiority of rules, discipline, and common sense, Claggart himself falls into his own trap and uses his emotional judgment in the situation with Billy Budd. The problem with such stereotypical obsession with the rules, as in the case of Claggart, is that he started to think that he could decide what was just and what was not.

It is, nevertheless, important to point out that Billy, as irrational as he is, realizes that he is guilty in the eyes of the law in the context of that historical epoch. However, considering the fact that when Claggart accused him of mutiny and he had no real chance to defend himself because of his stutter, the case would have been different in the modern context. Thus, although the author referred to the dilemmas that were contemporary to him, the issue of justifying one’s action and choosing between applying the same rules to everyone or being merciful remained the same. Such interpretation concerns capital punishment as well.

Despite the fact that perception of social norms, justice as a concept, and various legal issues surrounding capital punishment changed in many ways over the years, the ethical dilemma pointed out by Melville stayed the same.

However, the most evident question is whether to criticize or justify the decision of Capitan Vere. He was choosing between supporting discipline and following his own sympathy and emotional attachment to Billy Budd, as well as between being on the side of justice and showing mercy as a captain. Another facet of this situation is that the author directly suggests that Billy was wrongfully accused of mutiny and conspiracy, which makes it problematic for readers to put themselves in the position of Capitan Vere since a reader has access to more information than the character (Hunt 291). Furthermore, Melville describes the captain as “always acquitting himself as an officer mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline” (Melville 19).

Such a description emphasizes the moderate position of the captain, namely, he was not emotionally separated from his sailors. Nonetheless, important is the fact that the was captain responsible for results of the trial as a legal representative, despite the fact that he was involved ethically (Beauchamp 8). On the one hand, it might be that in a situation where someone does not know the degree to which such accusations are true, it would seem safer to follow the rule and chose justice and strictness over mercy. However, on the other hand, the captain does not want to believe in Billy’s mutiny and feels sympathy for him.

Nevertheless, in a situation, when it is obvious that Billy Budd killed Claggart, despite the fact that it was a rush decision, Captain Vere chooses not to break his code. It becomes a hard choice for him because he sees the price of justice. In some regard, this example proves mercy to be a less ethically doubtful choice merely because reason is not flexible enough to account for all circumstances of a particular case as it happened to Billy Budd.

The argument of a price of justice

In any situation where such a serious decision as a decision on capital punishment is made, the main problem is the possibility of mistake. From the ethical point of view that Melville supports in Billy Budd, Sailor, it is not possible for logic or common sense or any other embodiment of the rational side of human nature to anticipate all the circumstances that occur in each case, where the law demands capital punishment. Moreover, in some ways, the author’s objective was to show that even laws designed for a particular purpose, such as the Mutiny Act, can also sometimes malfunction (Schiffman 129).

For that reason, Melville attempts to construct the concept of natural justice: “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?” (Melville 67).

In terms of natural justice, the author’s point was that the legal aspects of justice and especially capital punishment could change, but the ethical dilemmas stay the same over the years. With more concentration on the humanistic and emotional aspects, there is a lesser chance of making a mistake or sending an innocent person to death.

Naturally, the most substantial argument against the wide use of capital punishment is that there still is a significant chance of the miscarriage of justice. However, it this respect, it is also important to point out that Melville does not try to find an easy way to explain his point of view. If Billy Budd was entirely innocent, and Claggart managed to convince everyone in his accusations, it would have been merely a story of injustice and wrongful decision.

However, Melville tries to consider the perspective of every party in this case. Formally, Billy was guilty, but in the eyes of the crew and even Captain Vere, he was provoked to do what he did. Still, the captain decided not to allow his emotions to take over the law and military rules. His decision, in many ways, symbolized the triumph of the military discipline over the ethical considerations, but the whole situation is presented in such a way that a reader does not support the captain’s choice. In other words, what Melville was trying to prove is that, on an inherent moral level, human beings can feel the natural justice that is somewhere in-between a poetic component of human nature and its rational side.

Considerations for the historical context

Perhaps, one of the major counterarguments addressed to Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor is that, to a certain extent, the book attempts to analyze the epoch that was not contemporary to the author by comparing it to the more recent values and ideas. It is also important not to forget that the setting of the novella embraces the time of war, which affects the need for discipline, rules, and equal and just treatment in eyes of the law. For that reason, it is acceptable to say that Melville’s critique of a legal side of the problem of capital punishment in general and Articles of War and the Mutiny Act, in particular, is somewhat diachronically subjective.

Nevertheless, criticizing merely the legislation does not appear to be Melville’s main purpose of the novella. On the contrary, it is more likely that the author projects the critique on the society that was contemporary to him, but depicts the situation in the setting of a different historical epoch. In addition, even looking at the modern society, it is obvious that the ethical background of the capital punishment can still be not entirely clear, and it still raises debate.


Overall, certain periods of human history demand for people to be more rational and choose justice over mercy in their decision, but, at the same time, despite the fact that laws and some values change, the ethical problems related to capital punishment remain the same. Melville tries to explain that irrational and poetic side of the human nature should not be forgotten because the pure reason cannot possibly anticipate all the nuances of each particular case and the price of mistake in such cases is too high. Only the balance between rational and irrational facets of human nature helps to embrace the natural justice.

Works Cited

Beauchamp, Gorman. “The Scorpion’s Suicide: Claggart’s Death in Billy Budd.” Melville Society Extracts 12.9 (2005): 7-10. Print.

Floyd, Nathaniel. “Billy Budd: A Psychological Autopsy.” American Imago 34.1 (1977): 28-49. Print.

Franklin, Bruce. “Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Three Centuries.” American Literature 69.2 (1997): 337-359. Print.

Hunt, Lester. “Billy Budd: Melville’s dilemma.” Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2003): 273-295. Print.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962. Print.

Schiffman, Joseph. “Melville’s Final Stage, Irony: A Re-examination of Billy Budd Criticism.” American Literature 22.2 (1950): 128-136. Print.

This essay on Capital Punishment in Melville’s “Billy Budd, Sailor” was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.

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