In the novel, Billy Budd, by Herman Melville, Captain Vere is the “tragic hero”. He is neither good nor evil, but rather a man whose concept of order, discipline, and legality forces him to obey the codes of an authority higher than himself even though he may be in personal disagreement.
Captain Vere is sailor that is distinctive even in a time of renowned sailors. He has noble blood in him, but his advancement through the naval ranks to that of captain is due more to his outstanding service and personal merits than through any connections that he may have had. He was made a post-captain because of his “gallantry in the West Indian waters as flag-lieutenant under Rodney in that admiral’s crowning victory over De Grasse”.
Captain Vere is a rather surprising man to be a captain, for when he is dressed as a civilian he would never be taken for a sailor. For example, he never used nautical terms in his everyday conversations. Even aboard ship, if one did not know that he was the captain, he could easily be taken for some royal of the king’s that is being transported from one place to another.
As Melville points out, “He had seen much service, been in various engagements, always acquitting himself as an office mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline; thoroughly versed in the science of his profession, and intrepid to the verge of temerity, though never injudiciously so.” In fact, his downfall is directly caused by his never tolerating an infraction of discipline.
Captain Vere instinctively disliked Claggert, a man who, for his own reasons, falsely accuses Billy Budd of plotting a mutiny. While meeting together, the charge would have come to naught if Billy Budd hadn’t killed Claggert by striking him in the head. After that, whether Billy was innocent or not was no longer at question. Billy had killed a man on board ship, and that can definitely be seen as an infraction of discipline.
Billy was put on trial, and Vere was torn between his conscience, which told him to set Billy Budd free, and his need to uphold the law on board ship, which by all rights meant the execution of Billy Budd. Captain Vere, an educated man who had never faced a situation such as this before, chose to kill Billy Budd.
Nobody can truly fault Captain Vere for his decision, for Billy had killed Claggart on ship. However, Captain Vere is still a tragic hero. His decision cost the man his sanity, and upon his death all he could say was “Billy Budd…Billy Budd….Billy Budd…”. His concept of order, discipline, and legality remained in place, and Captain Vere paid the price for that.
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