Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and the Law

Law certainly influences the direction of our society and law remains a prominent theme in much of literature because law is a quintessential dominant force that holds our political and economic structure together. However it is easy to misunderstand the nature and purpose of the system. Law’s authority has a complex historical background. Consequently, works of literature have helped shape our thinking about law and society, illuminating legal expressions of the past, defining and describing the present, and providing a vision of the future. Our literature represents a living history and analysis of the universal legal themes of order and disorder, individual and community, liberty and responsibility and their changes.

Questions for in-class discussion: True or False? Be prepared to defend your position.

1. Billy Budd illustrates (dramatically) that legal decisions which fail to comply with the spirit of the law thus fall short of meeting reasonable expectations of fairness.

2. Literary works guide us as the absent voice of process, and offer a variety of viewpoints that are excluded in the letter of the law.

3. Billy’s trial is illegitimate and Captain Vere exploits the system for personal gain.

4. Claggart becomes a “hero” of the empire, a true English citizen.

5. Melville appears to attack many facets of civilized life, including the accuracy of the press.

6. The story operates by juxtaposing the legal rights of individuals to the private codes that serve the rules and values of various groups within society.

7. Billy Budd becomes a legend among British sailors.

More Questions for in-class discussion:

  1. What is the primary function of law?
  2. What moral issues arise with the jury’s decision to sentence Billy to death? Do you think the jury makes the right decision?
  3. Ultimately, who bears the most responsibility for Billy’s death: Claggart, Vere, or Billy himself?
  4. How does war affect law?
  5. In chapter 22, Captain Vere says that sea commanders are not authorized to determine guilt or innocence or justice in “that primitive basis.” What does he mean?
  6. The trial in Melville’s novella begins in Chapter twenty-two. In that chapter, Billy is asked if he knows of any plot of mutiny. Why doesn't he tell he court about the incident with the after-guardsman?
  7. One big question is downplayed during the trial. The officer of the marines asks Billy why the master-of-arms would lie if there was no malice between them. Captain Vere says that the officer’s point is hardly material and that the court must confine its attention to the blow's consequence, “which consequence jusstly is to be deemed not otherwise than the striker’s deed.” Why is this moment so significant?
  8. What role does irony play in Billy Budd?