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Does Billy receive a fair trial Herman Melville Billy Budd - Essay Example

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Much about the literary success of Herman Melville’s novella titled Billy Budd owes to the fact that it raises crucial questions about the moral aspects of justice. The ambiguous style of the narrative makes the story even more intriguing as the author leaves it to the…
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Does Billy receive a fair trial Herman Melville Billy Budd
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Does Billy Receive a Fair Trial? – Herman Melville’s Billy Budd Much about the literary success of Herman Melville’s novella d Billy Budd owes to the fact that it raises crucial questions about the moral aspects of justice. The ambiguous style of the narrative makes the story even more intriguing as the author leaves it to the penultimate chapter before revealing who actually killed John Claggart, the ship’s master-at-arms. The ensuing trial involves Captain Vere as the plaintiff and eye-witness to the murder. But this piece of information does not provide too much of literary scope to explore the unfathomable depth of Melville’s genius. The outcome of the trial goes to show how a composite plot, ably supported by ingenuity of narrative techniques, can be made analogous to a set of clandestine attributes of legal procedures. The thesis question to be resolved in this paper is whether Billy Budd receives a just trial or not, following the crime he commits after being charged with mutinous provocations.
Judgment on the fate of Billy is legitimized per se by a number of factors that are ingrained in the protagonist’s characteristic features as well as in some external stimuli. Minkowitz argues that while Billy embodies ‘moral goodness and grace’ and is well liked among his colleagues, the ship’s master-at-arms John Claggart is ‘sinister’ (4). This perplexes the readers for they know who the culprit is according to the law. But mere understanding of the legal righteousness fails to provide an accurate picture of the author’s intentions. Captain Vere, for instance, is portrayed as a person of contradictory dispositions. He is stuck between the loftier ethics of law, which he is supposed to adhere to out of his professional responsibilities, and the apparent leniency of divine justice. He is the only person who knows that Billy is both clean-handed and guilty (Parker 37) and yet, he must convict Billy for his crime.
It is apparent that the execution of Billy Budd symbolically represents a ‘justified animosity into a retributive righteousness’ (Melville 78). The question about whether Billy Budd receives justice or not is answered by Yannella:
…Vere prejudges the case against Billy, uses irregular proceedings to convict him, and then executes him in a gross miscarriage of justice…Vere’s conservative rationale for hanging Billy, of course, is that it will silence and tame the sailors, who otherwise will take the captain’s inaction as a sign of weakness and an excuse to rebel (27-8).
It is, therefore, quite clear that Billy Budd does not receive any providential clemency in the end, albeit his amicable demeanor made him a popular figure among the other shipmates. The external stimuli such as turbulence within the Royal Navy and the lurking threats of a rank mutiny condemn him more than anything else does.
Works Cited
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. Babylon Dreams, 1966.
Minkowitz, Miriam. Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Piscataway, New Jersey: Research &
Education Assoc., 1996.
Parker, Hershel. Reading Billy Budd. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press,
1990.
Yannella, Donald. New essays on Billy Budd. New York: Cambridge University Press,
2002. Read More
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