by Herman Melville
Captain Edward Fairfax Vere
Highfalutin Philosopher of the Sea
In the narrator's description of Captain Vere, perhaps the key point he makes is that Vere is smart. As in, when the Bellipotent's soldiers drink with the soldiers on other ships they might point at Vere and say, "Yeah, dat's my Captain. He's wicked smaht."
There's a lot of down-time on a ship. If you're someone who easily becomes bored, then it's not hard to imagine why a life at sea would drive you out of your mind. For Vere, though, the Captain's life is ideal, and the reason is that he's a reader. The narrator tells us, "He loved books, never going to sea without a newly replenished library, compact but of the best" (7.2). And Vere reads sophisticated stuff, not just good old sea yarns by a young Herman Melville.
The narrator tells us that Vere is interested in philosophers like Montaigne, those who "philosophize upon realities" (7.2). Vere's interest in practical philosophers is key. A common stereotype of anyone that enjoys thinking for extended periods of time is that they forget what it's like to be in the real world. Yet the narrator emphasizes that Vere's academic interests bear on real life, that he doesn't separate speculation and reflection from living itself.
The practical bent is key because, as we'll see later in the story, all of Vere's learning and sophistication get put to the test in the trial of Billy Budd. The question, which we'll get into in "The Decision Maker," is whether or not all his learning can help him determine what to do with Billy.
The real world applicability of Vere's thought relates to another point that the narrator brings up early on in the story. He says that sometimes the sailors think that Vere acts a bit too highfalutin. The risk is that all of his learning will isolate him from the average seaman, that he'll get wrapped up in books and forget how to relate to the sailors that serve him.
At the time, the narrator somewhat underplays this aspect of Vere's intelligence, but the elitist attitude is apparent during Billy's trial, when Vere is "deliberating how best to put them [his points] to well-meaning men not intellectually mature" (21.25). Later, even though the men don't agree with Vere, none of them feels adequate to argue with him. The reason is that they are not as articulate as he is. The point is that the men don't have the vocabulary to express their moral scruples, and the result is that the learned Vere will carry the day.
The Decision Maker: To kill Billy Budd or not to kill Billy Budd...
In "Character Roles," we identify Billy Budd as the protagonist. If a protagonist is taken as just the main character, the one with whom we most sympathize, then that will suffice. If, however, the protagonist is the main agent in a book – the one who does things – then there's a strong argument that Captain Vere is the protagonist of Billy Budd.
Vere doesn't become involved in the action until the moment that Claggart appears before him and makes the accusation. From that point on, though, what happens lies in Vere's hands. Throughout the book, the narrator portrays Billy and Claggart as acting out forces beyond their control. He suggests that Claggart can't even fathom the hatred that is making him act the way that he does. Billy is so simple that he doesn't understand the web that is being spun around him. It's not until Captain Vere becomes the focus of the story that it appears anyone has a choice.
That said, even Captain Vere is hemmed in by a number of factors that he can't control. As soon as he realizes that Billy is dead, he says, "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!" (19.13). This is, in many ways, a gut reaction to what has happened. But Vere is also taking into account what he knows of the Articles of War. The Articles state that quarreling with a superior officer is forbidden, and that death is the punishment for anyone convicted of murder. By law, Vere has to send Billy to death. The question, since we're concerned with whether or not Vere has any control over what happens, is: after he exclaims that the "angel must hang," does the reader think for a moment that Billy won't be killed?
The narrator explains Vere's predicament very clearly at the beginning of the scene with the drumhead court:
The essential right and wrong involved in the matter, the clearer that might be, so much the worse for the responsibility of a loyal sea commander, inasmuch as he was not authorized to determine the matter on that primitive basis. (21.4)
In other words, from a moral point of view, Vere may have a number of ideas about what someone should do. But legally, his ideas have no bearing on whether or not Billy will be hanged.
To a large degree, then, Vere is an exchangeable part of the military machine. He is acting out his duty as a military officer, and he is putting his moral scruples aside. When the other members of the court protest that the situation seems unjust, he emphasizes, "The prisoner's deed – with that alone we have to do" (21.22). The question that might arise, then, is: what good is all Vere's knowledge and experience in philosophy? It seems that all of his studying has simply allowed him to see what a difficult moral position he is in. His knowledge of moral philosophy torments his conscience, but it does not allow him to act differently than he would if he were ignorant as a chestnut.
Up until this point, we've been arguing for a lack of volition (will, control over his situation) on Vere's part, arguing that he doesn't have much more control over what happens in the story than Billy or Claggart do. Yet there's a different way of looking at Vere's decision-making power. It's easy to make it seem like Vere has one big decision to make: to kill Billy Budd or not to kill Billy Budd.
In reality, though, Vere has made a large number of small decisions that have now left him in a position where he can't but have Billy executed. For example, Vere decided to have both Billy and Claggart come to his cabin, to put them face-to-face. Vere decided to conceal what happened from the crew as long as he could. Vere decided to mount a drumhead court instead of waiting to speak to the admiral. Of course, Vere had reasons for all of these decisions. Mainly, he knows the current climate of dissatisfaction in the English fleet. He's doing everything he can to keep the trouble with Billy from bursting into full-scale mutiny. Looking back on the situation, though, Vere didn't have one big decision – he had a series of small ones that added up to a big decision. By the time Billy is on trial, Vere's deep in the storm. All the little bad decisions have already been made.
Now, toward the end of the novel, the narrator quotes a little-known writer who said, "Forty years after a battle it is easy for a noncombatant to reason about how it ought to have been fought. It is another thing personally and under fire to have to direct the fighting while involved in the obscuring smoke of it" (21.41). The quote is an excellent reminder of how easy it is, as a reader, to criticize Vere's actions and decisions. What is more difficult is to empathize with Vere, to imagine what it would be like to be in his shoes and to worry about all the different circumstances that were on his mind.
That's not to say that it's impossible to criticize Vere, just that valid criticism first requires an act of imagination. Valid criticism of Vere occurs only after one has fully imagined his situation and refused to be content with the viewpoint of an outside observer.
The last point we have to make about Captain Vere is pretty simple. Basically, he cares about Billy Budd even if he's about to send him to his execution.
From the start, Vere has admired Billy for his apparent physical strength and the way he carries out his duty without kissing up or complaining. He thinks of him as a "King's bargain" (18.17). Vere's admiration makes Claggart's accusation that much more shocking. Vere knows that, as a captain, he has to do something to address Claggart's accusation, but right from the start, he doesn't believe it.
As the waters rise all around Billy, he constantly looks to Captain Vere for help. Vere recognizes the sailor's innocence and his simplicity of mind, and he begins to feel the burden that will only grow heavier on his shoulders. Namely, Billy's fate is in his hands.
First, when Billy's stutter prevents him from responding to Claggart, Captain Vere, though "quite ignorant of Billy's liability to vocal impediment" now "immediately divined it" (19.6). Later, when Billy admits to the court that he killed Claggart, but insists that he never conspired to mutiny, Vere says, "I believe you, my man" (21.13). The narrator notes that his voice indicates, "a suppressed emotion not otherwise betrayed." Billy's helplessness leads Vere to feel a sense of responsibility for him.
Now, let's put a religious twist on this whole thing. We've noted in Billy's "Character Analysis" that the narrator compares Billy's hanging to Christ's crucifixion. Let's push the comparison a little further. Initially, who sends Christ to be crucified? Answer: God. Now, in Billy Budd, who sends Billy to be crucified? Answer: Captain Vere. According to the New Testament, God sacrificed his human son so that humanity could be forgiven of their sins and given a chance to get into heaven. Vere sacrifices the sailor who has come to feel like a son because he wants to dispel the atmosphere of mutiny and to keep order on his ship.
We'll just openly say that this interpretation might be taking the religious reading a bit too far. That said, though, when you stretch the boundaries of such comparisons you can also come up with really original ideas and interpretations. Instead of just aligning all the points of similarity, you have to ask how or why these two things are similar. The extra effort can make you see each story in a different light. It can make you observe things about each story that you would not have observed if you read it in isolation.
So let's proceed. After Captain Vere "sacrifices" Billy, he is completely and utterly wracked by guilt. His last words, as he is dying from a musket ball wound a few day's later, are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd" (28.4). Now let's close with a provocative question. In the Biblical story, is the only reason God can cope with the guilt of killing his son because he is divine? What if God were human? What if God were Captain Vere? Could he still have made the sacrifice without being completely overcome by guilt?