by Herman Melville
Billy Budd Theme of Duty
Since Billy Budd is set in the wake of the Nore Mutiny, a sense of military duty is not just a formality; it is a safeguard against massive uprisings in the British fleet. Duty often allows one to act thoughtlessly and simply follow orders, but in Billy Budd one's sense of duty becomes a true burden to carry. As the characters try to sort out difficult moral questions, it is unclear whether they are serving a higher obligation by doing their duty or simply hiding behind it. The story is nuanced enough that there is room for plenty of debate.
Questions About Duty
- During Billy's trial, does Captain Vere hide behind his sense of duty to avoid making a moral decision?
- Since a sense of duty comes from above, does this mean that the lower down you are on the naval totem pole, the greater should be your sense of duty?
- Aside from the duty prescribed by military law in the book, what other sense of duty do the characters begin to feel? How and why do these come into conflict?
- How does Billy's failure to do his duty (by not turning in the afterguard) compare to Vere properly caring out his duty (by executing Billy)?
Chew on This
Captain Vere is motivated less by a sense of military duty than by fear that the failure to execute Billy would spark an uprising against him.
Captain Vere tries to simplify his dilemma by speaking of military law in terms of duty but also by refusing to speak of natural moral obligations in terms of duty.