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Billy Budd Essay Final (AP English)

bizkitgirlzc 29 / 2  
Oct 8, 2007   #1
Hello, could someone help me with my essay - with my grammar and whether I answered the prompt or not?

Morally ambiguous characters - characters whose behavior discourages readers from identifying them as purely evil or purely good - are at the heart of many works of literature. Choose a novel or play, in which a morally ambiguous character plays a pivotal role. Then write an essay in which you explain how the character can be viewed as morally ambiguous and why his or her moral ambiguity is significant to the work as a whole. Avoid mere plot summary.

Human nature consists of trying to balance both matters of the heart and the mind. For some people, following their instinct is more valuable than logic. Others, however, prefer to trust concrete facts over their wavering sentiments. Every person will weigh out what they think against what they feel hoping that their choice in judgment is for better rather than for worst. In Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Captain Edward Vere, of the ship the Indomitable, struggles in balancing what is moral with what is rational when sentencing one of his crewmen to their death. This confliction between morale and rationale create Vere's moral ambiguity.

Like in any average human, it is intellectual curiosity and the ability to rationalize that builds the greater portion of a person's nature. With Captain Vere, his intellectual curiosity along with his way of rationalizing things creates an enigmatic character. This makes it difficult for the reader to interpret Vere's actions as purely "good or evil." When Vere is first introduced, the narrator gives us an overview of his persona pointing out his merits, "Aside from his qualities as a sea-officer, Captain Vere was an exceptional character" (7, 1). Yet the narrator does not fail to mention Vere's flaws, "...some officers of his rank...found him lacking in the companionable quality, a dry and bookish gentleman..." (7, 1). His "bookish" nature gives us insight into what sort of man he is, but most importantly it tells us what sort of captain he is. From what the narrator explains, it is obvious that Vere is an antisocial fellow. We learn that his love of reading, strangely enough, consists of only non-fiction, "...books treating of actual men and events no matter of what era-history, biography..." (7, 1) This adds a large streak of ambiguity through Vere as a character not only because of his odd taste in books being more than just a little "pedantic" but because his intellectual curiosity does not match his position as captain - "...he would be as apt to cite some historic character or incident of antiquity...unmindful of the circumstance that to his bluff company such remote allusions...were altogether alien to [his] men..." (7, 1). He does not communicate much with his crew which contradicts what any good captain should do. Basically, Vere's character is a strange juxtaposition that leaves the reader feeling perplexed. What we can conclude about Vere though, is that he is altogether a professional man who abides by the rules and applies them equally - no matter what the circumstance, "...nature's constituted like Captain Vere's...sometimes far-reaching like that of a migratory fowl that in its flight never heeds when it crosses a frontier (7, 2)." Both Vere's finicky intellectual curiosity and his straightforward rationality make him an enigma. Does the reader trust the man who has "...shown...a virtue [that is] aristocratic in kind" (6, 1)? Or should there be precaution in judging the man "...never tolerating an infraction of discipline..." (6, 1)? It is the way how Vere's virtues and flaws are presented that makes him morally ambiguous from the very beginning.

The trusting of instinct or logic varies from person to person yet in Vere, it seems that the struggle to keep both in equilibrium is beyond difficult. When the pernicious John Claggart comes to his captain to accuse the ever innocent and naïve Billy Budd of mutiny, Vere does not know whether to believe the accusation or to go with his own instinct:

Though something exceptional in the moral quality of Captain Vere made him, in earnest encounter with a fellow-man, a veritable touch-stone of that man's essential nature, yet now as to Claggart and what was really going on in him, his feeling partook less of intuitional conviction than of strong suspicion clogged by strange dubieties. (19, 4)

Even though Claggart's accusation struck as odd having "...deemed Billy Budd to be what...was called a 'King's bargain'..." (19, 4), Vere still saw it necessary to interrogate Billy either way. It is when Captain Vere interrogates both Billy and Claggart that we see Vere's true fight between his feelings and his sense of duty:

Going close up to the young sailor, and laying a soothing hand on his shoulder, he said, "There is no hurry, my boy. Take your time, take your time." ...these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touching Billy's heart... (20, 1)

Here, Vere seems to show Billy a fatherly compassion and lets his feelings favor Billy. Yet, when Billy strikes Claggart, resulting in the Man-at-arms's death, Vere changes his composure immediately and switches to rationalizing the crime that has just been committed:

Regaining erectness Captain Vere with one hand covering his face stood to all appearance as impassive as the object at his feet...Slowly he uncovered his face; and the effect was as if the moon emerging from eclipse should reappear with quite another aspect than that which had gone into hiding. The father in him, manifested towards Billy thus far in the scene, was replaced by the military disciplinarian. (20, 2)

When it comes for Vere to decide Billy's fate we see more of how difficult it is for Vere to decide between the regard he personally holds Billy in and what military law expects him to do:

In a legal view the apparent victim of the tragedy was he who had sought to victimize a man blameless; and the indisputable deed of the latter, navally regarded, constituted the most heinous of military crimes. Yet more. 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. (22, 1)

Torn between what his feelings tell him and what his "by-the-book" personality dictates him to do, Vere has a conflict within himself that makes the reader wonder whether his decision to sentence Billy to hang makes him evil or simply the victim of his position in the Navy.

Then again, it is perhaps Melville's intention to make Vere morally ambiguous. Or better yet, to demonstrate that humans are morally ambiguous. Throughout the novella, the three main characters - Billy, Claggart and Vere - play pivotal roles in developing the conflict of the plot. These characters together form a triangle of sorts in which each angle pertains to a certain quality. Billy Budd, for example represents the heart with his innocence and inner goodness:

Now Billy like sundry other essentially good-natured ones had some of the weaknesses inseparable from essential good-nature; and among these was a reluctance, almost an incapacity of plumply saying no to an abrupt proposition...(15, 1)

On the other hand, there is John Claggart with his own corner of the triangle who represents the mind with his intellect and malice:
Claggart's envy struck deeper...the Master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd. (13, 1)

Both Billy and Claggart's qualities build up the third corner of the triangle which is represented by Captain Vere, who is the most human of the two, having both heart and mind. What Melville tries to get across with Vere is that humans are neither purely evil nor purely good. Moral ambiguity is human. Melville's biblical allusions of comparing Billy to Adam and Claggart to a serpent (Lucifer), gives us the standards of what is good and what is evil, of what pertains to the heart and to the mind. Vere is a combination of both which ends up becoming his dilemma. He becomes a victim of the clash between the pathos and the logos within his nature. And like any other human, his flaws lead to his mistakes. Vere's antisocial nature leads him to make the ill decision of sentencing Billy to death:

No, to the people the Foretopman's deed, however it be worded in the announcement, will be plain homicide committed in a flagrant act of mutiny. What penalty for that should follow, they know. But it does not follow. Why? they will ruminate. You know what sailors are. Will they not revert to the recent outbreak at the Nore? Ay. They know the well-founded alarm--the panic it struck throughout England. Your clement sentence they would account pusillanimous. (22, 7)

If Vere had spent more time with his crew rather than isolated with his books, he would have been able to see that the crew would have loved him more for letting Billy live than hanging him. Vere's ill judgment is not due because he is good or evil, it is due to his flaws - his human flaws. After all, it is only human to make mistakes. Vere's decision of upholding rationale over feelings leads him to judge wrongly represents his error, his flaws, and his humanness.

Vere's moral ambiguity is essential for the plot of Billy Budd because it is what leads Vere to decide Billy's sentence. It is the tug between Vere's mind and heart that make him morally ambiguous and what makes him human. His difficulty in balancing both his feelings with his reasoning creates the enigma that is Vere and that is human. In Vere the reader can understand how human nature is conflicting within itself and how ethical dilemmas become more of an inner struggle than an outer one. It is in Melville's Billy Budd that we see how moral ambiguity can be creates by choosing whether to moralize rationality or rationalize morality.

EF_Team2 1 / 1,709  
Oct 9, 2007   #2

I think you've done a marvelous job with the essay, and have followed the prompt very well! Here are a few editing tips for you:

hoping that their choice in judgment is for better rather than for worse.

when sentencing one of his crewmen to [delete "their"] death.

As with any average human, it is intellectual curiosity and the ability to rationalize that builds the greater portion of a person's nature.

It is the way [delete "how"] Vere's virtues and flaws are presented that makes him morally ambiguous from the very beginning.

Vere's ill judgment is not [delete "due"] because he is good or evil, it is due to his flaws

Vere's decision of upholding rationale over feelings leads him to judge wrongly and represents his error, his flaws, and his humanness.

It is in Melville's Billy Budd that we see how moral ambiguity can be created by choosing whether to moralize rationality or rationalize morality.

Excellent work!


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