Notes on Billy Budd Themes

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Billy Budd Topic Tracking: Morality

Morality 1: Billy's morality is simple and honest--the author says this often. What is implied, however, is the depth of this innocence. Billy does not struggle with the naval officer enlisting him, because this is his duty. Although he might not want to go into the navy, he goes anyway and he tries to do well once he gets there.

Morality 2: Captain Vere is an intellectual; he is also mistaken for a gentleman. His ideas of morality and right and wrong are heavily influenced by this. He thinks in terms of historical allusion. Right and wrong are not contextual for him, they are static.

Morality 3: Billy's moral system is such that when he hears Claggart doesn't like him he is stunned. He cannot imagine that someone would pretend they would like him but secretly dislike him. He is innocent and simple.

Morality 4: Claggart, a cold and calculating man, is overcome by a hatred for one man. In this, there is no right or wrong for him. Any treatment of Billy, regardless of what it results in, is a means to an end, an expression of his natural depravity. He thinks that Billy doesn't like him, therefore, he should not like Billy. Since he doesn't like Billy, he intends to ruin him.

Morality 5: While Billy is still unable to accept that someone who seems to like him really dislikes him, Claggart is carefully watching him and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He sees nothing wrong with this. Billy on the other hand sees something so wrong with counterfeiting the way you feel about someone that he doesn't believe it.

Morality 6: The captain has nothing but positive impressions from Billy Budd, but he cannot dismiss the claims of one of his officers. He does not know Claggart very well, since he is a new addition to the crew. Instead of making a bad decision he decides to hear both sides of the story and test both the sailor and the officer.

Morality 7: The ideals behind the conviction of Billy are tangled and complex. There are two clashing sets of morality. The first is very philosophical: Billy did not intend to kill Claggart; he reacted with passion. The second is authoritarian: killing is wrong; Billy killed. Captain Vere enforces the authoritarian morality because they are in the navy. There is nothing more important than authority in the armed forces. This is the thinking behind Captain Vere's convictions. His officers are upset because they know intuitively that Billy did nothing intentionally. His heart is still pure.

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