Character Analysis Captain Vere


Of the three men, the most controversial is Vere. Like Claggart, he is intelligent, but his intelligence, unlike Claggart's, brings him wisdom rather than monomania. He is Melville's complete man, his ideal man of action, mind, and heart. At all times, he is clear-thinking, thorough, and just. A forthright and frank commander, he represents the synthesis of heart and mind.

Vere's most symbolic and controversial act is the trial and execution of Billy Budd, who seems like a son to him. (Note that some critics extend this notion to the point of claiming that Vere is Billy's unknown parent.) Because of his immersion in duty, Vere wants nothing unexpected in his day and rules his ship by the book. In the matter of Billy's alleged conspiracy, Vere puts the welfare of the state above natural law and personal feelings. He subordinates conscience to adherence to the naval code. Fearing the consequences if Billy's transgression goes unpunished, he persuades the drumhead court to suppress sympathy and to act for the greater good of society, as represented by the British navy. Even though he feels compassion for Billy, he realizes the necessity of making an example of him to preserve the king's law. Caught between love and duty, he is, on one hand, a tragic figure irrevocably impelled toward duty. In a harsher evaluation, Vere is a mechanical martinet who allows the strictures of the naval code to overrule what he knows to be morally right.

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