Billy Budd Summary – Chapter 1-2
Melville begins Billy Budd by describing a kind of archetypal “Handsome Sailor,” who could often be found where sailors congregated ashore. Such a sailor seemed to be naturally superior to his shipmates, and was highly regarded by them. The narrator gives an example of a black sailor he once observed in the English port of Liverpool. He was a tall, jovial figure who was always at the center of his company of shipmates. The “Handsome Sailor” was invariably a proficient sailor, extremely strong, probably excelling also in boxing or wrestling. He was the kind of man that others told admiring tales about. He also possessed high moral qualities to go with his physical strength and grace, and these were also recognized by his shipmates.
Such a “Handsome Sailor” was twenty-one-year-old Billy Budd, a foretopman in the British fleet towards the end of the last decade of the eighteenth century. He had been forced into service on the warship, H.M.S. Indomitable, after serving on a merchant ship, the Rights-of-Man. Although Billy was the only one of the merchantmen who was “impressed” (forced) into service he did not protest.
In the captain’s cabin of the merchant ship, Captain Graveling tells Lieutenant Radcliffe of the Indomitable a story about Billy Budd, whom he regards as his best sailor. Before Billy arrived on the ship, the crew were always quarreling amongst themselves. But Billy’s presence seemed to spread a peaceful influence around him, and the quarrels ceased. Billy was extremely popular amongst the men. Only one man, nicknamed Red Whiskers, disliked Billy and tried to provoke him. Billy lashed out and gave the man a beating. After this, Red Whiskers renounced his dislike of Billy and was as fond of him as all the other sailors were. The sailors would do anything for Billy. Captain Graveling fears that now Billy is to be taken away, his men will go back to quarreling.
Lieutenant Radcliffe, who has a liking for drink and is enjoying the Captain’s hospitality, says that the King will be delighted to hear that the captain surrendered without argument his best sailor to the King’s service.
Billy boards the boat that will take him to the Indomitable. As the boat passes under the stern of the Rights-of-Man, Billy jumps up from the bow and shouts a farewell to his shipmates and to his ship. Billy’s actions are a breach of decorum, and Lieutenant Radcliffe tells him to sit down. Radcliffe suspects that Billy was attempting to protest at his being forced into service, but in fact, there was no such intention in Billy’s words. He did not resent being forcibly enlisted.
On the Indomitable, Billy Budd is assigned to the starboard watch of the foretop, which was a platform at the head of the foremast. He quickly gets used to his assignment and goes about it cheerfully, unlike some of his other shipmates who were also “impressed.”
Billy’s position in the life of the warship is likened to a beautiful country girl who has come from the provinces and is now in competition with the higher born women of the court. The other sailors, who have seen many battles, are more hardened than he. Everyone on the ship has a favorable impression of Billy. When a captain questions him about his origins, he is impressed by the simplicity and straightforwardness of Billy’s replies. It turns out that Billy is a foundling-an abandoned baby who was found in a basket hanging from a door knocker in Bristol. The suggestion is that Billy Budd may be of noble descent.
Billy is illiterate and has had little education in the usual sense of the word, but his nature is entirely unsophisticated, without guile. His has not been corrupted by anything. The only defect in him is that on occasion he has a stammer. The stammer would occur if he was provoked of if he felt something deeply.
Chapters 1-2 Analysis
The first two chapters introduce the main character and place him in the environment in which the story is to take place. Melville does not introduce Billy Budd until the sixth paragraph of the story. He uses the first five paragraphs to set up a series of images of an exceptional, universal type of man, the “Handsome Sailor,” of which Billy Budd is to be another embodiment. By this archetype he suggests a kind of natural strength, beauty and vivacity uncorrupted by civilization, an “upright barbarian,” as the narrator describes Billy.
The descriptions of Billy are also infused with Biblical symbolism that emphasizes his innocence and sinlessness. In chapter 2 he is described as wholly without “the wisdom of the serpent,” which suggests he is like Adam before the Fall. It was the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, promising wisdom in exchange for the eating of the apple. Two paragraphs later the allusion becomes explicit when Billy is described as “like Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.” Melville adds to this by seeming to equate the Fall of man with the growth of civilization, what he calls “citified man.” Billy Budd is therefore the representative of the innocent purity of nature versus the corruption inherent in civilization.
However, Billy Budd may be like Adam but he is not wholly without blemish. He is after all living in a world that according to Christian doctrine is “fallen,” and therefore cannot support perfection. Satan has a hand, whether large or small, in everything. This is shown in the fact that Billy has a speech impediment, which the narrator explicitly attributes to the malign influence of Satan. It is this defect that is instrumental in bringing about Billy’s tragic fate.
In chapter 1, Melville makes use of the technique of foreshadowing, in which a certain image or event may hint at something that becomes more significant later on in the story. This is the incident that took place on the merchant ship, when the quarrelsome Red Whiskers took a dislike Billy for no good reason and goaded him, leading to Billy’s lashing out. This is very similar to what happens later between John Claggart and Billy. Melville uses the incident to show that although Billy Budd is a gentleman, unwilling to quarrel, he can become aggressive if provoked. This makes the later incident more believable since the reader has already seen Billy behaving in this way.
Billy Budd Summary – Chapters 3-5
These chapters interrupt the main narrative but give important background information about events that happened in the British Navy only a few months before the story of Billy Budd takes place.
The first event was an outbreak of disorder in the British Navy at Spithead, off the south of England, in April, 1797. The sailors’ rebellion was put down, and concessions were made by the authorities to address their grievances.
Then came a much more serious event, the Nore mutiny, known as the “Great Mutiny.” It occurred at Nore, at the mouth of the River Thames, in May, 1797, and involved thousands of sailors. The causes were twofold: the failure of the British Navy to address the grievances of the ordinary sailors, and the continuing revolutionary situation in France, which was fanning the flames of discontent in England. The Nore mutiny was extremely serious since Britain was the world’s leading naval power, and relied on its prowess on the seas. The mutiny was suppressed, and many of the mutineers went on to perform admirable in naval battles over the next decade.
Chapter 5 is a digression in which the narrator looks back, from his own time in the late nineteenth century, at the changing nature of sea warfare. He is especially interested in the career of Lord Nelson, the British admiral who defeated the French near the mouth of the Nile in 1798, and then died during his victory over the French at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The narrator dismisses certain historians who claim that Nelson was foolhardy and would have survived Trafalgar had he curbed his unnecessary bravado. According to the narrator, Nelson’s victory was a magnificent one and his death a glorious one.
In Chapter 5, the narrator points out that although some of the grievances that led to the two mutinies were addressed, others continued. One of the continuing problems was the practice of “impressment,” the forcing of men into naval service. The narrator argues, however, that such a practice was necessary at the time in order to man the fleet.
But because of lingering discontent amongst the men, the fear of mutiny remained, even after the Nore Mutiny was put down. Sometimes in a naval battle, the lieutenants would stand with drawn swords behind the men who worked the guns, just to ensure that they did their duty.
Chapters 3-5 Analysis
The information given in these chapters is important because it shows the kind of atmosphere that prevailed on the ships of the British Navy at the end of the eighteenth century, on one of which was Billy Budd. The fear of mutiny will later emerge as a significant element in the unfolding tragedy of the “Handsome Sailor.”
The narrator’s descriptions of the two mutinies are historically accurate, although he gives only a few details. The first mutiny, at Spithead, involved sixteen ships. The men refused to sail, demanding better pay and conditions, and better treatment in general. The mutiny was a peaceful, orderly affair, and the authorities responded with leniency. Some abusive officers were removed, and the demands of the mutineers were for the most part met. The mutineers were also pardoned.
The Nore mutiny, as the narrator explains, was far more serious. The mutineers made more far-reaching demands than those that had been made at Spithead, including demands for more shore leave and changes to the Articles of War. They attempted to enforce their demands by blockading the river Thames. This time the authorities reacted more harshly. The leading mutineers were court-martialed and hanged from the yardarm of HMS Sandwich. Others were imprisoned or flogged.
Billy Budd Summary – Chapters 6-14
Chapters 6 to 8 are devoted to detailed descriptions of two of the main characters. First, there is the captain of H.M.S. Indomitable, Captain Vere. Vere is a modest man with a very distinguished naval record. Nicknamed “Starry Vere” by one of his relatives, he is a practical man but possesses a dreamy side. He is also something of an intellectual, and loves reading, mainly history and biography. His reading has given him some steady convictions about life, and he resists getting drawn to new ideas in politics and society, which he regards as not being in the best interests of mankind. (This refers to the ideas of democracy and liberty that stem from the French Revolution that began in 1789, eight years before the events recorded in the novel.)
Chapter 8 introduces the third major character in the novel, after Billy Budd and Captain Vere. This is John Claggart, the master-at-arms. Claggart is a petty officer, which is the rough equivalent of a noncommissioned officer in a modern army. Claggart’s main job is to preserve order on the lower gun decks. Claggart is a man of above average intelligence, and his manner suggests that of an educated man. Nobody knows anything about his early life, although rumors circulate that he was a swindler (a “chevalier”) who entered the Navy in order to avoid prosecution. The rumor gains credence because it was not uncommon in this period for those who were suspected of having committed a crime, to be seized by the police and sent off to join the fleet. Sometimes debtors joined the Navy in order to escape their difficult situation. On some occasions, also, if a warship was short-handed, men would be recruited direct from the jails.
The narrator suggests that the talk amongst the crew about Claggart is not very plausible because no master-at-arms can ever hope to be popular with his men. They are likely to believe anything bad they hear about him.
Chapter 9 returns to Billy Budd. He settles down quickly on the ship and is content in his position in the foretop. He gets on well with everyone. His strict attention to his duty is enhanced by the fact that soon after he joined the Indomitable, he witnessed the severe flogging of a man who was accused of dereliction of duty. As a result of what he saw, Billy determined that he would never give even the slightest cause for such a punishment to be imposed on him. He is therefore surprised when he finds himself getting into minor trouble about small things, such as something not quite right about his hammock. He wonders how this could happen when he is so careful not to offend or break the rules.
Billy goes for advice to an old Danish sailor, a man whom he regards as a hero for his earlier service under Admiral Nelson. The Dankser tells him that Claggart, the master-at-arms, whom he calls “Jimmy Legs,” is down on him. Billy expresses his astonishment, because Claggart always has a pleasant word for him. The Dansker replies that that is because Claggart is down on him. But he will not elaborate, leaving Billy even more puzzled than before.
The next day an incident occurs that seems to prove to Billy that the Dansker’s words are unfounded. Billy accidentally spills his soup on the freshly cleaned deck. Claggart is walking past at the time, and takes little notice of the incident, until he realizes who spilled the soup. He taps Billy and says, “Handsomely done, my lad!” Billy does not notice the grimace that accompanies Claggart’s words. He laughs with his shipmates at the incident, which seems to suggest that Claggart has no hostile feelings toward Billy.
At the beginning of chapter 11, the narrator confirms that appearances to the contrary, Claggart is indeed down on Billy Budd. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to exploring why Claggart feels this way. There is no reason for his hostility, which is spontaneous and profound, other than Billy’s innocence and his harmlessness. This attracts the enmity of Claggart because the master-at-arms embodies what the narrator describes as “natural depravity.” His evil nature was something he was born with rather something he acquired during his life.
In chapter 13, the narrator reveals that Claggart’s hatred of Billy was first aroused by Billy’s great personal beauty. But this was made worse by the fact that not only was Billy handsome but he was completely without malice toward anyone. Claggart understands more than anyone else on the ship the unusual phenomenon that is Billy Budd, and this only fuels his hatred more. Claggart is able to hide the evil in himself, but he cannot renounce it. It is part of his being.
The narrator suggests that Claggart may have believed that Billy’s spilling of the soup was a spontaneous expression of feelings of antipathy toward him, Claggart. This is because Claggart has been employing a cunning sailor named Squeak to lay little traps for Billy Budd. Squeak likes to please his master and invents incidents and words that put Billy Budd in a bad light. Claggart believes that the lying Squeak is telling the truth, and this gives him even more cause, in his own mind, to persecute Billy. He thinks he is being righteous in bringing retribution to Billy.
Chapters 6-14 Analysis
The investigation of character is an important element in Billy Budd, and this section completes the picture of the three main characters, Billy Budd, Captain Vere and John Claggart. The actual events in this section are few: the spilling of the soup, Billy’s conversation with the Dansker, the information about Squeak’s “dirty tricks” against Billy.
Melville’s concern is not so much with outer events, since in terms of the plot, this is a very simple story. His concern in this section is to build up the coming clash between the principle of evil (embodied in Claggart) and the principle of good (embodied in Billy Budd). It is as if the drama is taking place on a metaphysical plane, rather than-or at least in addition to-the human one. Of particular interest is Melville’s exploration of the nature of Claggart’s evil. All that can be said about it is that it simply exists; it is innate. It does not arise from any human cause, since Billy Budd gives no offense. Melville seems to be saying that evil is naturally drawn to destroy good. It cannot do anything else. In this case, the principle of good, because of its embodiment in the nave and trusting Billy Budd, has as yet no inkling of the peril that it is in.
Billy Budd Summary – Chapters 15-18
One warm night, Billy is awakened on the uppermost deck by a man who tells him to come to a hidden platform, where the man will meet him. Billy does as he is asked. The stranger, a member of the ship’s crew, says he knows Billy was impressed (that is, forced into service), and that he was too. The stranger says that they are not the only impressed men on the ship, and asks Billy if he would like to help them. Billy is so surprised and angry that he begins to stutter. He tells the man to go away, but the sailor does not move. Billy threatens to throw him overboard, and the man disappears in the direction of the mainmast.
A couple of forecastlemen inquire of Billy what the noise was about, and Billy explains that an afterguardsman had come into their part of the ship, and he, Billy, had sent the man away. The two sailors accept his explanation.
Billy puzzles over the meaning of the stranger’s words, which make him uneasy. He has no idea what the stranger had in mind, except that it must have been evil.
The following day he sees the man again, on the upper gun deck. The man is chatting and laughing with some of the crew and does not look like someone who would be engaged in a conspiracy. The man nods to Billy in a friendly manner. Billy sees him again a couple of days later, and the man gives him another friendly greeting.
Billy keeps the earlier incident to himself. It does not enter his mind that he should report it to the proper authorities, and in any case, he would not wish to be known as a tell-tale.
But he does confide in the old Dansker, who tells him once again that “Jimmy Legs” is down on him. Billy is amazed, and wonders what Claggart has to do with the incident. But the Dansker offers no reply.
Billy refuses to believe that the master-at-arms is against him. He is young and inexperienced, with no knowledge or intuition about evil. Meanwhile, Claggart seems to become even more amiable and well-disposed toward him. The worst Billy thinks of him is that Claggart behaves in an odd manner sometimes. He has no inkling of the malice Claggart bears toward him.
Billy’s innocence continues even when two minor officers, both of whom are Claggart’s messmates, start looking at him in a way that suggests they have been told something about him that is not complimentary. Billy, who is popular with most of the crew, does not give this a second thought. Nor does he seek to question the sailor who had accosted him with talk of the impressed men needing his help.
Meanwhile, the hatred of Claggart for Billy continues to burn but is still hidden under Claggart’s reasonable exterior.
Chapters 15-18 Analysis
These chapters move the action forward by showing how evil, in the form of Claggart, continues to work insidiously on its intended target. Claggart is capable of using others to promote his own ends, a concept that is utterly foreign to Billy Budd. Evil is cunning, while good, in this case, is unable to fight back because it does not even know it is being attacked. Billy is described as a “child-man”; he is so innocent he is ill-equipped to survive in the world, which has its fair share of Claggarts waiting to do harm for no other reason than the fact that harm is what they do. Claggart’s obsession with Billy, whose very innocence acts as a goad to him, is captured in the phrase “monomania,” which describes his state of mind.
With the words, “Something decisive must come of it,” (Claggart’s monomania) that close the chapter, Melville is setting up the two chapters that follow, in which the tragic situation comes to a head.
Billy Budd Summary – Chapters 19-21
After an incident in which the Indomitable pursues an enemy frigate, Claggart approaches Captain Vere. He tells the captain that there is one sailor aboard who is dangerous. He alludes to the fact that many of the crew are impressed men, and some took part in the recent mutinies at Spithead and Nore. He implies they might be ready to join another mutiny on the Indomitable, and tells Vere he is almost certain that a conspiracy is being mounted, led by this one sailor. Claggart’s allusion to the Nore mutiny annoys the captain, although he is not unduly disturbed by Claggart’s report. He is not completely convinced of the veracity of what Claggart has told him.
Claggart then names the man he is referring to. It is of course Billy Budd. Captain Vere is astonished. But Claggart says that underneath his pleasant exterior, Budd is a dangerous man.
Vere is surprised because he has a favorable impression of Billy. He admires the way Billy accepted with good grace that he was being forced into naval service. Vere also approves of Billy’s performance since he has been on the ship, and was thinking of offering him a promotion.
Vere demands proof of Claggart’s accusations, and he warns his master-at-arms that if his report is false, he will be hanged. Claggart replies that he has proof. Vere is apprehensive about what might happen if Claggart’s accusation were to become publicly known, so he decides to proceed quietly. He summons Albert, a hammock-boy (a kind of valet) and tells the boy to discreetly inform Billy that he is wanted in the captain’s cabin.
Captain Vere, Claggart and Billy Budd meet in the captain’s cabin. Claggart looks Billy in the eye and repeats his accusation. Billy is speechless. Captain Vere tells him to speak up and defend himself. Billy, who is astonished at the accusation, struggles desperately to get some words out, but because of his alarm, his speech impediment appears and prevents him from saying a word. Captain Vere, guessing what the problem is, tells him gently to take his time. Billy struggles harder to speak, but still nothing comes out of his mouth. Then suddenly his right arm shoots out and strikes Claggart on the forehead. Claggart falls to the ground and lies motionless.
Vere sends Billy to a stateroom and tells him to wait until he is summoned. Vere sends for a surgeon, who confirms that Claggart is dead. Vere is very agitated and makes some excited remarks that the surgeon finds disturbing. Then he and the surgeon move the body to another room. Vere says he will immediately call a drumhead (emergency) court.
The surgeon leaves the cabin full of misgiving. He does not think the drumhead court is a good idea. He would prefer to postpone action until the ship rejoins its squadron, and then refer the case to the admiral. Disturbed by Vere’s strange manner, he wonders whether the captain may be insane.
Chapters 19-21 Analysis
In these chapters, although they feature the clash between Claggart and Billy Budd that has long been building, the emphasis is really on Captain Vere. Claggart and Billy Budd behave as they must, Claggart motivated by evil, and Billy Budd lashing out in indignant frustration at being falsely accused. The symbolic associations of Billy as Adam, (innocent man before the Fall), and Claggart as the evil serpent are repeated in these chapters, continuing the symbolism that has been established during the course of the novel.
It is Captain Vere whose behavior is now to be put under the microscope. It is he who is put in a morally difficult position, which will test his abilities and his judgment. In chapter 19, Vere’s exceptional moral quality is emphasized. He has good intuitions about the essential nature of those he meets, and in the situation he finds himself in he considers his actions carefully. He is prudent and cautious. However, Vere’s judgment about calling the drumhead court is questioned by the surgeon (although not to Vere’s face), who also raises the specter of Vere’s state of mind.
It is clear that Vere believes Billy Budd to be innocent of Claggart’s charge. He also expresses his belief that Claggart’s death represents the judgment of God against him. His quoting from the Books of Acts (Acts 5: 1-5), confirms this: “It is the divine judgment on Ananias!” In the Bible, Ananias tries to withhold from the apostle Peter some money he has made from selling property. Peter tells him he has lied not to men but to God. When he hears this, Ananias falls down dead. His death is believed by those present to be a judgment of God on his lies.
The ethical and moral question for Captain Vere now becomes, if Claggart was a false accuser, what should become of Billy Budd who killed him? If Claggart deserved to die, and his death is God’s judgment upon him, what should be the fate of the man who was acting only as God’s instrument? Only a moment after Vere utters the quotation about Ananias, he appears to answer this question: “Struck dead by an angel of God! But the angel must hang!” But as the next chapter will show, the matter is not that simple.
Billy Budd Summary – Chapters 22-25
Captain Vere is determined to maintain secrecy in the matter. He also has a sense of urgency about it, and feels that action must be taken immediately. He therefore convenes the drumhead court, made up of himself, the first lieutenant, the captain of marines, and the sailing master. The court meets in the same cabin where Claggart was killed.
Billy Budd is summoned, and Captain Vere testifies as to what happened. When asked to speak, Billy confirms that Vere has told the truth, but Claggart did not. Captain Vere says he believes him. Billy then says that he bore no malice toward Claggart, and is sorry he is dead. He did not mean to kill him.
Next, Billy is asked if he knew of any trouble brewing on the ship. Billy decides not to mention the incident with the afterguardsman, and replies in the negative.
The court then asks Billy why Claggart might have lied about him. Billy cannot answer this, and Captain Vere intervenes, saying that such a question cannot be answered. He also says it is irrelevant, since all the court has to consider is the consequences of the blow that Billy gave Claggart. The other members of the court are uneasy about this declaration, since it seems to prejudge the issue.
After Billy Budd declines to add anything to what he has said, he is taken away from the cabin. Captain Vere then addresses the court. He acknowledges the moral dilemma they are in. He asks whether justice demands that only the prisoner’s act should be considered, and not the circumstances surrounding them. They all agree that the dilemma is whether to condemn to death a man who they know is “innocent before God.” But he reminds the court that they all owe allegiance to the King, and must perform their duty according to what martial law decrees. They should not let their hearts rule their heads. He adds that adherence to martial law should also overrule private conscience.
Captain Vere goes on to say that under martial law, Billy’s offense was a capital crime, that is, one that demanded the death penalty. The officer of marines interrupts him, saying that Billy Budd planned neither mutiny nor murder. The captain replies that they have to proceed under the law of the Mutiny Act, which must show less mercy than another court might do. What Billy intended, argues the captain, is irrelevant. They must consider only the act itself.
The junior lieutenant asks if they can convict but mitigate the penalty. The captain replies that even if that were lawful, it would be perceived by the crew as weak action on the part of the authorities. This would have bad consequences for discipline on the ship.
The captain then leaves the three officers alone to reach a decision. Unwilling to take a position at odds with that of the captain, they convict Billy Budd, and sentence him to hang at the yardarm in the early morning watch, which is only a few hours away.
Captain Vere himself conveys the news to Billy Budd. The narrator confines himself to offering some conjectures about what happened between the two men. He suggests the captain probably confided honestly in Billy about the nature of the deliberations of the court, and that Billy took the news calmly, as a man not afraid of dying. The two men may even have embraced.
As Captain Vere leaves Budd, he is observed by the senior lieutenant, who is startled by the look of anguish on the captain’s face.
Captain Vere calls all the ship’s crew together on the quarter-deck and addresses them. He tells them what has happened and that Billy Budd is to be hanged. The men listen in silence, and when he has finished, a confused murmur goes up.
Claggart is buried at sea with all the honor and ceremony his naval grade demanded.
On the upper gun deck, Billy lies in irons between two guns. No one is allowed to see him except the chaplain. He lies as in a trance, looking like a sleeping child. The chaplain comes, but when he observes Billy he decides to leave him undisturbed since even though he is a minister of Christ, he cannot offer Billy any more peace than that which he sees already in the man’s face.
The chaplain returns later, and Billy is awake. He is whole without fear of death. The chaplain talks to him about salvation and a Saviour, but it is all wasted on Billy. He listens politely, but the chaplain’s talk is too abstract to mean anything to him. The chaplain does not wish to force his attentions on Billy, so once again he withdraws, but not before kissing Billy on the cheek.
Chapters 22-25 Analysis
The reader will feel that Billy gets a rough deal from the court. No modern civilian court would convict a man of murder, let alone impose the death penalty, based on the evidence against Billy. At most, the charge against him would be manslaughter (since he did not intend to kill Claggart). Mitigating circumstances (the fact that Billy was falsely accused), would also be taken into account.
The reader may also blame Captain Vere for the apparent injustice suffered by Billy, since it is Vere who persuades the court to condemn Billy to death. But Vere believes he must uphold the laws of human society, and especially those of the state pertaining to military matters. There are two sets of laws, a heavenly law and an earthly law. Under the first, Billy will be acquitted. Captain Vere is aware of this. He says Billy will be acquitted at the Last Assizes, by which he means the Last Judgment, when everyone is judged by God according to their deeds. But the human world is a different matter. Vere, as the captain of the ship, is like the god of the sphere of life over which he has control. What his judgment against Billy suggests is that innocence and purity such as Billy’s cannot survive in the harsh, human world.
The conundrum of whose law to obey, that of God or that of man, is brought into focus again at the close of chapter 25. The narrator comments that the chaplain is powerless to protest against Billy’s sentence since he is barred by military law from doing so. “[A] chaplain is the minister of the Prince of Peace serving in the host of the God of War.” It seems that the God of War has the upper hand, at least in the case of Billy Budd.
Billy Budd Summary – Chapters 26-31
Billy Budd is brought to the mainyard, accompanied by the chaplain. Billy’s last words before he is hanged, even as the rope is around his neck, are “God bless Captain Vere!” The assembled men spontaneously repeat his words, although they are really thinking not of the captain but of Billy. When Billy is hanged, his body makes no movement other than that created by the roll of the ship.
Chapter 27 is a digression. A few days after the hanging, the ship’s purser is in a discussion with the surgeon. The purser says that the reason Billy’s body did not jerk around as he was hanged is a tribute to will power. But the surgeon replies that the muscular spasms involved in such a situation are entirely involuntary. Will power has nothing to do with it. The surgeon declines to offer another explanation for why there were no spasms in the body.
In chapter 28, the narrative returns to the scene at the hanging. Immediately after the execution, there is a low murmur amongst the men. But this is cut off by the call back to duty. In a little while the crew reassembles in order to witness Billy’s burial. His hammock serves as his coffin, and he is lowered into the sea. A group of large birds flies screaming to the spot where Billy’s body disappeared. The men on the ship, being superstitious, view this as a matter of great significance. But before they can discuss it amongst themselves, they are called back to duty. The captain brings forward some of the ceremonial routine of the day, so that the men are kept occupied and in order. Then there is the customary morning religious service, and life on the ship continues as before.
As the Indomitable sails back to rejoin the rest of the English fleet, it engages a French warship, the Atheiste, in battle. The Indomitable is victorious, but Captain Vere is wounded. He is taken ashore at the British port of Gibraltar, where he dies a few days later. When he is near death, he is heard to mutter the words, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd,” but it does not sound as if he is remorseful.
Some weeks after the execution, an account of the incident appears in an official naval publication. It gives a very misleading account of what happened, claiming that Claggart thwarted a plot and was then stabbed in the heart by Billy Budd.
The men on the Indomitable, however, preserve different memories of what happened. They remember Billy with more than affection. They keep track of the spar (wooden beam) from which Billy was hanged, following it from ship to dockyard and back again, and still pursuing it when it is reduced to a mere dockyard boom. A chip from it is as valuable to them as a piece of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. One of the foretopmen writes a ballad which circulates among the men, and is finally printed in Portsmouth. It is called “Billy in the Darbies.”
Chapters 26-31 Analysis
At the time of Billy’s death and afterwards, he becomes a Christ-like figure. At his death “the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision.” The narrator attributes this phenomenon to chance, but it is a clear indication that there is something about Billy that resembles Christ, who in the New Testament is described as the Lamb of God. Another parallel between the status of Billy and that of Christ is in how the men of the Indomitable revere the spar from which Billy was hung. For them it is a sacred relic, no less than if they had found a piece of the Cross.