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Billy Budd, Sailor

Herman Melville

Chapters 6–12

Chapters 3–5

Chapters 13–17

Summary: Chapter 6

The narrator introduces Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere, an officer of aristocratic lineage. He is about forty years old. Though he is a highly distinguished and capable officer, there is nothing flashy about Captain Vere. He does not flaunt his nautical profession when he is onshore, and on ship he does not flaunt his authority or his rank. Beneath his modest exterior, however, he is a highly resolute man. Though practical enough when the situation calls for it, he has a tendency to lapse into a dreamy and abstracted state when not in action. He acquired the nickname “Starry Vere” after his cousin greeted him with that title upon his homecoming. The name comes from a poem by Andrew Marvell, where it refers to a military leader renowned as a severe disciplinarian.

Summary: Chapter 7

The narrator expands upon his initial introduction of Captain Vere. A veteran of the sea, Vere has acquired certain habits over time, including a devotion to the reading of biography, history, and unconventional, common sense philosophers such as Montaigne. His penchant for reading gives him a bookish, slightly pedantic demeanor that sometimes alienates him from his fellow officers.

Summary: Chapter 8

The narrator attempts the difficult task of describing John Claggart, the ship’s master-at-arms, who functions as a sort of police captain on the vessel. In the midst of this description, the narrator explains some of the unsavory means that were employed to recruit men to ships at that time. He considers the fact that suspects and convicted criminals make up a significant portion of any given crew, especially in a time of war. While speculation abounds that Claggart himself may be a product of the prison system, the narrator dismisses this talk as idle guesswork.

Summary: Chapter 9

“Baby Budd, Jemmy Legs is down on you.”

(See Important Quotations Explained)

From the foretop, Billy has a bird’s-eye view of the activity on the decks below. On the day after his arrival on board the Bellipotent, he witnesses a formal gangway punishment for the first time. After failing to show up at his assigned post, a novice suffers several lashes on his bare back, resulting in a grid of bloody welts. This incident makes a significant impression on Billy, who resolves to perform his duties diligently so as to avoid a similar beating. Nevertheless, he occasionally finds himself being censured for one minor infraction or another and feels a vague sense of threat directed toward him from his superiors.

Concerned about his predicament, Billy seeks out the Dansker, an elderly Danish mastman and seasoned veteran of the high seas. Finding him off duty on the gun deck, Billy proceeds to reveal his troubles to the Dansker, who listens attentively. After Billy finishes his tale, the Dansker volunteers his impression that Claggart, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the ship, dislikes Billy. Billy is left to puzzle over the possibility that he has fallen out of favor with Claggart, since Billy feels Claggart has spoken of him only in positive terms thus far.

Summary: Chapter 10

The next day at lunch, Billy accidentally spills his soup on the newly scrubbed deck of the mess hall when the ship lurches. In passing, Claggart notices the accident and remarks on the handsome effect of the spill and its maker. The comment elicits a chorus of perfunctory laughter from the crew, and Billy, unable to see the sour grimace on Claggart’s face when he made the comment, takes the incident as proof of Claggart’s esteem for him. As Claggart continues on his way, he inadvertently bumps into a drummer boy, whom he reproves for his carelessness.

Summary: Chapter 11

For what can more partake of the mysterious than an antipathy spontaneous and profound. . . .

(See Important Quotations Explained)

In an aside, the narrator confirms that Claggart does, in fact, dislike Billy. The narrator can point to no rational reason for Claggart’s aversion, and he suggests that to understand truly the nature of someone like Claggart, one would have to turn to the Bible for sufficiently deep insight into the human heart. Even as the narrator says this, however, he indicates that he is no great believer in the Bible, and thinks that his readers are likely to regard it as out of fashion as well. Ultimately, the narrator concludes that Claggart is simply naturally depraved. He was not corrupted by wicked books or evil influences—he was just born bad. Moreover, his depravity is especially sinister because in every outward appearance he seems rational, temperate, and free from sin. His madness cleverly hides itself deep within him.

Summary: Chapter 12

The narrator explains that Claggart’s dislike of Billy is rooted in envy. In the first place, Claggart envies Billy simply because it is his nature to be envious. He envies Billy’s heroic good looks, but he also envies Billy because he can plainly see that Billy has never experienced envy or malice himself. In fact, Claggart can understand Billy’s intrinsic goodness and innocence better than anyone else on the ship, and though he might like to enjoy or share in Billy’s goodness, his own evil nature does not allow it. Instead, he has to play the evil role ordained for him.

Analysis: Chapters 6–12

Because Captain Vere is introduced right after the discussion of Horatio Nelson in Chapter 4, our attention is immediately drawn to how different Vere is from the much flashier Nelson. Although the nickname “Starry Vere” seems to suit him because of his abstracted and dreamy quality, the narrator points out that the nickname is ironic: though he is a thoroughly excellent captain, Vere does not shine. We might well be inclined to consider his modest and unassuming manner a good quality, except that the narrator has just finished explaining that the personal heroism exhibited by Nelson was an effective tool to galvanize and unite the discontented sailors. Since Vere does not lead through personal charisma, as Nelson did, we may wonder how exactly Vere will deal with the dangerously restless atmosphere in the fleet in the months following the Great Mutiny. The narrator only points to Vere’s settled personal convictions. Vere leads by means of his commitment to principles, rather than by means of his personality or love of glory.

Vere’s nickname is ironic in a second way, although the narrator does not point this irony out explicitly. The character referred to as “Starry Vere” in the Marvell poem is a severe disciplinarian, whereas Captain Vere is anything but harsh or brutal in his conduct. But while the name seems ironic at this point in the story, the passage quoted from the poem provides an important piece of foreshadowing. Vere does indeed impose an unexpectedly harsh discipline upon Billy, and his commitment to principle is what prompts him to be severe.

Claggart’s fundamentally depraved nature is, as the narrator implies, a central component of the story. In contrast with those who have been led astray into evil ways, Claggart is simply evil beyond reasoning. The good man led astray may possibly still be rehabilitated. But the one born to evil is more difficult to understand or deal with. Even though Claggart’s somewhat menacing demeanor is often attributed by his associates to his past misfortunes, the narrator asserts in no uncertain terms that Claggart is simply evil at heart. Claggart’s inherently evil nature, moreover, is all the more insidious because he conceals it. The naturally depraved man, in complete possession of his faculties, may be civilized, thoroughly self-controlled, outwardly respectable, characterized by moderation, too proud to be petty, neither sensuous nor foul, and yet thoroughly evil, nonetheless. The naturally depraved man employs reason strictly in the service of irrational evil.

Thus, when Billy seeks out the Dansker in an attempt to understand his sense of foreboding, the older sailor is able to indicate a source but not a cause. The Dansker understands that Claggart’s apparent friendliness toward Billy actually conceals a pernicious dislike. As hard as Billy searches for a reason behind Claggart’s disapproval, he is completely at a loss for an answer. In his earnest quest to understand the situation, Billy reveals his innocence and naïveté, in contrast to the saltier, more perceptive members of the crew. In fact, in recognizing Billy’s inexperience and innocence, the Dansker anoints him with the title “Baby Budd.”

The respective moral natures of Billy Budd and John Claggart are symbolized by their appearances. Every bit the Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd is exactly what he appears to be: the paragon of virtue. Claggart, on the other hand, is black-haired and pale, in singular contrast to the other sailors. His visage seems “to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood.” Meanwhile, the rose-tan in Billy’s cheek is seemingly lit by “the bonfire in his heart.” Claggart himself reinforces the parallel between appearance and character when he cryptically remarks that “handsome is as handsome did it” in reference to the soup spill.

The narrator indicates that a clash between these polar opposites is inevitable. The discrepancy between the two, both physically and morally, inspires a hatred in Claggart that is both visceral and sustained. Most likely, Claggart finds Billy’s harmlessness objectionable out of envy. In addition, although Claggart is certainly capable of recognizing and containing his complex animosity for Billy, he can hardly overcome it. Thus, within the confines of the warship, the simmering conflict between Claggart and Billy seems destined to continue brewing until it boils over.

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