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Billy Budd, Sailor

Herman Melville

Chapters 13–17

Chapters 6–12

Chapters 13–17, page 2

page 1 of 3

Summary: Chapter 13

The narrator explains that profound passions can exist in the lowliest settings, and may be provoked by trivial circumstances. The passion to which he refers belongs to Claggart, who is beginning to resent Billy with fervent intensity. Given time to reflect upon the matter, Claggart arrives at the conclusion that Billy’s soup spill is no accident. Rather, he believes that it is a gesture revealing Billy’s ill will toward him, whether this antagonism is conscious or not. Squeak, a wizened corporal and Claggart’s underling, who also has it in for Billy, reinforces Claggart’s opinions. In addition to persecuting Billy at every opportunity, Squeak lies to Claggart and tells him that Billy makes fun of him behind his back. Searching for a reason to justify his hatred of Billy and encouraged by Squeak’s lies, Claggart seizes upon the soup spill as an indication of Billy’s malice and uses it as an excuse to increase the level of his own enmity.

Summary: Chapter 14

Shortly thereafter, on a warm night, Billy inadvertently becomes involved in a troubling incident. While dozing on an upper deck of the ship, he is roused by a whisper and a touch to his shoulder. An anonymous figure tells Billy to meet him shortly thereafter on a narrow balcony in a remote part of the ship. Innocently, Billy gets up mechanically and goes to the balcony as instructed. Presently, the other man arrives, and though it is dark and hazy Billy is able to identify him as one of the afterguardsmen. Declaring that he was forced into duty just like Billy, the man asks Billy in a roundabout way if he would be willing to assist, if ever a mutiny occurred.

Not immediately grasping the man’s meaning, Billy presses him for a further explanation. When the man holds up a pair of coins and declares them to be Billy’s for the taking, Billy reacts violently, stuttering in fits and starts. Billy orders the man to return to his place on the ship, threatening to throw him overboard if he does not comply. Taking Billy for his word, the man scuttles off. Awakened by Billy’s loud threat and knowing that Billy stutters only when something is truly amiss, a forecastleman emerges to check on the commotion. Billy explains that he has sent a trespassing afterguardsman back to his proper place on the ship. At this, yet another forecastleman comes forth, this time to rebuke Billy for his relative mildness in dealing with the encroaching afterguardsman. However, Billy convinces the forecastlemen that everything has been handled with adequate gruffness, and the matter is dropped.

Summary: Chapter 15

In the aftermath of this incident, Billy wrestles with his conscience, as he has no prior experience in the world of the corrupt or the illicit. He is at a loss to explain the nature of the afterguardsman’s bribe or to figure out where the afterguardsman might have acquired guineas at sea. The more he considers the matter, the more bewildered he becomes. At the very least, Billy perceives that the whole affair smacks of evil. Therefore, he decides that he has no wish to be associated with it, although he is curious to learn more of its specific nature.

The following afternoon, Billy spots the man he thinks to be the afterguardsman on an upper gun deck. The man on the gun deck hardly fits the picture of a jaded conspirator, however. The man spots Billy before Billy spots him, and sends a nod in Billy’s direction. A couple of days later, the two men again cross paths on a gun deck, and the afterguardsman offers a friendly but unexpected word of greeting to Billy. Embarrassed by the awkward situation, Billy fails to return the greeting and is sent into a greater confusion by the odd turn of events.

Once again, Billy chooses to unburden himself to the salty old Dansker. After hearing Billy’s heavily generalized version of his encounters, the Dansker concludes for a second time that Claggart is out to get him. Billy, taken aback by such an interpretation, presses the Dansker for an explanation, but the Dansker simply retreats into mysterious silence.

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