Away from the fleet on a mission, the Bellipotent encounters an enemy frigate, which, outsized by the Bellipotent, turns sail and flees. After some pursuit, the enemy escapes, and the Bellipotent abandons chase. As the excitement subsides on board, Claggart approaches the mainmast to obtain an interview with Captain Vere. Such a request is unusual, and Vere is taken aback by the appearance of this unfamiliar officer, who inspires a vague unease in him.
Claggart proceeds to reveal his suspicion that a mutiny conspiracy may be fomenting among a group of impressed men on the gun decks, alluding to the Nore mutiny in order to further alarm the captain . Vere, unsettled by such a report, is also disturbed by Claggart’s demeanor as he relates this information. Vere mulls over the implications of potential insubordination in his ranks, taking note of Claggart’s lack of tact in bringing up the sensitive issue of the Nore mutiny and his immodest, forward testimony.
Vere, wishing to bring things to a point, asks Claggart to identify his prime suspect. Claggart responds by naming William (Billy) Budd, a foretopman. Truly surprised by this assertion, Vere notes that Billy is so roundly liked by the crew that they call him the Handsome Sailor. Claggart explains that Billy creates an aura of friendliness so that his shipmates will defend him in a pinch, and insists that his genial demeanor masks a sinister nature. Vere, reflecting on his approval of Billy’s conduct thus far and his enthusiasm for having such a young and capable sailor, grows increasingly suspicious of Claggart’s motives.
When Vere demands that Claggart produce a piece of evidence to support his claim against Billy, Claggart responds with a series of further accusations that he claims he can prove. Vere prepares to demand such proof but thinks twice about it, deciding to be more discreet instead. Therefore, he sends a boy to bring Billy to the captain’s cabin without revealing where they are going. Meanwhile, he dismisses Claggart to a lower deck, telling him to return to the cabin when Billy arrives.
Billy arrives and sits with Claggart and Vere in the confines of the cabin. Vere directs Claggart to confront Billy with his accusation. Claggart speaks with great precision, rendering Billy speechless, stunning him completely. Vere demands that Billy speak up to defend himself, but Billy remains tongue-tied. Noticing Billy’s tendency to stutter and be mute, Vere softens his approach, telling Billy to take his time in formulating a response. These encouraging words only throw Billy further into a fury, as he wrenches his body into a contortion, still unable to reply.
Suddenly, in a moment of impulse, Billy strikes Claggart a blow to the forehead, knocking him over. Claggart lets out a brief gasp upon hitting the ground and then lies motionless. Vere, as though shocked, softly bewails this ill-fated turn, and directs Billy to help him raise Claggart off the ground. They slouch him up into a sitting position and then lay him down again. Vere dismisses Billy to a nearby stateroom and summons the ship’s surgeon to the cabin.
The surgeon arrives to find Claggart prostrate and bleeding from the nose and ears. A swift check confirms the worst, and Claggart is pronounced dead. Suddenly, Vere grasps the surgeon’s arm and declares Claggart’s death to be a divine judgment, visited upon him by an angel. In the same breath, he exclaims that the angel, nevertheless, must be hanged. Lacking knowledge about the context of Claggart’s death, the surgeon is quite concerned by the captain’s mysterious agitation. Slowly, Vere collects himself and explains the affair briefly to the surgeon. He then enlists him to help remove Claggart’s body from the cabin. Once this is accomplished, Vere directs the surgeon to inform the lieutenants and the marine captain of the incident, but otherwise to keep the affair secret. Though somewhat disturbed by this clandestine air, the subordinate surgeon has no choice but to carry out the captain’s orders.
Finally, with Claggart’s bold accusation and Billy’s emboldened defense, the narrative springs to life and reaches its climax. The blow that Billy strikes may seem uncharacteristic, but his resort to violence in a moment of speechlessness is not without precedent. Captain Graveling, Billy’s superior on the Rights-of-Man, relates the romantic tale of Billy and the Red Whiskers in the very first chapter of the story. The incident with the Red Whiskers functions as a foreshadowing of Billy’s confrontation with Claggart. Melville’s name choice for the Red Whiskers is doubtless calculated to remind us of the devil, and the Red Whiskers is similar to Claggart in a number of significant ways. Like Claggart, the Red Whiskers dislikes Billy, and out of sheer envy he “bestirs” himself to pick a fight with Billy.
However, Billy actually pacifies the Red Whiskers with his blows, whereas his violence toward Claggart is fatal. Thus, Billy’s encounter with Claggart ends not in reconciliation but in Billy’s fall from grace. The narrator depicts this fall in explicitly religious images, noting for instance that as Billy struggles to reply to Claggart’s accusation, his expression is like the face of a man being crucified. Billy lashes out impulsively against his false accuser, and as Billy and Vere struggle to sit Claggart’s body up, the narrator notes that the sensation of handling the corpse is “like handling a dead snake.” With these words, Claggart’s role as the serpent, or Satan, becomes more explicit. Similar biblical imagery has been present throughout the story, however, and it is important to recognize that Claggart is not the only person or thing associated with Satan. Certainly, the Red Whiskers appears devilish and evil if for no other reason than the suggestive color in his title. The narrator suggests in the early chapters that Billy’s speech impediment exemplifies the serpent’s inescapable evil influence. Billy comes face-to-face with evil in the captain’s cabin, but Melville takes care to show us that evil is not limited to Claggart’s person, but is spread throughout creation.
Vere makes a different biblical allusion when he labels Claggart’s unforeseen death “the divine judgment on Ananias.” Vere refers here to a biblical story from the Acts of the Apostles, in which a man named Ananias attempts to take credit for more than he deserves but drops dead upon being found out by Peter, who rebukes him by saying, “You have lied not to human beings, but to God” (Acts 5:4). Vere associates this gross deception with Claggart, who in his depravity has exceeded all bounds of propriety with his lies. Even though Billy appears angelic in the story, and even though Vere declares that Billy represents the angel sent by God to strike down Claggart, Vere nevertheless exclaims, “Yet the angel must hang!” Vere’s exclamation expresses his frustrated realization about how Billy will be viewed in the eyes of the military law.
Melville’s narrator challenges us to judge Vere’s judgment of Billy. Each person, he suggests, “must determine for himself by such light as this narrative affords” whether Captain Vere was really “the sudden victim of any degree of aberration”—in other words, whether he was a victim of temporary insanity. Vere’s insistence on procedure accords with his abstract, intellectual, starry bent. As Vere already appears aloof and detached in the eyes of many of his peers, his decision to proceed with the prosecution at once seems to many a rash, perhaps slightly crazy decision. But Vere does have reasons to support his decision—any show of hesitation in punishing the killing of an officer will send a dangerous message to the crew. Melville’s narrator, in taking up the question of Vere’s sanity, declares that no such decisive division between sanity and insanity exists. The narrator insists that no observer can truly distinguish between sanity and insanity, although there will always be certain medical charlatans who will claim to be able to do so for the right amount of money.