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Billy Budd, Sailor

Herman Melville

Chapters 20–21

Chapters 18–19

Chapters 20–21, page 2

page 1 of 2

Summary: Chapter 20

“Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!”

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Plagued by doubts about Vere’s state of mind, the surgeon exits the cabin. He considers Vere’s impending prosecution of the affair a rash move and thinks that a more sensible course would be to detain Billy until the case can be referred to the admiral. However, the surgeon’s low rank prevents him from arguing with Vere’s wishes, and he carries out orders without so much as a single word. Upon hearing of Claggart’s death, the lieutenants and captains share the same dismay at Vere’s hasty prosecution of Billy. Each one concludes independently that any trial would be better reserved for the judgment of the admiral.

Summary: Chapter 21

Nevertheless, in order to circumvent any potential mutinous activity that might develop when Billy’s plight becomes public, Vere resolves to keep the matter secret and to act on it quickly. He appoints a small drumhead court consisting of the first lieutenant, the captain of marines, and the sailing master; without further delay, Billy’s arraignment proceeds. As sole witness, Vere relates the events of the day to the court, detailing Claggart’s accusations against Billy, and Billy’s reaction to Claggart. When the first lieutenant asks Billy to corroborate Vere’s account, he does so but denies the truth of Claggart’s accusations. Vere responds to Billy’s claim with a vote of confidence, and Billy thanks the captain graciously, almost breaking down in a fit of emotion.

Upon being questioned about his relations with Claggart, Billy recovers himself, explaining that there was no malice between them. He declares that he had not meant to kill Claggart, but that in reaction to Claggart’s lies in the presence of the captain and without the ability to explain verbally, his only defense was to strike a blow. The court next asks Billy about any knowledge he may have had regarding a potential conspiracy. After hesitating, Billy decides to declare that he has no such knowledge. Interpreting his pause as a function of his condition, the court is satisfied with his response.

Finally, the court asks Billy why Claggart invented a lie against him if no malice existed between them. The narrator explains that Billy is unable to muster an answer due to the spiritual nature of the question. Billy looks to Vere for assistance and Vere rises, declaring that the only person who could answer such a question is the dead man, Claggart himself. Moreover, Vere declares that the question is not relevant, explaining that the matter at hand is to judge the pertinent actions and their consequences, regardless of their causes, motives, or intentions. This formula inspires a deep-seated sense of surprise in both Billy and in the court. When the court presses for a more complete understanding of the context in which Claggart accused Billy—and by extension, of the context in which Billy struck Claggart—Vere once again dismisses the court’s wish. He argues that such contextual information is irrelevant to the question of guilt or innocence with regard to Billy’s deed.

Not entirely understanding the import of Captain Vere’s words, Billy sits silently in the aftermath of Vere’s declaration. Vere shoots an authoritative look in the direction of the first lieutenant, who then asks Billy if he has anything else to say in his defense. After a quick glance at Vere, Billy announces that he has nothing left to say. With this, Billy is removed from the courtroom and escorted back to the stateroom where he was initially detained. As the adjudicators silently deliberate, Vere turns his back on their proceedings, gazing out of a porthole upon the sea and later pacing back and forth in the cabin.

Shortly thereafter, Vere confronts the adjudicators, declaring that he would have been content to remain simply in the role of a witness had it not been for their reluctance to make a decision. He reminds them of their practical, military duty and implores them to place their responsibilities to the law of the kingdom above any reservations they may feel within their individual consciences. His argument only serves to agitate the judges further, and an emotional debate ensues between Vere and the officer of marines regarding the wide gulf between the effects of Billy’s actions and the nature of his intentions.

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