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Billy Budd, Sailor

Herman Melville

Chapters 22–25

Chapters 20–21

Chapters 26–30

Summary: Chapter 22

Vere announces the sentence directly to Billy in his stateroom prison. Further details of their interview remain unknown, although the narrator imagines a frank and open exchange in which Vere explains all and Billy nobly accepts his explanation. As Vere exits the stateroom, the first lieutenant perceives—quite to his surprise—a look of extreme anguish on the captain’s face.

Summary: Chapter 23

In the past hour and a half, while Billy, Claggart, and Vere were still in the cabin, speculation about the situation has run rampant among the ship’s company. Now, Vere’s explanation to the crew is direct and precise. He recounts the events of the evening, announces the impending execution, and foregoes all elaboration and further explanation. The sailors listen in silence for much of the announcement, and a mounting murmur at its conclusion is quickly stifled by orders to resume normal duties. Thereafter, Claggart receives a formal burial at sea with little fanfare, but in perfect accordance with military custom. Meanwhile, Billy remains held in irons until dawn, watched over by a sentry, and denied all communication except with the chaplain.

Summary: Chapter 24

Shackled and guarded, placed in a gun bay, and dressed in his dirty white sailor’s suit, Billy stands in stark contrast to the dark machinery that envelops him. While he maintains his rosy complexion, signs of emaciation begin to show in his cheeks as he awaits his execution. With his fate sealed, his agony has largely dissipated, and his relaxed posture embodies one concentrated in the repose of memory.

The chaplain, happening upon Billy in this state of tranquility, withdraws without disturbing him. Later in the night, the chaplain returns to find Billy awake. Billy welcomes the chaplain to his side, and, during their ensuing discussion, the chaplain attempts to prepare Billy for the death that awaits him. Billy listens to the chaplain with polite attentiveness, but as both the narrator and the chaplain note, he seems to be in a state of grace and aware of his own innocence, and does not fear death. In fact, due to his morally primitive nature, Billy is by no means awed by the chaplain’s Christian message, but is instead politely respectful, as toward a gift that he cannot really understand. When the chaplain realizes that Billy does not fear death, he decides that innocence is as good a state as penitence in which to greet one’s maker, and he prepares to leave. Before departing, the chaplain kisses Billy on the cheek.

Summary: Chapter 25

At 4 A.M., the first light of dawn appears. Whistles ring out around the ship, summoning all hands forward to witness the hanging. From various parts of the ship, the sailors gather to watch the events in the main yard, where Vere commands attention, and Billy is presently brought forth by the chaplain. After a brief blessing, the chaplain withdraws. Just prior to his ultimate moment, Billy declares, “God bless Captain Vere!” The assembled sailors echo his sentiment, seemingly involuntarily. Vere exhibits no reaction to this turn of events, and in the next instant, Billy’s execution proceeds as planned. Dawn breaks as Billy expires and is left to hang, shifting softly and lifelessly with the motion of the rolling ship.

Analysis: Chapters 22–25

Billy’s story becomes more and more specifically intertwined with religion as the novel nears its close. With the trial concluded and Billy’s fate sealed, Vere now shifts gears back from captain to friend when he informs Billy of the court’s decision. Though Melville elects not to include the precise details of their conversation, he does offer up another biblical allusion. Because of Vere’s dual role as a father figure and a devotee of the law, Melville compares him to Abraham, who was called upon by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Though reluctant to face this test, Abraham carried out God’s wishes, placing his belief in God’s decree above his own individual conscience. In a similar way, Vere places his duty to martial law above his own sense of duty to Billy Budd, sacrificing him to war. There is unquestionably a profound irony to all the parallels between the Bible and Billy’s fate, since, as Vere has already pointed out to us, Billy is not being sacrificed to God, but in direct opposition to the dictates of religion.

With Billy in chains and guarded by a sentry, there is a profound incongruity in the presence of a chaplain, who ostensibly represents Jesus, the prophet of forgiveness, meekness, and mercy. Emphasizing this irony, Melville describes the chaplain as “the minister of the Prince of Peace serving in the host of the God of War”—a man of the cloth who nevertheless “receives his stipend from Mars,” meaning that he is fed and paid by the navy, not the church. The warship employs the chaplain to place the ethical seal of approval on that which is “the abrogation of everything but brute force.” Religion does not transcend the state of war, but instead has to subordinate itself to “the discipline and purposes of war.”

The chaplain himself is quite powerless to change Billy’s fate. He is well aware of his subordinate role on board the warship, and knows that he is in no position to put his Christian code of morality above the commands of the officers. As such, he has to modify his convictions as the circumstances of war and naval discipline demand, comforting himself with the thought that Billy’s innocence will serve him well at Judgment, even if it cannot save him here on Earth. In any event, the chaplain’s discussion of salvation is lost on Billy, who receives his abstract talk more out of simple politeness than out of awe or reverence. And, sensing Billy’s good heart, the chaplain is content to leave it at that, withdrawing with a secular kiss of benediction before parting. The merging of religion with war is not specific to Billy Budd but, in fact, can be seen throughout history. The Christian religion itself did not begin to spread in earnest until it was adopted by bellicose Roman emperors such as Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century A.D. Similarly, organized religions have survived and flourished thanks to their military might. Upon close examination, the line in such cultural traditions begins to blur, leading us to question whether religion advances war or war advances religion.

In these chapters, Vere becomes the quintessential representative of the cold power of war. Even though the narrator notes Vere’s potential shock when Billy praises him while being strung up to the gallows, Vere remains the very image of military power. He is resembles “a musket in the ship armorer’s rack,” standing at attention without flinching. Like the ship’s chaplain, Vere does not feel completely comfortable in the role set out for him, but he nevertheless remains steadfast in his position as captain throughout the proceedings, sacrificing Billy as a “Lamb of God” to the greater good.

Outshining both the chaplain and Vere, however, Billy flourishes in his final sacrificial role. Indeed, from Billy’s initial stutter down to his last breath, the details of his final day and night recall the last days of Jesus. The Passion traditionally refers to the story of the suffering and death of Christ, and the narrator’s tale appears like the denouement of what could be called Billy’s Passion. Billy’s agony upon being accused was “as a crucifixion to behold,” and through his silence and shame until his death, he strikes a most familiar pose, right down to the sense of a resurrection. At the moment that Billy expires, the dawn breaks dramatically, and in an unusual and remarkable twist, Billy is free from the convulsions that normally accompany death on the gallows.

However, as the narrator clearly shows, Billy dies not as a Christian, but more vaguely as a spiritual man. Billy’s cryptic final blessing seems almost divine in its patient understanding of Vere, nearly outdoing even the repose of Jesus upon the cross, who questioned rather than praised his father. The narrator establishes that Billy welcomed the chaplain but he did not adapt to the chaplain’s particularly Christian advances. Instead, Billy was “spiritualized” in the end. As before, Billy appears to be connected to a more primitive, innocent, and childlike nature, but here the narrator shows that Billy’s simplicity is a spiritual alternative to Christian theology, not an abrogation of spirituality itself.

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