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Billy Budd, Sailor

Herman Melville

Chapters 26–30

Chapters 22–25

Important Quotations Explained

Summary: Chapter 26

Leaping forward a few days, the ship’s purser and surgeon discuss the strange fact that Billy’s body dangled from his execution rope with preternatural tranquility in the moments after he was hanged. The purser wonders aloud why Billy failed to convulse under the pressure of being hanged and chooses to attribute this unusual placidity to some sort of willpower within Billy. Meanwhile, the surgeon, committed to the principles of science, is unable to account for the phenomenon but unwilling to assign it a supernatural cause. Dismissing the purser’s speculations about Billy’s death as inauthentic, the surgeon abruptly takes his leave to attend to a patient in the sick bay.

Summary: Chapter 27

In the silence that follows Billy’s execution, a low murmur emerges from the ship’s company. Slightly foreboding in nature, it is a murmur that has no chance of gathering steam. In the next moment, the whistles ring out once again to restore normalcy, and the sailors’ superiors command them to return to their duties. After the last preparations for burial are made, all hands are called to gather again, and Billy is laid to rest at sea. As the corpse settles, another murmur rises from the crew, and they watch as a flock of birds circles the spot where the burial has just occurred. The men observe this event with fascinated contemplation, lingering briefly until yet another call to quarters sends the crew back to their duties. As the sailors disperse, the various lieutenants salute in turn and present their final report to the captain. By Vere’s command, the regular day begins earlier than usual, with a brief prayer service followed by the return of the men to their various perches.

Summary: Chapter 28

The narrator states that his narrative has more to do with fact than with fiction, and as a result, it will not have a clean, symmetrical ending. He says that faithfully told truths always feel unfinished. He draws attention to the fact that, with Billy’s death, the main part of his story has been concluded, but that the last three chapters will serve as a sequel.

Later on the same voyage, the Bellipotent engages in battle with the French battleship Athée, or Atheist. During the fighting, Vere is struck by an enemy musket ball and carried below the deck. Under the command of the senior lieutenant, the Bellipotent captures the Athée and brings the enemy into port at Gibraltar. Vere, laid up with the wounded, dies shortly thereafter. An attendant recalls that, as Vere lay on his deathbed, he murmured the words, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.”

Summary: Chapter 29

A few weeks after Claggart’s death and Billy’s execution, news of the incident appears in a naval chronicle. The report describes the supposed conspiracy led by “one William Budd,” who turned upon his accuser, Claggart, and “vindictively stabbed him in the heart.” A general editorial follows this misinformation, eulogizing the innocent Claggart and condemning the villainous Budd. The narrator notes that this report is the only surviving official record of the incident or of the respective characters of John Claggart and Billy Budd.

Summary: Chapter 30

In the years that follow Billy Budd’s tragic ending, his legend begins to grow. The spar from which he was hanged is followed from port to port and venerated by many in the manner of the Christian cross. As his reputation continues to spread, another foretopman composes some lines in his memory. After circulating among the naval ranks for a while, these lines are printed in ballad form at an English publishing house. The poem, entitled “Billy in the Darbies,” is a sympathetic literary recreation of Billy Budd’s last hours in the ship’s hold. With this denouement, the narrator withdraws back into the shadows of the deep, along with Billy Budd.

Analysis: Chapters 26–30

Melville has already shown that the chaplain’s religion must subordinate itself to the power of war, and here his narrator describes the absolute example of the cold and spiritless nature of warfare. The Bellipotent meets its match in the French war ship Athée, or Atheist. Such a title of “infidel audacity” is, to the narrator, “the aptest name, if one consider it, ever given to a warship,” thus implying that all warships, regardless of nationality, are dedicated to an essentially godless pursuit. It is this infidel power to which Vere eventually succumbs, with the name of the innocent Billy Budd on his lips as he breathes his last.

Captain Vere’s death scene recalls Chapter 4, where the narrator reveres Captain Nelson for his spiritual, sentimental nature. Despite Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, the narrator’s contemporaries disparage Nelson and ridicule him for his vainglorious qualities, indicating a shift to a colder and darker conception of war, more powerful but less human. Here again, the irreverent war machine continues to kill off the more honorable, spiritual captains in the name of power and success. More important, however, war takes not only the captain as sacrifice, but the Handsome Sailor too. While introducing Vere’s scene with the Athée, the narrator indicates that he has already shown “how it fared with the Handsome Sailor during the year of the Great Mutiny.” Ominously, the narrator refers not just to the death of Billy Budd the individual man, but to the death of the Handsome Sailor ideal itself, sacrificed on the alter of the Mutiny Act and the war gods.

Despite the ambiguous circumstances of Billy’s condemnation and death, however, the narrator shows that his legend will grow among naval circles, lending support to the lesson that actions themselves override the intentions and motives behind them, whether good or bad. The military newspaper clearly has the wrong story, but the narrator also shows that those who venerate the spar-piece of Billy’s execution “as a piece of the Cross” do not have the story straight either. Over the succeeding days and months, Billy’s legend is transformed into an indisputable narrative, much in the fashion that Jesus’ legend slowly solidified among the apostles of what eventually became the early Christian church. In this way, a scriptural hodgepodge, rather than the true words and actions of Billy Budd, becomes the object of worship and veneration. Like John, Luke, Mark, Matthew, and, most of all, Paul, the anonymous foretopman acts as a secondhand chronicler, and the words of his poem become conflated with Billy’s actual fate, just as the Gospels and Epistles presume to speak for Jesus.

Taking up the theme of a possible resurrection, Melville creates a scene of dispute between the believer and the doubter in the forms of the ship’s purser and surgeon. The purser, noting the odd circumstances of Billy’s death, chances to ascribe some supernatural power to his passing. As a scientist, the surgeon dismisses any such notion, refusing to believe in the individual’s power to transcend nature. Moreover, Melville’s opinion in the resurrection debate lies with the scientific surgeon. The narrator describes the purser as “more accurate as an accountant than profound as a philosopher.” In addition, references to Billy as a man with a profound connection to primitive nature abound in the work, and resonate with the surgeon’s interpretation of his death. The final lines of the final poem situate Billy in the weeds at the bottom of the ocean, not resurrected in heaven.

This does not mean, however, that Melville prefers to look at the world in such a scientific way. Rather, like the surgeon, Melville and his narrator depart at the end of the book in a vague and somewhat unsatisfactory fashion, leaving an ambiguous poem to sum up the tale. In the scene with the purser, the surgeon departs quickly but uneasily. He sharply cuts off his dialogue with the purser prior to coming to any agreement or conclusion, preferring to rest on the foundations of science than to risk delving into an unknown and potentially treacherous subject for him. Similarly, Melville retreats like the surgeon, recognizing only what he can see: the pervasive nature of evil among mankind and the powerlessness of the so-called redemptive Christian tradition in the face of such evil.

To his credit, Melville’s narrator warns his readership that the story will not tie up in a clean fashion. Thus, in concluding with the final poem, Billy Budd spirals into a web of indeterminate authorship, intention, and verity. Billy’s story, the narrator concludes, always appears in skewed terms from secondhand sources and should never receive the blind trust that so many so freely offer it. Thus, it is fitting that in closing the story of Billy Budd, the narrator relates that “the general estimate of his nature … found rude utterance from another foretopman” gifted “with an artless poetic temperament.” The emphasis on “poetic” suggests the poem suffers from unavoidable embellishment—unavoidable because the sailor who wrote the poem did not witness all the proceedings or have access to Billy’s thoughts.

Given the dubious nature of the foretopman’s account, however, even Melville and his narrator must be questioned. Throughout the work, the narrator’s confusing and melodramatic rendering of the story skirts between an omniscient narrative and a self-avowed s-econdhand tale of its own. Here, in concluding his work with the foretopman’s ambiguous ballad, Melville’s narrator draws attention to the ambiguity of his own account. In this sense, the “oozy weeds” seem to twist not only about Billy, but also about Melville himself, and about his authorial intent too. Melville renders his message dark, impenetrable, and unsatisfactory to the rational mind. In Melville’s and the foretopman’s words, Billy lies not resurrected in heaven, but at the bottom of the ocean, reconnected with his primitive, innocent, non-Christian nature.

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