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Billy Budd, Sailor

Herman Melville

Chapters 26–30

Chapters 22–25

Chapters 26–30, page 2

page 1 of 3

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.

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