Summary: Chapter 11

For what can more partake of the mysterious than an antipathy spontaneous and profound. . . .

See Important Quotations Explained

In an aside, the narrator confirms that Claggart does, in fact, dislike Billy. The narrator can point to no rational reason for Claggart’s aversion, and he suggests that to understand truly the nature of someone like Claggart, one would have to turn to the Bible for sufficiently deep insight into the human heart. Even as the narrator says this, however, he indicates that he is no great believer in the Bible, and thinks that his readers are likely to regard it as out of fashion as well. Ultimately, the narrator concludes that Claggart is simply naturally depraved. He was not corrupted by wicked books or evil influences—he was just born bad. Moreover, his depravity is especially sinister because in every outward appearance he seems rational, temperate, and free from sin. His madness cleverly hides itself deep within him.

Summary: Chapter 12

The narrator explains that Claggart’s dislike of Billy is rooted in envy. In the first place, Claggart envies Billy simply because it is his nature to be envious. He envies Billy’s heroic good looks, but he also envies Billy because he can plainly see that Billy has never experienced envy or malice himself. In fact, Claggart can understand Billy’s intrinsic goodness and innocence better than anyone else on the ship, and though he might like to enjoy or share in Billy’s goodness, his own evil nature does not allow it. Instead, he has to play the evil role ordained for him.

Analysis: Chapters 6–12

Because Captain Vere is introduced right after the discussion of Horatio Nelson in Chapter 4, our attention is immediately drawn to how different Vere is from the much flashier Nelson. Although the nickname “Starry Vere” seems to suit him because of his abstracted and dreamy quality, the narrator points out that the nickname is ironic: though he is a thoroughly excellent captain, Vere does not shine. We might well be inclined to consider his modest and unassuming manner a good quality, except that the narrator has just finished explaining that the personal heroism exhibited by Nelson was an effective tool to galvanize and unite the discontented sailors. Since Vere does not lead through personal charisma, as Nelson did, we may wonder how exactly Vere will deal with the dangerously restless atmosphere in the fleet in the months following the Great Mutiny. The narrator only points to Vere’s settled personal convictions. Vere leads by means of his commitment to principles, rather than by means of his personality or love of glory.

Vere’s nickname is ironic in a second way, although the narrator does not point this irony out explicitly. The character referred to as “Starry Vere” in the Marvell poem is a severe disciplinarian, whereas Captain Vere is anything but harsh or brutal in his conduct. But while the name seems ironic at this point in the story, the passage quoted from the poem provides an important piece of foreshadowing. Vere does indeed impose an unexpectedly harsh discipline upon Billy, and his commitment to principle is what prompts him to be severe.

Claggart’s fundamentally depraved nature is, as the narrator implies, a central component of the story. In contrast with those who have been led astray into evil ways, Claggart is simply evil beyond reasoning. The good man led astray may possibly still be rehabilitated. But the one born to evil is more difficult to understand or deal with. Even though Claggart’s somewhat menacing demeanor is often attributed by his associates to his past misfortunes, the narrator asserts in no uncertain terms that Claggart is simply evil at heart. Claggart’s inherently evil nature, moreover, is all the more insidious because he conceals it. The naturally depraved man, in complete possession of his faculties, may be civilized, thoroughly self-controlled, outwardly respectable, characterized by moderation, too proud to be petty, neither sensuous nor foul, and yet thoroughly evil, nonetheless. The naturally depraved man employs reason strictly in the service of irrational evil.

Thus, when Billy seeks out the Dansker in an attempt to understand his sense of foreboding, the older sailor is able to indicate a source but not a cause. The Dansker understands that Claggart’s apparent friendliness toward Billy actually conceals a pernicious dislike. As hard as Billy searches for a reason behind Claggart’s disapproval, he is completely at a loss for an answer. In his earnest quest to understand the situation, Billy reveals his innocence and naïveté, in contrast to the saltier, more perceptive members of the crew. In fact, in recognizing Billy’s inexperience and innocence, the Dansker anoints him with the title “Baby Budd.”