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The narrator explains that profound passions can exist in the lowliest settings, and may be provoked by trivial circumstances. The passion to which he refers belongs to Claggart, who is beginning to resent Billy with fervent intensity. Given time to reflect upon the matter, Claggart arrives at the conclusion that Billy’s soup spill is no accident. Rather, he believes that it is a gesture revealing Billy’s ill will toward him, whether this antagonism is conscious or not. Squeak, a wizened corporal and Claggart’s underling, who also has it in for Billy, reinforces Claggart’s opinions. In addition to persecuting Billy at every opportunity, Squeak lies to Claggart and tells him that Billy makes fun of him behind his back. Searching for a reason to justify his hatred of Billy and encouraged by Squeak’s lies, Claggart seizes upon the soup spill as an indication of Billy’s malice and uses it as an excuse to increase the level of his own enmity.
Shortly thereafter, on a warm night, Billy inadvertently becomes involved in a troubling incident. While dozing on an upper deck of the ship, he is roused by a whisper and a touch to his shoulder. An anonymous figure tells Billy to meet him shortly thereafter on a narrow balcony in a remote part of the ship. Innocently, Billy gets up mechanically and goes to the balcony as instructed. Presently, the other man arrives, and though it is dark and hazy Billy is able to identify him as one of the afterguardsmen. Declaring that he was forced into duty just like Billy, the man asks Billy in a roundabout way if he would be willing to assist, if ever a mutiny occurred.
Not immediately grasping the man’s meaning, Billy presses him for a further explanation. When the man holds up a pair of coins and declares them to be Billy’s for the taking, Billy reacts violently, stuttering in fits and starts. Billy orders the man to return to his place on the ship, threatening to throw him overboard if he does not comply. Taking Billy for his word, the man scuttles off. Awakened by Billy’s loud threat and knowing that Billy stutters only when something is truly amiss, a forecastleman emerges to check on the commotion. Billy explains that he has sent a trespassing afterguardsman back to his proper place on the ship. At this, yet another forecastleman comes forth, this time to rebuke Billy for his relative mildness in dealing with the encroaching afterguardsman. However, Billy convinces the forecastlemen that everything has been handled with adequate gruffness, and the matter is dropped.
In the aftermath of this incident, Billy wrestles with his conscience, as he has no prior experience in the world of the corrupt or the illicit. He is at a loss to explain the nature of the afterguardsman’s bribe or to figure out where the afterguardsman might have acquired guineas at sea. The more he considers the matter, the more bewildered he becomes. At the very least, Billy perceives that the whole affair smacks of evil. Therefore, he decides that he has no wish to be associated with it, although he is curious to learn more of its specific nature.
The following afternoon, Billy spots the man he thinks to be the afterguardsman on an upper gun deck. The man on the gun deck hardly fits the picture of a jaded conspirator, however. The man spots Billy before Billy spots him, and sends a nod in Billy’s direction. A couple of days later, the two men again cross paths on a gun deck, and the afterguardsman offers a friendly but unexpected word of greeting to Billy. Embarrassed by the awkward situation, Billy fails to return the greeting and is sent into a greater confusion by the odd turn of events.
Once again, Billy chooses to unburden himself to the salty old Dansker. After hearing Billy’s heavily generalized version of his encounters, the Dansker concludes for a second time that Claggart is out to get him. Billy, taken aback by such an interpretation, presses the Dansker for an explanation, but the Dansker simply retreats into mysterious silence.
Despite the Dansker’s repeated warning, Billy refuses to suspect Claggart of foul play. The narrator explains that sailors are, as a rule, immature to the point of being juvenile, and Billy, in his relative inexperience, is no exception. But even the little experience that Billy does have has hardly made him any less innocent, because he so completely lacks the inner impulse toward badness that would help him to understand it. The narrator returns to the idea that sailors are in general an innocent and unsophisticated group, and notes that in life on land, most people learn to distrust one another. This distrust is so taken for granted that most people would be quite surprised if it were pointed it out to them.
While the random persecution of Billy abates for the moment, Claggart maintains his hatred toward Billy. In general, Claggart presents a façade of good-humored amity toward Billy, but when his guard is down, his enmity flashes forth visibly in his eyes. Billy, however, remains completely oblivious to Claggart’s hatred, taking the latter’s kind words toward him at face value. The narrator notes that due to Billy’s genial nature and his general popularity, he is less perceptive of ill will than the usual sailor. Thus, he fails to notice when the armorer and the captain of the hold, two officers associated with Claggart, begin to regard him with malice and suspicion.
With the narrator’s talk of stages and “groundlings” at the beginning of Chapter 13, Melville signals to us that he is invoking his favorite literary influence—the plays of Shakespeare. He does not mention Shakespeare or Shakespeare’s characters by name, but in the final paragraph of the chapter he borrows phrases from Shakespeare’s Othello no fewer than five times—“injury but suspected,” “monstrous disproportion,” “an inordinate usurer,” “lawyer to his will,” and “ogres of trifles” are all quotations from that play. Clearly, Melville wants to associate Claggart with the villain Iago, and the two characters do share many traits. Like Claggart, Iago nurses a passionate and sustained hatred that he successfully hides from the outer world. He claims to be motivated by envy, and though envy is definitely a part of his psychological makeup, the depths of his malice defy easy explanation. By associating Claggart with this character from a Shakespearean tragedy, Melville seeks to portray Claggart as larger than life, while bearing out his own claim that grand and tragic passions occur among lowly people just as much as within the inner circles of the powerful.
Claggart’s passion is a kind of paranoia—or, as the narrator labels it, a monomania, meaning an obsession with a single idea. As Captain Ahab demonstrates in Melville’s Moby-Dick, paranoia and monomania are closely related. Because Claggart has become obsessed with his hatred of Billy, he willfully interprets the spilled soup as Billy’s hostile response to his own animosity. The fundamental evil in Claggart cannot rest. Claggart is enslaved to his own evil ideas, driven ceaselessly in pursuit of selfish ends and looking for any possible opening to convince himself that his hatred for Billy is justified and necessary. While Billy’s actions may be trivial—and in the case of the soup, unintentional—Claggart’s skewed interpretation misrepresents Billy’s motivations.
The afterguardsman’s nighttime attempt to corrupt Billy may not be what it seems. The narrator alludes earlier to traps set for sailors by Claggart and Squeak, and this could well be one of them. Whatever the afterguardsman’s true motives, Billy gets his first glimpse of the darker side of man in his night-time encounter with this man, but his innocence keeps him from gaining a clear grasp of the fact that the man is asking him to be disloyal. Billy has a general sense of foreboding from the meeting, but he is so inexperienced that he is unable to pin it down as a call to mutiny. Therefore, with only a vague notion of any potential underhanded activities, Billy never thinks to report the event, even though he remarks upon its “extreme questionableness.” The afterguardsman’s attempt to entrap Billy is foiled by Billy’s naïve innocence.
Yet even if Billy had gained a better understanding of the conspiratorial proceedings, the narrator speculates that Billy would have applied his “novice magnanimity” to the situation and refused to play the role of a snitch. In using the word “novice” to describe Billy’s “magnanimity,” the narrator strikes an ironic note, suggesting that the schoolyard honor code of silence is a more primitive and underdeveloped form of that which is truly moral. By implication, the truer magnanimity would be to root out the evil conspiracy before it spreads and strikes. Billy, however, blinded by his own innocence, cannot decipher this moral quandary.
Melville suggests that we must come to recognize evil but also implies that those who have come to know it are often taught, or teach themselves, to shrink back from it. The narrator describes an “undemonstrative distrustfulness” that pervades the deeper affairs between men who recognize the reality of natural depravity. Even though he sees Billy’s ignorance, the Dansker refrains from speaking out against the evil. The narrator attributes his silence to a “long experience,” which had led him to “that bitter prudence which never interferes … and never gives advice.” Over the course of his life, the Dansker has become so “bitter” that he will not speak out against evil when he recognizes it. The narrator indicates that the Dansker’s cynicism stems from his experience with “superiors,” implying that the Dansker’s passivity stems from a deep-rooted impulse to avoid further conflict with authority. Should his prediction be wrong, or should Claggart find out about his statements, the Dansker knows all too well how he would fare.
Thus, if those who cannot recognize evil are unequipped to fight it, and those who are aware of evil choose not to fight it, a depraved world where evil is simply left to its own devices inevitably results. Man, and especially man on land, eventually learns from experience that social life, in its gridlock of mistrust, becomes “an oblique, tedious, barren game hardly worth that poor candle burned out in playing it.” In the narrator’s view, the impossibility of mutual trust seems to rob life on land of all savor and meaning.
Moreover, as the example of the Dansker shows, potentially beneficial warnings often remain unvoiced and hidden between so-called well-meaning men, casting an even more depressing shadow over human existence. This breakdown of communication is not only complete, but also unacknowledged and unconscious. After all, the narrator concedes that he is merely speculating when he states that life experience “had very likely” driven the Dansker to withhold his advice. Despite his apparent omniscience elsewhere in the story, the narrator does not speak with an authoritative tone here, perhaps because Melville wishes to emphasize the impenetrable nature of the problems associated with evil and its perpetuation among men.