Summary: Chapter 16

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.

Summary: Chapter 17

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.

Analysis: Chapters 13–17

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.