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MonkeyNotes-Billy Budd by Herman Melville
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Chapters 19-21

Billy is surprised to be called into the captain's quarters with Claggart, but suspects no evil; he is too naive to detect subtle danger. He really thinks he may be getting a promotion, an appropriate reward for his hard work.

When the three men are alone in the captain's quarters, Vere instructs Claggart to repeat his accusation. Claggart stands close to Billy and measuredly repeats his claims. Billy has a hard time taking it in. When Claggart's words sink in, his face turns white and his eyes change color and protrude; he is truly transfixed in disbelief. When Vere asks Billy to speak, he is so outraged that he literally cannot say a word. Captain Vere sees him struggling to express himself; in a fatherly motion, Vere puts a soothing hand on Billy's shoulder and tells him to take his time. Then, all of a sudden, Billy's right arm shoots out and clobbers Claggart on the forehead. Claggart falls to the deck stone dead.

Vere whispers, " Fated Boy!" He then orders Billy to help him revive Claggart, but it is no use. Claggart is like "a dead snake." Vere momentarily covers his face, and when he looks up again, his expression is that of a severe disciplinarian. He orders Billy to an adjoining stateroom and calls in the surgeon, who confirms the death. The surgeon has never seen the captain so agitated. Convulsively, Vere tells the surgeon that Claggart is an Ananias and explains what has happened. He claims that the "angel" Billy must hang for the crime.

Vere and the surgeon put the body in another room, and the captain explains he will call a drumhead court. He also asks the surgeon for strict secrecy about the incident. The surgeon agrees with the captain's orders, but is full of misgivings about his planned course of action. He feels that Captain Vere ought to wait until the Indomitable rejoins the fleet and then hand the bizarre matter over to the admiral. The doctor also worries about Vere's apparent emotional instability over the matter. He knows, however, it would be futile to argue with Vere and might even seem mutinous to the captain.


The surgeon departs and tells about the incident to only those officers he has been directed by the captain to inform. When he mentions his concerns about the Captain and his plans to them as well, they all agree with the surgeon; the affair should go to the admiral. Like the surgeon, however, they all follow the captain's orders without questioning him.

Captain Vere continues to desire secrecy and promptness in dealing with Claggart's death, for he is fearful about the reactions of the sailors. He quickly hands the matter over to three officers for trial; Vere himself will supervise their court. Unfortunately none of the three are stellar thinkers.

The court is convened in Vere's cabin with Vere as the only witness. He carefully explains what has happened. The officers are very surprised, for they do think Billy is the mutinous type. They are also amazed that Billy felled Claggart with one blow. The court asks Billy to respond to the charges. He says, without a stutter, that he did kill Claggart, but that he is no insurrectionist. Vere emotionally says he believes him to which Billy responds, "God bless you!" Billy says that he is sorry that Claggart is dead. He also claims that if his tongue had worked, the outcome would be different. When asked, Billy skirts the issue of whether he knows about any mutinous activity; he truly does not believe there is.

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