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Billy Budd
Herman Melville

THE STORY, continued


Why, despite the Dansker's warnings, did Billy refuse to suspect Claggart of scheming against him? This short chapter attempts to answer the question by looking at the impact of a life at sea on Billy's character.

Billy, the narrator tells us, has intelligence and a limited amount of experience, yet he remains a "childman" with his innocence fundamentally intact. Part of the reason is that he lacks an "intuitive knowledge of the bad," which allows less virtuous people to imagine sins they haven't yet done. Another reason for Billy's "simple-mindedness" is that he's "an old-fashioned sailor" who's spent almost his entire life at sea.

As you've already seen, Melville keeps building up contrasts between different types of people and values throughout Billy Budd. There's the barbarian versus the urbane, civilized man; the emotional man versus the intellectual; and the glory-seeking hero versus the prudent leader. Here the contrast is between the frank, honest sailor and the landsman who knows the subtleties, tricks, and deceptive appearances of civilized life. Life on shore is a game where everything is hidden and indirect; it can be quite challenging, but it's ultimately barren, boring, and hardly worth playing. Life at sea is simple, active, and straightforward; it's real, not a game, but the sailors remain juvenile because they never take responsibility for their own lives. Everything is ordered and controlled for them by the officers and shipboard routines. The sailor might be a nice, honest guy, but like a child, he always gets tricked. The shrewd, suspicious landsman looks out for himself, but dishonesty has become his second nature. As with so much in Billy Budd, there is no simple right and wrong.

Keeping an eye out for other contrasts between the land and the sea will help clue you in to some of the book's underlying themes.


Tension mounts on board the Bellipotent as Claggart tightens his web around Billy. Innocence is Billy's blinder as he walks thoroughly unsuspecting into Claggart's trap.

Claggart plays into Billy's innocence by acting extra nice to him whenever they run into each other. But often, when Billy isn't looking, Claggart stares at him and all sorts of strange expressions pass across his face. Sometimes there's even a "touch of soft yearning" in Claggart's eyes, as though he "could even have loved Billy," if it wasn't banned or fated not to be. Then, the next second, his face gets as pinched as "a wrinkled walnut," and there's nothing but hate and anger in his eyes. Some readers pick up a sexual meaning here and say that part of the reason Claggart wants to destroy Billy is that he feels an attraction to him, and it fills him with rage. It's certainly clear that Claggart can't keep his eyes and his thoughts off Billy. Don't you feel that this passage about Claggart's expressions and yearnings makes him more real and more complex? There's even a hint of something sympathetic in him when he gazes longingly at Billy, and the narrator notes he looks like "the man of sorrows," by which he means Christ. What an odd way of describing such a devil! Yet wasn't Satan himself once one of the most beautiful and important angels? So maybe Claggart is a kind of fallen angel, and Billy's beauty and goodness remind him of everything he's lost.

Nonetheless, Claggart's sorrowing melancholy has burnt away to pure hatred by the end of the chapter. He hides his "monomania" to destroy Billy behind a calm exterior, but "like a subterranean fire," it's eating deeper and deeper into him. The narrator sounds the note of foreboding doom when he ends the chapter: "Something decisive must come of it." Something does- soon!


The Bellipotent, a fast ship, has been sent out on a scouting mission and is miles away from the rest of the fleet. They sight a French frigate and give chase, but fail to catch the enemy. Now they're even farther away from the British fleet. Captain Vere is naturally irritated that the French escaped his heavy guns, and he goes up on deck to cool off and think things over. Who should suddenly appear but Claggart, waiting patiently to catch Vere's attention. When Vere finally notices him, he feels a "vaguely repellent distaste" for the man, though he doesn't know why. He asks Claggart what's on his mind, and Claggart, acting as if he's really sorry to be bringing bad news, tells the captain about this "dangerous character" on board who's been stirring up trouble, not only with men recently involved in other mutinies, but with some of the impressed sailors. The more he talks, the more Claggart keeps referring in sly little ways to these mutinies and subtly implying that this "dangerous character" is about to cause a similar mutiny on board the Bellipotent.

Vere's distaste explodes into anger. Was Claggart trying to scare or threaten him, or what? How dare he make insinuations about a mutiny at such a time? But what if he's lying? The captain decides to confront Claggart, and he demands to know who this dangerous man is.

Claggart comes out with it: William Budd.

Vere is thunderstruck. How could the popular guy, whom everyone calls the Handsome Sailor, be the ringleader of a mutiny? Looks can be deceiving, Claggart craftily replies. Under the "ruddy-tipped daisies" of Billy's fair cheek there lurks a deep "mantrap." Do you see how cleverly Claggart has reversed the truth- turning the honest Billy into a deceiving snake and himself into an upright dutiful man? He makes Billy sound almost like some kind of seducer. We'll see how far this reversal of roles is taken as the novel reaches its climax.

Vere pauses to think back over his impressions of Billy. Like the narrator, he, too, felt that there was something in Billy just like Adam before the Fall. Billy was also working out well in his job, and Vere was considering recommending him for a promotion. All in all, Vere considers Billy a "King's bargain," meaning a sailor who has brought a big return to his country for the lowest price. (You'll see how both Billy and Vere invoke the King's name in a very different context later in the book.) Vere decides that if Claggart doesn't have some hard evidence to prove his case against Billy, he'll personally see that he hangs for spreading lies!

But as Claggart presents his case, Vere becomes less sure of what to think. He just can't figure out what's going on inside this man's mind. Assuming he's lying, what should be done about it? If the story leaks out to the ship, won't it be bad for morale? Better to keep the whole thing a secret. That way, he can figure out some test for Claggart that will reveal him to be a liar, and the whole affair will be settled before it causes any disturbance.

Vere decides to conduct this test in the privacy of his own cabin. He sends his sea-valet, Albert, to find Billy and bring him down on the sly, and he tells Claggart to come down in a few minutes.


Here, at the climax of Billy Budd, the action is quick and decisive, and yet all the major themes of the book come together. Let's look at the action first, and then at the issues it raises. The events are so intense you can almost picture the scene running like a play or movie:

The captain's cabin is neat and trim, but rather dark. Three men are standing in it: Vere, Billy, and Claggart. The captain orders Claggart to say his piece. The tall, pale, dark-haired master-at-arms walks up to the blond, athletic sailor and stares him fiercely in the eye. He delivers his charge: conspiracy to cause a mutiny. Billy's tan cheeks go dead white. It's as if Claggart has hypnotized him. He can't open his mouth or stop staring at Claggart's eyes, which suddenly turn muddy-purple and bug out of his head like fish-eyes.

"Speak, man!" the captain shouts to Billy. "Defend yourself!"

But all Billy can do is flail his arms and gurgle. He's completely tongue-tied by his stutter. He looks as if he's been buried alive and is starting to suffocate.

Vere, instantly perceiving what the problem is, goes up to Billy, puts his hand on his shoulder and says in a kind, fatherly voice, "There is no hurry, my boy. Take your time."

But this just makes things worse for Billy. His face is so twisted with the agony of trying to speak that looking at him is like seeing Christ being crucified. It's horrible!

Then suddenly, quick as a cannon exploding, Billy shoots out his right arm and connects squarely with Claggart's forehead. Claggart falls to the deck.

"Fated boy," Vere whispers. "What have you done!"

Together they try to pick Claggart up, but he's all floppy like a dead snake. Vere takes command and acts quickly. He orders Billy to shut himself up in a back stateroom and stay there until he's called. Then he summons the ship's surgeon to come in and examine the body. The surgeon takes one look at the pale face covered with black blood and knows Claggart is dead, but he goes through the usual tests anyway.

Vere, who only a minute ago was acting calm and in control, now seems to be completely distracted. The surgeon looks on with real concern as the captain stands motionless and then, as if coming out of a trance, exclaims vehemently: "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!"

The doctor is amazed. What is his captain talking about? But Vere seems to be regaining his composure. He rapidly fills the doctor in on what's happened and asks him to help move the body to the room opposite Billy's temporary prison. And he tells him to bring in the lieutenants and the captain of the marines. There's going to be a drumhead court (meaning a quickly convened trial held during wartime) and Billy's fate will be decided at once!

What an amazing scene this is! The action is so dramatic, you might skip over some of the important images and issues. So let's take some time to look at them more carefully.

Did you notice the spiritual and religious imagery associated with Billy in this chapter? He's compared to a vestal priestess (in ancient Rome, the vestals were virgin girls who guarded the sacred fire in the temple of Vesta, goddess of the hearth), "an angel of God," and, at his moment of greatest torment, his face has an expression "which was as a crucifixion to behold." Do you feel that these images, especially the last, turn Billy into a kind of Christ figure? like Christ, he suffers for his goodness, and he keeps silent when accused of wrongdoing. But Christ keeps silent by choice, and he teaches you to turn the other cheek; Billy keeps silent because he can't speak, and, far from turning the other cheek, he strikes out violently and kills his accuser in cold blood.

How do you judge Billy for striking Claggart dead? Why do you think he hits Claggart in the forehead, which the narrator calls "so intellectual-looking a feature"? Maybe it symbolizes the unbridled emotions rising up to destroy the intellect. If so, does that make you sympathize with Billy more, or less? Do you think it's right that someone so violent and uncontrolled should be portrayed as a handsome, "innocent" hero? Or do you think Billy behaved naturally- that he was provoked to violence and acted in the only way possible?

Though this is a highly emotional scene, it's packed with moral issues. You'll have to consult both your gut feelings and your sense of right and wrong to make up your mind.

You've known all along that Claggart embodies demonic evil, but here you see it most forcefully. When the narrator says his corpse was like "a dead snake," it not only makes you feel how limp and slimy he is, but you think of Satan when he turned himself into a serpent to trick Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If you go for a strong, symbolic interpretation of Billy Budd, this is the passage that gives the most direct evidence of Claggart as Satan. Also notice how, when Claggart is staring Billy down, the narrator compares his expression to a "mesmeristic glance of... serpent fascination" and then to the "paralyzing lurch of the torpedo fish." Like Satan, he changes shape and he fascinates his victims only to destroy them. If Claggart is Satan, and Billy combines some of the attributes of both Adam and Christ, what does that make Vere?

From this point on, it will be more and more important for you to make up your mind about Captain Vere. What you think about him will determine your whole view of Billy Budd. Do you find him sympathetic and humane in this scene? He tries hard to be nice to Billy, and, more than once, the narrator calls him fatherly. Once Billy strikes Claggart dead, Vere is overcome by pity- not for Claggart, but for Billy. He seems to grasp intuitively the symbolic meaning of the situation when he says, "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!" No wonder he loses control of himself for a minute. Vere loves Billy the way God loved Adam, yet he knows justice must be done. Though he understands the workings of the human heart, he looks beyond the immediate circumstance to the eternal truths. Thus Vere, both stern and pitying, can be seen as a symbol for the Old Testament Jehovah or God the Father.

But maybe you reject this reading entirely! Vere might strike you as weak, narrow-minded, presumptuous, and contradictory. How, you ask, can he decide so quickly that Billy must hang? Isn't he jumping the gun? If he knows Billy must hang, why summon a drumhead court? Why is he still keeping everything such a secret- locking Billy and Claggart away in closets? What does this accomplish? Anyway, his whole plan of bringing them together was stupid from the start, and so he's in part to blame for what happened. Far from being like God, you might think Vere is a very limited, fearful, and pompous man who is about to waste a wonderful life for no good reason.

Still other readers think Vere is neither godlike nor weak, but just a very intelligent man in a really tough spot. They say that Billy Budd is about the difficulty of making an almost impossible decision.

And to cap it all off, the ship's surgeon thinks Vere might have gone insane! The next chapter follows things up from his point of view...


Is Captain Vere insane? Chapter 20 and the start of 21 discuss this question, and then immediately afterwards, Billy's trial begins. Those who condemn Vere say that this juxtaposition undermines his credibility and makes the trial a farce. They go along with the surgeon, a man of science, who judges strictly by outward physical appearances. The surgeon notes that Vere has never been in such a worked-up state before. He thinks that calling a drumhead court is a bad mistake and maybe a further sign of insanity. Why not wait until they rejoin the fleet and let the admiral handle the case? The other officers he speaks with agree: No one wants the responsibility of deciding Billy's fate. But Vere is the captain: To resist him would be mutiny, to argue with him insolence, and to prove him insane impossible. You can see what a quandary they're all in, and why they decide to comply.

The narrator refuses to take a stand on the issue of Vere's sanity. "Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins?" he asks. Who can judge the fine shadings between the sane and the insane? For that matter, who can fix the exact right and wrong in a case as delicate and complex as Billy's? He leaves us to judge for ourselves. But before the trial begins, he does answer some of the questions raised by Vere's actions. The effect of this is to show us that the surgeon's point of view is not the only one to consider. Ultimately, you have to settle the matter according to your own sense of justice.

Billy is tried by a drumhead court made up of four officers: Vere, the captain of the marines, the first lieutenant, and the sailing master. Vere you already know. The important thing about the other three is that they're good, honest, reliable officers, but they lack the kind of moral insight needed to comprehend all the complexities of this case. Despite some question as to his sanity, Vere appears to be the only member of the court capable of grappling with the issues. He offers the only arguments, and he convinces the others to go along with what he thinks. Despite the fact that there are four members of the court, Vere is really Billy's sole judge.

The trial takes place in the same setting as the crime- the captain's cabin. Billy is brought out of the stateroom, and the proceedings begin. Since Vere was the only witness, he's the one who describes what happened. If you think it's irregular for a judge to be the sole witness, you're right. But this is a hasty court, and some rules are stretched or broken. When Vere finished narrating everything that happened between Billy and Claggart, the first lieutenant asks Billy if it's true. Billy says simply that the captain has told the truth about the killing, but that Claggart lied about his disloyalty: "I have eaten the King's bread and I am true to the King." Remember how Vere described Billy as a "King's bargain"? The King almost seems to be a presence in the story, perhaps a symbolic one. God is often referred to as the King of Kings, and Billy's phrase "the King's bread" calls to mind the host at communion. The importance, and perhaps the religious significance, of Billy's statement is heightened when Vere, the "king" of the ship, says in an emotional tone that he believes Billy, and Billy stammers back, "God will bless you for that, your honor!" Do you see how an emotional bond is being forged between Billy and Vere? Though they're on opposite sides of the law, they seem to be on the same wave-length.

Now, in simple language, Billy explains why he struck Claggart: He never had anything against him and only hit him because he couldn't defend himself with words. After Billy's inability to speak in the previous scene, don't you find his language here very moving? He's baffled about what's happened to him, but he's brave and steady, and he tells the truth. Almost. Billy does tell one small lie when he's asked if he knew about or suspected any trouble on board. There was the chubby sailor who offered him money to join a mutiny, but Billy still feels that he can't inform against a fellow sailor, even though he has very little left to lose. You can either see this lie as a small blot on Billy's purity or else as a further confirmation of his natural sense of honor. No one likes a stool pigeon, but Billy is, in fact, being a dupe, since the mutineer was one of Claggart's henchmen.

The last question asked of Billy is why Claggart was out to get him since there was no bad blood between them. Billy doesn't know how to answer this, and he turns to Vere for help. But Vere insists the business of the court is with "the blow's consequence," not with the mystery of Claggart's iniquity. "The prisoner's deed," he declares, "with that alone we have to do."

Does this strike you as fair? What Vere is saying is forget about intention, forget about circumstance, forget about Claggart's lies, and Billy's stammer, and just look at the result: One man has killed another. The other members of the court have trouble swallowing this line, and so does Vere, as he later paces to and fro thinking things over. His pacing up the incline of the deck, the narrator says, symbolizes the mind's determination to go against "primitive instincts strong as the wind and the sea." In other words, in his gut he wants to pardon Billy, but he sets his mind against his gut feeling, grits his teeth, and decides that he's got to follow, not instinct but law. Billy is taken out, and Vere stands before the court and presents his argument.

Vere starts off by telling the court members to put aside their human feelings. He admits that he, too, feels sorry for Billy, but he insists that compassion and private conscience must be ignored for the obligations of martial law. Then he extends this argument by contrasting Natural Law with the King's law. Under Natural Law, Vere states, Billy is "a creature innocent before God." (Natural Law, as he uses it, thus combines basic human feelings with the morality of Christianity.) At the Last Judgment, Billy will be acquitted, even as Claggart will be sent to hell. But this is a drumhead court, not the Last Judgment, and the King's law, not Natural Law, applies. Once you join the navy, you cease to be a "natural free agent." You don't have responsibility for what's right and wrong- you are simply supposed to carry out the rules of martial law.

All of these arguments are intensified, Vere insists, because it's war time and the Mutiny Act is in effect. "War," he says, "looks but to the frontage, the appearance"- it doesn't care about Billy's intention or what was going on inside his mind. War sees things in utter black and white: Either condemn Billy or let him go. Do you see how the theme of appearances versus reality keeps coming up in Billy Budd? Claggart tried to manipulate appearances to make Billy look "deep" and deceptive. And though Vere saw through this scheme, he now says that the underlying reality must be rejected for the appearance.

Here the sailing master speaks up and asks why they can't convict Billy, but then pardon him. That way, they'll obey the law, keep up appearances, and also do the right thing.

Vere argues that this cannot be, because once the crew got wind of it, they'd decide the officers were scared of them, and they'd mutiny. In order to maintain discipline on board, therefore, there's no choice but to condemn this "unfortunate boy."

Vere then withdraws and, after mulling it over briefly, the other members of the court decide to go along with him: Billy must be hanged from the yardarm first thing in the morning!

The narrator notes that they might have spared Billy, but for Vere's last argument- that letting him off would be bad for the crew's discipline. Everyone is still so tense about the possibility of a mutiny that this line of reasoning convinces the court that clemency is out of the question.

Everyone who reads Billy Budd comes away with a different reaction to this scene. Some people get furious at Captain Vere and say he totally perverted justice. Others heave a sigh for poor Billy, but concede that Vere made the right decision. However you feel about it, you have to admit he was in a tough spot. Imagine if you were the captain- how would you decide? You've got to make up your mind about Vere- either you're for him or against him.


Even those who side against Vere admit that he suffers for the decision that he convinced the court to make. And in this chapter you see just how much.

Vere takes on himself the responsibility of telling Billy that he's been sentenced to death. But the narrator doesn't let us witness this meeting. Why not? He calls the encounter a "sacrament" between two men, who have such rare qualities that "to average minds" they would seem "incredible." Is he saying that we're too stupid to understand or believe this scene? Maybe the point is that by excluding us from this meeting, the narrator heightens the spiritual aspect implied in "sacrament" and makes the emotion between Billy and Vere that much stronger.

The narrator guesses that Vere confessed to Billy that he was the one who insisted on the death penalty. And that Billy, far from being angry, felt "a sort of joy" that Vere has such a "brave opinion of him," that he knows Billy does not fear death. Then the narrator imagines that a kind of fatherly emotion welled up inside Vere, that a "primeval" passion of sympathy and love and pity got the better of his military stoicism, and he embraced the young sailor, whom he had just condemned to death. Remember how, in the previous scene, before he comes to his decision, Vere paces the deck and gets control of his "primitive instincts." Here just the opposite happens: The instincts come rushing out. Their embrace is like a father and son, and it cements the bond between them. The narrator makes us feel the aura of hushed sanctity and religious ritual all the more through his tone, images, and Biblical references.

Vere and Billy's embrace is compared to the embrace of Abraham and Isaac at the moment before Isaac's sacrifice. Do you remember this Bible story? God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a test of his faith and obedience. Though he doesn't want to, Abraham agrees. But at the very last moment, an angel comes down and says, "Lay not thine hand upon the lad... for now I know that thou fearest God." God sends a ram to be sacrificed instead, and Abraham gives joyful thanks.

Even though Billy is not as lucky as Isaac, some readers take this allusion as a symbol of Vere's absolution of the guilt of killing Billy. It not only underlines Vere's role as Billy's spiritual father, but emphasizes how his decision to condemn Billy was part of God's law.

Those who read Billy Budd as a tale of acceptance and forgiveness stress the significance of this scene. They point out that the narrator links Billy and Vere as "two of great Nature's nobler order," whose embrace signals reconciliation. There is a quality of "diviner magnanimity" in this meeting that brings out the most godlike aspect of each man. By embracing Vere, Billy's "novice magnanimity" is fulfilled and raised to a higher level. Though, in the ruling of naval law, they are divided as judge and convicted criminal, on the level of ultimate truth, their spirits are joined.

As Vere emerges from this encounter, his face looks so tortured that the narrator concludes that he is suffering even more than Billy, who is about to die.


The ship's crew is beginning to wonder what's happened to Billy and Claggart. A rumor goes around that they were seen entering the captain's cabin and haven't been seen since. Vere puts their questions to rest by making a public announcement of everything that took place in his cabin. It's a vivid scene with the men standing around the captain while the newly risen moon shines down on them. They listen without speaking, like a congregation "of believers in hell" listening to their Calvinist preacher (Calvinism, a religious doctrine prevalent in early New England, stressed predestination of the soul.) This image brings to mind the issue of original sin, and the notion that Billy was somehow predetermined to slip up. But when Vere is through, the men begin to murmur restlessly. Are they about to rise up in protest- or even in mutiny? Before they can do anything, a whistle sounds, and they all have to get to work. The routine takes over and cuts off any chance of rebellion.

Meanwhile, the narrator informs us that "at a suitable hour" Claggart was buried at sea with "every funeral honor," proper to his rank. The sly master of appearances went out with the appearance of complete respectability and reproachlessness. But isn't it strange how you've practically forgotten about Claggart now that he's dead? It's as if all his evil evaporated with him. The only ones you're concerned about now are Billy and Vere.


Billy has been moved from the captain's cabin to an impromptu prison on the upper gun deck, which is lined with the ship's cannon and sheltered above by the weather deck. Billy, the peacemaker, dressed in his dirty white uniform, lies in chains between two huge black cannons, instruments of war. You get a vivid sense of colors and fighting in this scene.

The narrator goes even further with this idea when he shows us the meeting of Billy with the ship's chaplain. The chaplain tries to "bring Billy Budd to some godly understanding that he must die" and "to bring home to him the thought of salvation and a Savior," but his efforts are in vain. Billy, the narrator repeats, is a barbarian, and like the South Sea inhabitants of Tahiti, he listens politely to the Christian words but they don't sink in. (You'll see how central this idea is to the theme of Typee.) Billy and the islanders have no fear of death, while the God-fearing, "civilized" Christians are terrified of it, despite the fact that their religion offers eternal life. Billy's feeling is, Why should I be scared? It's all part of nature, and since it's part of nature I might as well accept it. His essential innocence and goodness of heart goes beyond any Christian doctrine the chaplain can teach him, and eventually the chaplain agrees. "Innocence," he concludes, "was even a better thing than religion wherewith to go to Judgment." But before he leaves, the chaplain bends down and kisses Billy on the cheek. The narrator calls this "an act strange enough in an Englishman," and you'll probably agree. Does it remind you of how Judas kissed Christ to betray him? Or do you think it shows that Billy's goodness is so strong that it converts the clergyman who came to convert him?

Yet if the chaplain is converted by Billy's special virtue, why doesn't he do anything to try to get him off the hook? The reason is: He knows it would be futile. Though he is the "minister of the Prince of Peace" he serves Mars, the God of War. In fact, his presence on board implies that Christianity, while claiming to be the "religion of the meek," actually supports the religion of brute force that is war. The narrator bitterly points up the contradiction in this and reduces the chaplain to a kind of cog in the war machine. The true values of Christ are not to be found in him, but in Billy Budd, as you'll see so clearly in the next chapter.


Melville handles the scene of Billy's death so visually that you can almost watch it like a movie, with the camera directing your attention to all the crucial details.

It's four o'clock in the morning, and the camera pans over the ship and the distant horizon, where a white cloud hangs on the sea. Suddenly you hear eight bells strike, whistles blowing, and all the decks of the ship fill with the crew. Even the platform of the foretop is packed with Billy's shipmates. Now the camera zooms in on Captain Vere, standing in the midst of all his officers at the back of the ship and facing forward. His face is grim in a close-up as he gazes up at a pole sticking out from the main mast: the yard from which Billy must hang. The camera then follows Billy as he talks briefly with the chaplain. We can't hear what they say, but we see that the chaplain's face shows deep sympathy, and Billy looks completely at peace. The camera zooms in on Billy alone as he is brought up the mast. You see his face in a close-up as he stands alone with the noose around his neck. He is looking toward the back of the ship, where his captain stands, and in the hush he calls out in a sweet, singing voice: "God bless Captain Vere!" The camera cuts away and pans over the ship's crew as a kind of electric shock jolts through them, and they all call out with one voice: "God bless Captain Vere!" Suddenly the camera cuts away to the captain: He is erect, rigid, and expressionless. But not entirely motionless, for he gives a faint nod of his head. The camera cuts back to Billy, rising up at the end of the rope. At that very moment, the sun breaks through the cloud and rose-colored rays stream onto Billy's lifeless face. This image stays on the screen for a long time, then the camera cuts away to the "wedged mass of upturned faces" of the crew, all staring in silent, wide-eyed awe at Billy. Then it cuts back to the dead man. Though he died by hanging, Billy's body does not twitch with the spasms that involuntarily convulse the muscles of people who die in this way. He hangs there practically motionless, only swinging slightly with the slow roll of the massive warship.

This is the movie version of Billy's death, an emotional and gripping scene. The book version has all this emotion and more, because the highly figurative language it's written in suggests a symbolic interpretation that might not come out in the visual action alone. The most obvious and important significance of this figurative language is the Christ symbolism, which culminates in this scene. When, at the moment of his death, Billy ascends and the sun breaks through the white cloud "with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision," you just have to think of Christ. The fact that Billy doesn't twitch is seen by the crew as a miracle. It's interesting that nowhere in this scene does the narrator say: Billy was dead. Instead of hanging off the yardarm, he ascends, like a bird or an angel. This delicate and symbolic handling heightens the mystery of Billy's death. You feel that Billy is more than just a human victim: Like Christ at the crucifixion, he's transfigured with divinity. And his blessing of Vere only makes this more vivid.

But Billy Budd, as you've seen, is a very complex work, and even its most basic symbols are qualified to bring out many different meanings. The narrator terms Billy's final blessing a "conventional felon's benediction," which means that this is the usual thing for convicted criminals to say under these circumstances. And, though the sailors repeat the blessing, they're not thinking about Vere at all, but only of Billy. They say the words automatically, almost like zombies, because they're so caught up in the tension and emotion of Billy's death. If you look at it this way, it considerably reduces the impact of the blessing. Some readers point to the manner in which Vere stands still and silent while Billy ascends as a sign that the captain is really the one who dies symbolically (or spiritually) in this scene. The narrator refuses to tell you what's going on inside Vere's mind here, but lets you choose from two possibilities: Either he's stoically controlling his emotions, or his emotions have so much gotten control of him that he's gone into shock. The basic question about Vere remains unanswered.

What does the Christ symbolism do for you in this scene? Christ, as you know, died for mankind's sins, but did Billy? Maybe his death is a kind of redemption of the tragedy of his life, and his blessing of Vere, the signal that man's imperfect laws and judgments are forgiven. But maybe his death is the tragedy: The tragedy of a cold, intellectual man forcing death on an innocent sailor out of fear and narrow-mindedness.

Your feeling about this scene not only says a lot about Billy Budd, but a lot about you.


After the religious sublimity and tension of Billy's death, this chapter plunges you into a realm of scientific speculation that seems almost absurd in contrast. No one can understand the seeming miracle of Billy's motionlessness at death, and the ship's purser and surgeon try to explain the lack of spasms in different ways. The purser says it's a testimony to "the force lodged in will power," but the surgeon rejects this as unscientific. Though he admits he can't account for the "phenomenon," he insists that the explanation will be found only in science. He reflects the views of materialism, a philosophy that explains every apparent mystery by searching for a physical cause. Melville is obviously poking fun not only at this philosophy, but also at the pomposity and hollow self-assurance of the surgeon. It makes you think that maybe his evaluation of Vere's sanity in Chapter 20 was also somewhat foolish.

The purser, equally unable to explain this mystery, seems content to apply a fancy term to it, as if a special name is all the explanation he needs. After trying "will power," he turns to "euthanasia," a Greek word that means a painless death. He implies that Billy died before he was hanged, but he fails to probe the deeper meaning of his supposition.

Though this chapter certainly deflates the mood of Billy's death scene, it also serves to intensify the mystery of his death. Neither of these typical 19th-century men can offer any clue to the mystery of Billy's last moments that doesn't seem laughable. The materialism of the surgeon and the purser's high-sounding labels make Captain Vere stand out not only for his well-rounded intelligence, but for his respect for the spiritual side of human feelings. The story of Billy Budd clearly has more in it than either of these two limited men can comprehend.


Though the ship's crew echoed Billy's benediction right before his death, we now find out that immediately after his death a different kind of sound came from them- an inarticulate murmur that threatened to swell into a shout of rebellion. But before this could happen, Vere ordered the boatswain to blow his whistle and send the men back to work. The exact same thing happens a little while later when the crew is gathered once more to watch Billy's body pushed off a plank into the sea. But this time, the human murmur blends with the shrieks of sea birds that fly screaming to the spot where Billy's corpse went under. The superstitious men interpret this as a wondrous sign. The narrator suggests that the birds are merely hunting for food. Again, you are left to choose between the explanations of science and the supernatural.

This is the third time the crew has been gathered in connection with Billy's demise (the first time was when the captain first broke the news of the tragedy).

Each time they murmur their disapproval, and each time, as soon as the murmur threatens to swell into a shout of protest, they are quickly sent to work. In some ways, they're being treated like animals: You ring a bell, and the instinct to jump or eat or whatever takes over. In their case, it's the instinct to go about their routine work. Vere's comment on this is, "With mankind, forms, measured forms are everything." What he means is that custom and habit entirely govern our behavior and keep us under control. Measured forms may also apply to law, religion, and artistic forms such as poetry and music that translate emotion into carefully designed works of art.

So, to add to all the contrasting ideas in Billy Budd, we have a new one: measured forms versus ungoverned passion. Vere brings out this idea even more clearly when he refers to the story of Orpheus and his lyre.

The myth of Orpheus tells of a legendary Greek musician who played the lyre so beautifully that his music put a kind of spell on the wild animals and even the rocks and streams of the woods. His music tamed and pacified everything wild. Vere compares the "measured forms" of naval routine and their effect on rebellious sailors to Orpheus's beautiful music and its effect on wild animals and things. But Vere fails to mention that Orpheus met his end at the hands of the Maenads, wild and violent female followers of Bacchus, the god of wine, who, impervious to the spell of his music, tore him limb from limb. Can there be a clearer example of unbridled passion overwhelming a "measured form"? Vere has unwittingly chosen a particularly ambiguous myth to illustrate his point. He also applies this myth to "the disruption of forms" going on in France during the revolution. As we'll soon see, this disruption is to have fatal consequences for the captain himself. Critics of Vere point out that he tries too hard to separate feeling from law and passion from forms. What he fails to understand about the myth of Orpheus, he also fails to understand about his own crew and his own historical period. Passion is as deeply ingrained in human nature as the need for forms. Without forms, the Maenads would sweep everything into chaos; but without passion, we are little better than robots- or slaves to a rigid and all-powerful state.


Billy Budd is dead and his story told, but there remain a few ragged edges and loose ends that the narrator wants to dispose of. One of these is the fate of Captain Vere.

Vere met his end during a fight between the Bellipotent and a French ship called the Athee- the "Atheist"- once again, a ship with a significant name. The Atheist suggests the disruption of forms, specifically religious forms, in revolutionary France that Vere just mentioned. Before he describes Vere's death, the narrator takes a minute to comment on the "form" of the story he's telling. Since this word form is so fresh in your mind from what Vere has said about measured forms, you might want to stop and think about it.

The narrator apologizes that his story will not have the "symmetry of form" of "pure fiction"- but it can't be helped because it deals with "fact," and "truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges." Your first reaction might be that the narrator is lying: Billy Budd is not fact, but fiction, not truth but a story. So why put in this disclaimer? But maybe the narrator is talking about "truth" and "fact" in a deeper sense. Many people feel that a work of fiction captures the way they feel about the world more effectively than a history book. So maybe the narrator has put this in to make you look for the deeper meanings in Billy Budd and also to make you look at the book's structure and form. Do you feel that its lack of "symmetry of form"- its many digressions, its long character analyses followed by exciting and violent scenes, its tense trial and the cinematic hanging of Billy gives the book the flexibility to convey the "real" feeling of events? Its loose and shifting structure is certainly one of the reasons Billy Budd had been open to so many different interpretations.

Captain Vere is hit by a musket ball fired from a porthole of the Athee during a heated battle. Though the Bellipotent succeeds in capturing the enemy ship, Vere's wound is fatal. He dies several days later on land, at the English-controlled port of Gibraltar. He never got to participate in Nelson's glorious victories at the Nile and Trafalgar, and he never became famous. Right before he dies, Vere is lying under the influence of a "magical drug," and he's heard to say the words "Billy Budd, Billy Budd." The narrator comments that he did not say these words in "the accents of remorse."

Vere's death raises several important questions. Does his death from a bullet shot from the "Atheist" mean that the powers of godlessness and lawlessness have succeeded in toppling law and "measured forms"? Claggart's evil destroyed Billy's innocence, and now French chaos has brought down Vere and his civilized order. Is this the final meaning, and final tragedy of Billy Budd? Or do you feel that Vere got what he deserved for ignoring his natural feelings when he condemned Billy to death? Is the narrator being ironic when he says Vere murmured Billy's name without remorse at the end of his life? Or does it show his deep love for Billy and strengthen the father-son tie between them? Yet why would he mention Billy at all, if he didn't regret his role in causing Billy to die?

Also remember that Vere, like Billy, was struck down by war: Vere by its ungoverned violence, Billy by its over-controlled, unyielding laws. Neither Billy's innocence nor Vere's lawfulness can survive in a world of mechanical codes and escalating warfare.


Melville ends Billy Budd with two different forms of narrative, one a newspaper account and the other a poem. Both of these show how the story that he has told can be changed radically depending on the form that's used to tell it. Truth, therefore, is relative and always shifting: It depends so much on context and point of view. This theme brings Billy Budd up to date with the most modern novels.

The newspaper story makes a total mockery of everything you've just read. In it, Billy is an assassin of "extreme depravity" (the very word used to characterize Claggart!) and Claggart is a dutiful, patriotic officer, whom Billy vindictively stabs with a knife. Luckily, Billy gets quickly executed, and everything returns to normal on board the Bellipotent. So much for the truthfulness or usefulness of newspapers!

The poem about Billy was supposedly written by one of his fellow foretopmen and printed as a ballad. It's a gentle and simple poem, and the narrator associates it with the folklore about Billy that grew up among the sailors after his death. In this folklore, the spar (stout pole) from which Billy was hanged becomes a sacred object, like the cross on which Christ was crucified. So Billy lives on as a sort of Christ figure in a simple folk religion of sailors.

The poem, unlike the newspaper story, does not depart in facts from the story we've just read. Its mood and tone, however, are much quieter, simpler, dreamier, and more folksy than the narrative. The sailor who wrote it gave it the title "Billy in the Darbies" (darbies is British slang for handcuffs), and he has Billy himself narrate his thoughts and feelings on the night before his hanging. He's not scared of dying, but he thinks with sad resignation of how lonely it will be. "But aren't it all sham?" Billy sighs to himself in the poem, offering yet another way of interpreting the issues in the book. Half dreaming, he imagines how he'll shake hands with his chum Donald before they push him off the plank into the sea, but then he remembers that he'll be dead by then. At the very end, he thinks, "I am sleepy and the oozy weeds about me twist"- he's already dreaming of being at the bottom of the ocean.

The poem is the very last thing in Billy Budd, and, with its rocking, slow rhythms, you can easily imagine some sailor singing it as his ship rolls with the waves. Billy's story, so full of deep moral questions, ends with almost a lullaby. A common sailor, once Billy's companion, has the last word, and this rude, simple ballad is the book's last "form." It makes you think that beyond the issues that rage through Billy Budd, what endures is the simple humanity of the Handsome Sailor.



ECC [Billy Budd and Typee Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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