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Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Chapter 21 | Summary



The narrator compares the line between sanity and insanity to the shading of colors blended into a rainbow. He says the reader must decide if Captain Vere's state of mind indicates sanity or insanity. The narrator then goes on to suggest that the timing of this accusation was unfortunate, as it occurred when ships' captains were so paranoid about mutiny.

There are legal implications on both sides of the event. In one sense Claggart is culpable for making unsubstantiated accusations against a "blameless" sailor. On the other side is the "most heinous of military crimes," Budd's murder of Claggart. Captain Vere isn't required to determine the right and wrong of what happened but to apply military law. Yet Vere feels a certain "circumspection" in deciding what to do because the guilt and innocence of those involved are so complicated. His main motive, however, is said to be "to guard as much as possible against publicity" of the incident. The narrator suggests, "Here he may or may not have erred." Yet Vere's decisions were criticized (secretly) by other ship's officers. Keeping the incident and court proceedings under wraps is compared to a sort of underhanded palace intrigue.

Captain Vere might have chosen to keep Budd locked up until his case could be submitted "to the judgment of [the admiralty]," but Vere's "vows of allegiance to martial duty" lead him to opt for a speedy trial on board. His reason for this decision is said to be his fear that keeping Budd imprisoned on the ship might lead to an insurrection among the other sailors. Lastly it is not against British naval law to try a case such as this on board ship, with some of the ship's officers sitting in judgment. Vere asks the first lieutenant, the captain of marines, and the sailing master to be the judges in the drumhead court. Vere has some "misgivings" about including the officer of marines who he worries may not "prove altogether reliable" in judging such a thorny case. Vere also worries that although the other two judges are honest they have little experience in legal matters.

The court is held in the captain's cabin. Budd is brought in from the adjacent stateroom. As Claggart is dead, Captain Vere is the only witness in the case. He "narrate[s] all that had led up to the catastrophe, omitting nothing in Claggart's accusation, and deposing as to the manner in which the prisoner had received it." The judges "glance with no little surprise at Billy Budd, the last man they would have suspected, either of the mutinous design ... or of the undeniable deed he himself had done."

When Vere has finished testifying, the judges ask Budd, "Is it or is it not as Captain Vere says?" Budd finds his voice and says, "It is just as Captain Vere says, but it is not as the master-at-arms said." With some emotion Vere tells Budd, "I believe you, my man." When asked, Budd insists he "never bore malice against the master-at-arms." Then he explains, "Could I have used my tongue I would not have struck him ... and I had to say something, and I could only say it with a blow. God help me!"

When asked if he knew of any mutinous plot on board Budd hesitates. He does not want to implicate the afterguardsman in a mutiny. Budd again refuses to be an "informer," so he answers no. The last question they put to Budd is why Claggart would have such malice toward Budd to lie so egregiously about him. Budd's confusion when confronted with a question about evil intent is interpreted by the court as indicating he might be hiding his guilt. Budd looks to Captain Vere for help, and Vere responds for him. He says Budd cannot know the motivations of another man; only Claggart could answer that question and he is dead.

Vere asks the court to focus its "attention to the blow's consequence" and the blow itself as the "striker's deed." The judges are somewhat shocked by this statement because it seemed to be a "prejudgment on the speaker's part." It also rekindles their doubt about the captain's state of mind. When one judge says the entire incident is a "mystery," Vere agrees. But he reminds them their job is to ignore the mystery and judge only according to military law.

Budd is brought back to the stateroom. The judges "exchange looks of troubled indecision." After whispering together for a while, the judges are confronted by Vere, who seems to be considering how to approach the "well-meaning men not intellectually mature ... to demonstrate certain principles that were axioms to himself." Vere reveals his pedantry in speaking to the judges, stating they should abandon their "hesitancy" and do their duty as the law demands because the law is "paramount."

Vere launches into a long speech in which he urges them to ignore their "scruples" and think only of the "overt act" that caused Claggart's death. Their decision should show no allegiance to Nature (conscience) but only to the king. He understands they have an emotional reaction to what happened but says they should "let not warm hearts betray heads that should be cool." Vere reiterates that murder is a capital crime, but the judges interrupt to state that Budd intended neither mutiny nor murder. Vere replies an ordinary court might take that extenuating circumstance into account, but a martial court cannot. He reminds them they are operating under the severe tenets of the Mutiny Act, which is merciless. "Budd's intent or non-intent is nothing to the purpose," he says.

The judges then ask if they might mitigate the penalty if they have to convict Budd. Vere replies "clemency" would be a sign of weakness, a bad example to the other sailors, and perhaps an invitation to mutiny. The penalty for murder must be carried out to the letter. The captain says he, too, feels for Budd, but he's sure Budd would understand why they need to execute him for his deed. The judges sit silent, all of them afraid to disagree with the captain. In the end Vere's appeal to their "instinct as sea-officers" to convict and sentence Budd to the ultimate penalty wins the day.

The narrator seems to support Vere's point of view by relating another case in which a ship's captain had a man convicted of shipboard murder hanged for his crime. The admiralty approved this captain's action, carried out in a time of peace. The narrator quotes a historian who also agrees with the type of action Vere takes, especially as it is a time of war "when it is imperative promptly to act." So Billy Budd is convicted and sentenced to be hanged from the yard-arm early the next morning.


The theme of law, conscience, and morality and the theme of loyalty, duty, and justice are the subjects of this chapter. The chapter opens with the narrator reinforcing the truth that the line between sanity and insanity is hard to delineate. This is important as later in the chapter the reader will see that the line between morality and the law is at least as hazy.

Captain Vere is strictly devoted to duty, to upholding martial law with "prudence and vigor." The reader is told that the matter at hand is not one of determining "right from wrong"—which is called "a primitive basis" for judgment—but rather one of adhering strictly to the more "civilized" Mutiny Law of the Royal Navy. Vere would "fain ... have deferred taking any action [on board and] submit[ed] the matter to the judgment of this admiral." But his "vows of allegiance to martial duty" make him determined not to wait. During the trial Vere continually steers the judges to the act that killed Claggart. When the judges remark that what happened during the fatal confrontation is a "mystery," Vere agrees. Yet he abjures them to ignore the mystery and concentrate instead on "the prisoner's deed. With that alone we have to do." Vere's duty to martial law is so rigid it does not allow him to permit any other considerations in the trial.

When lecturing the judges Vere rejects their inclination toward compassion, saying, "Do these buttons that we wear [on our navy uniforms] attest that our allegiance is to Nature [compassion]?" He answers his own question: "No, to the King ... [in whose service] we cease to be natural free agents." Vere concludes their only responsibility is that "however pitilessly that law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it."

Then Vere addresses the judges' troubled consciences, asking if "private conscience should not yield to that imperial one formulated in the code under which alone we officially proceed?" Further, "before a court less arbitrary and more merciful than a martial one that plea [for mercy] would largely extenuate." But under "the law of the Mutiny Act" extenuating circumstances cannot be taken into account. Therefore, neither can conscience or morality.

After testifying as the only witness and after Budd is taken away, Vere becomes the voice of the law and martial justice. He is aware of the judges' "hesitancy ... proceeding ... from the clashing of military duty with moral scruple—scruple vitalized by compassion." Vere even claims to share their compassion. Yet he insists that his "paramount obligation ... [is to] strive against scruples that may tend to enervate decision." Vere is expressing his devotion to the law, but he is not being altogether honest. Vere's statement indicates a preordained decision, even though the judges have not yet reached their own decision. In his mind Vere is resolute and determined to see his prejudgment accepted by the court. Compassion can lead to a decision different from the one Vere is set on. Mercy might "enervate" Vere's preset decision, but it can also lead to a different (more merciful) decision. Vere will not allow that. His decision must be the decision of the court.

The motif of mutiny is crucial in guiding the action and outcome of the proceedings. Captain Vere and the court are applying a part of the draconian Mutiny Law, which allows for no "clemency" or "extenuating" circumstances to mitigate a judgment or penalty. As he thinks about what to do, Vere worries that should the sailors learn of postponing the trial it would "awaken any slumbering embers of the Nore among the crew," and this created in Vere a "sense of urgency" to proceed immediately. Therefore Vere demands a swift shipboard (drumhead) court to prevent news of the murder from reaching the crew. Later in his argument to the judges Vere insists showing clemency would be a sign of weakness that might embolden the ship's sailors to "provoke new troubles," or mutiny. If mercy is shown, Vere says, "Will not [the sailors] revert to the recent outbreak at the Nore? Ay." Yet Vere is oblivious to the possibility that hanging Budd, who is beloved by the sailors, might be seen as so unjust as to incite them to mutiny. Vere is blinded to this possibility by his unrelenting determination to get the court to condemn Budd to hang.

Loyalty is on display among the main actors in this chapter. Vere is unquestioningly loyal to the navy and its harsh law. Budd, too, swears his national loyalty: "I have eaten the King's bread, and I am true to the King." The only time Budd seems to waver is when he's troubled at possibly implicating the afterguardsman in a supposed conspiracy. Budd does not implicate him, and perhaps Budd sees no (or little) conflict between his loyalty to the king and his loyalty to his fellow sailors.

Budd shows loyalty to—and misplaced trust in—Captain Vere. When Budd is asked by the judges why Claggart would tell lies and conspire against him, Budd cannot say. The tongue-tied Budd turns to Vere for help in answering the question. Vere rightly states, "How can [Budd] or anyone else [answer] unless indeed it be he who lies within there [Claggart]?" Vere saves Budd from having to answer this unanswerable question. But this and previous incidents during the trial reveal a certain situational irony: Budd seeks help from and truly trusts the one man in the court who feels duty-bound to condemn him. This is made clear immediately after this question is put when Vere says the court must "confine its attention to the blow's consequences ... [to] the striker's deed." Vere's meaning is so plain to the judges they suspect Vere of "prejudgment." Still Budd seems not to understand what Vere means. The narrator uses animal imagery to paint Budd's confusion as like that of a dog looking at its master, "seeking in his face some elucidation of a previous gesture ambiguous to the canine intelligence."

The concept of guilt becomes confused within the theme of innocence and malice. Vere and the court must judge guilt and innocence based not on the qualities or characters of the men involved in the incident but on the criminal act. Their dilemma therefore is that from a legal perspective, "the apparent victim of the tragedy was he who had sought to victimize a man blameless," with a consequence that "the deed of the latter ... constituted the most heinous of military crimes"—murder. In other words the person who has a purely innocent character is guilty of a criminal act brought on by the malicious plots of an evil man who ends up being the victim. There is situational irony in this, but tragedy and ambiguity as well. It is a moral knot difficult to untangle.

Billy Budd is recognized by the judges as an innocent. Yet Budd himself admits his inability to respond to Claggart with words caused him to respond with a blow. He is absolutely truthful and guileless in admitting the guilt in his action at the same time he demonstrates the innocence of its motivation.

The symbol of knowledge is implied as a representation of morality. Vere supposedly appoints to be court judges the best men he has. Although they are competent at their shipboard jobs and in battle, Vere worries they "might not prove altogether reliable in a moral dilemma involving aught of the tragic." The insinuation is the judges are good naval officers but otherwise uneducated and of lower status (less civilized) than the intellectual Captain Vere. Vere therefore assumes they have little ability to consider the moral aspects of the case. Again there is situational irony at play here, as it is the "low-class" judges who demonstrate the deepest and most compassionate morality while Vere devalues morality to adhere to the unyielding letter of the law. The narrator makes this plain when Vere, after reflecting for a few minutes, wonders how to address the judges, whom he deems beneath him and thus in need of education about what to him is axiomatic. Yet as the trial proceeds it will be Vere who is revealed as perhaps less mature—if not intellectually then at least morally.

The supposed lack of knowledge among the judges is described as somehow bothering Vere. He is said to be disturbed because they lack sufficiently "mature" morality and principles. But what if Vere appointed them precisely because he deemed them lacking in maturity? Vere's haranguing of the judges to get them to convict and condemn Billy Budd may demonstrate the power he knows he has over them. It might be the case that Vere appointed these particular judges because he knew they were malleable and would bend to his arguments and his will. If this was Vere's motivation, then he was correct.

Early on in the trial the narrator says, "Very far was [Vere] from embracing opportunities for monopolizing to himself the perils of moral responsibility." By appointing cowed subordinates as judges, Vere creates a situation in which he is able to transfer the "moral responsibility" of condemning Budd from himself to his hand-picked judges. As the trial proceeds the judges become cowed by Vere's relentless arguments for a guilty verdict. They are so browbeaten they "hardly had the inclination to gainsay ... their superior in mind [and] in naval rank." In short they do Vere's bidding. They relieve Vere from having to make an uncomfortable moral choice himself. They ignore their morality and consciences and convict Billy Budd "without appeal."

Chapter 17 reintroduces the book's most direct implication of the motif of homoeroticism. Claggart is described when his

unobserved glance happened to light on Billy ... [who is] exchanging passing broadsides of fun with other young [sailors], that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression, his (Claggart's) eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like a man of sorrows ... [having] a melancholy expression [with] a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.

The reader is then told, "But this was an evanescence, and quickly repented of, as it were, by an immitigable look, pinching and shriveling the visage into the momentary semblance of a wrinkled walnut." Claggart quickly crushes these tender feelings for Budd, but there is no question that the quote implies they lie somewhere under the surface of his steely malice.

The motif of homoeroticism may also be implied in Captain Vere's reaction to Claggart's accusation against Billy Budd in Chapter 18. Budd's "conduct ... had fallen under the captain's notice [and] had confirmed that first happy augury [that Billy] ... seemed to be such that [Vere] thought of recommending him to the executive officer for promotion to a place that would more frequently bring him under [Vere's] own observation." This quote might be interpreted as expressing Vere's unacknowledged sexual attraction to Billy Budd, who Vere want to keep close to him so he can observe him (and his beauty) more frequently. However, it may simply be the case that Vere wants to promote Budd simply because Budd is a highly competent sailor. The reader must decide.

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