Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Chapters 11–13 | Summary



Chapter 11

This chapter opens with the question, "What was the matter with the master-at-arms?" The narrator goes on to contemplate what it is in Claggart that makes him hate the innocent and inoffensive Billy Budd so intensely. Although he can elucidate no reason for the animosity, the narrator concludes that "down on [Budd], he assuredly was."

The narrator speculates perhaps Claggart had known Budd in the past and still held a grudge against him for a long-past incident. But then the narrator states Claggart had not known Budd before. The narrator comes to the conclusion that it was precisely Budd's "harmlessness" that elicited "an antipathy spontaneous and profound" in Claggart. The sailors on a warship are of "dissimilar personalities," and all these diverse characters must somehow learn to live together in some type of harmony—or at least to accept their differences. Yet Claggart is an "exceptional mortal" who cannot abide a sailor who is the "direct reverse of a saint." Claggart's character is so warped he has passed "a deadly space" to have become so consumed with malice.

The narrator goes on to relate a conversation he once had with an older man about how one understands unusual men. He wonders if "knowledge of the world" allows a normal man to understand an exceptional one. The older man states that would give one only a "superficial" understanding of the unusual man. He avers that "to know the world and to know human nature" are two distinct things, and one does not give insight into the other.

Then the narrator explains what some philosophers have said about men like Claggart. He cites Plato's definition of "natural depravity" as being of nature and Calvin's idea that men are born sinful. True depravity, the narrator insists, is not brutish but more likely to display a kind of "intellectuality," even "the mantle of respectability." Yet while such a depraved man may seem reasonable in his mind, his heart has "little to do with reason" except insofar as it can further his malicious plots. Claggart is such a man, one whose depravity is innate and secret and who pursues evil with the outer aspect of sanity.

Chapter 12

Claggart is described as "well molded" with a normal appearance. He is also said to be neat and "careful in his dress." Billy Budd looks different because he has the "heroic" look of one "lit ... from within." What everyone, including Claggart, sees in Budd is pure spirituality, love, and even saintliness. The narrator suggests it was Budd's unique beauty that inflamed Claggart's hatred of him.

Envy and antipathy are discussed as being "irreconcilable" though "conjoined." The narrator describes envy as (nearly) universal among people even though they are deeply ashamed of feeling it. Claggart's envy goes beyond that felt by ordinary people. Claggart's envy is "deeper" because he truly understands the "ineffability" of the "moral phenomenon" that was Billy Budd's spirituality and innocence.

Claggart is powerless to not act on his "elemental evil." He can hide his malice but is impelled to act on it.

Chapter 13

Claggart's passionate hatred will be acted out on the stage of the deck of the Bellipotent. The narrator speculates when Claggart saw Budd's spilled soup trickling toward him he did not dismiss it as a mere accident. Instead when he saw that it was Budd's soup there arose in him a "spontaneous feeling" of "antipathy." The narrator tells the reader Claggart probably thought the spilled soup was some type of "sly escape of ... feeling" on Budd's part akin to Claggart's malicious intentions. Claggart's interpretation of Budd's "sly" action awakes in him a contempt for Budd that amplified his hatred.

Claggart's contempt has been reinforced by his snitch (or corporal), Squeak. Squeak has reported to his boss he suspects there's a "rat" down among the sailors. Claggart immediately conflates Squeak's suspicions of mutiny with his newfound contempt and hatred for Budd. It seems Claggart has instructed Squeak to observe Budd and to set traps for him that might reveal a tidbit of information Claggart could use to destroy Budd.

Squeak has done what his master commanded, even to the extent of fabricating reports of Budd's iniquity. Squeak has made it his business "to ferment the ill blood by perverting to his chief certain innocent frolics of the good-natured foretopman." He has also made up reports against Budd out of whole cloth. Claggart "never suspected the veracity of these reports" because he knew how unpopular he was among the sailors. He accepts Squeak's false reports to satisfy his "greediness of hate" for Budd. If he can't get more solid proof of Budd's mutinous intent, Claggart is as glad to act "upon surmise as upon certainty." The narrator suggests the spilling of the soup combined with Squeak's false reports are enough evidence for Claggart to make a case against Budd. Having previously had no "evidence" against Budd other than Squeak's fabrications, Claggart uses the spilling of the soup as a welcome "self-justification" for destroying Budd.


The exclusive focus of these chapters is on the theme of innocence and malice. Claggart is the key character explored here. A person with a "normal nature" cannot understand him. Claggart has crossed "the deadly space between" normality and the "insanity" of all-consuming evil. His evil is "not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate." However, he keeps it hidden behind what seems like normal, ordinary appearance and behavior.

In a reference to the Bible, the narrator calls Claggart's form of evil the "mystery of iniquity" because it can't be traced back to any definitive cause. It is an evil born in him, but why he was born with it is a mystery. The biblical reference to the Pharisee refers to Claggart's desire to use the letter of the law to destroy Billy Budd. (See the Context section for explanation of Guy Fawkes.)

Claggart's malice is activated by Billy Budd's innocence. When speculating on the origin of Claggart's boundless animosity toward Budd, the narrator describes the mysteriousness of "antipathy spontaneous and profound such as is evoked in certain exceptional mortals" merely by the "aspect of some other mortal, however harmless he may be," speculating that the "harmlessness itself" is what calls forth the antipathy.

Envy is named as an important impetus to Claggart's malice toward Budd. "If askance [Claggart] eyed the good looks ... and frank enjoyment of young life in Billy Budd," the narrator notes, it was because they suggested a nature that "had in its simplicity never willed malice or experienced the reactionary bite of that serpent [envy]." Claggart's malice toward Budd was created from and feeds on his envy of Budd's beauty and goodness. He is the only one on the ship capable of "appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd. And the insight ... intensified his ... disdain of innocence." Of course, the motif of the Handsome Sailor is an important factor here. Claggart recognizes Budd as an exemplar of that perfect, beautiful sailor. And he hates and envies Budd for it.

The symbol of knowledge is used in these chapters to show that its representation of civilization makes it useless for delving into the evil that dwells inside Claggart. Neither "knowledge of the world" nor "knowledge of human nature" can make Claggart's inner landscape understandable to ordinary people.

Later the symbol of knowledge as civilization is shown to actually promote Claggart's unfathomable malice, which he hides beneath a veneer of sanity: "Civilization, especially if of the austerer sort, is auspicious to [Claggart's all-consuming malice, which] folds itself in the mantle of respectability." Claggart's depravity arises from an apparent "civilized" type of insanity. Such malice "lodge[s] in the heart, not the brain" and so the "intellect" cannot oppose or subdue it.

Several themes, symbols, and motifs come together in Chapter 13. Squeak is motivated by his loyalty to Claggart. Squeak is a loyal vassal who does Claggart's bidding. He seems to relish setting traps for Billy Budd. The theme of truth, rumor, and falsehood is also crucial here. Squeak seeks to earn the approbation of his boss by fabricating lies about Budd. He lies to Claggart by saying he's heard Budd talking to the sailors about treason. Claggart, desperate for more ammunition to use against Budd, believes Squeak's every word. The truth means nothing to Claggart in his pursuit of Budd's destruction. Squeak understands this and makes up vicious lies to feed his master's hatred.

The motif of mutiny is central to Squeak's fabrications. Both Squeak and Claggart know how anxious the ship's officers are about even a whiff of mutiny among the sailors. Squeak is cunning in embedding his lies in threats of mutiny that, he says, are being fomented by Billy Budd. (And, of course, the motif of names pertains to Squeak. Sailors may use this nickname because of the sound of his voice, but for the purposes of the story it's reminiscent of similar contemptible nicknames like "rat" and "squealer"—someone who informs on others to do them harm.)

In seeking to build a "case" against Budd, Claggart makes good use of the "epithets" Squeak recounts to him that purportedly reveal Budd's mutinous inclinations. Claggart adds to these lies his deliberate interpretation of the spilled soup as revealing Budd's "antipathy" toward him. Perhaps Claggart really believes Budd hates him and shows his animosity with spilled soup. Yet this interpretation is contradicted by the earlier statement that Claggart truly recognizes Budd's purity and hates him for that—his inability to do evil. Is the narrator asking the reader to decide which interpretation is correct? Why is the narrator offering conflicting interpretations of Claggart's deepest thoughts and motivations? Perhaps the narrator, too, is revealing himself as somewhat unreliable in his recounting of the truth and his susceptibility to rumor.

The motif of homoeroticism is implied in Claggart's view of Billy Budd in Chapter 12. Claggart sees "the spirit lodged within Billy ... looking out from his welkin eyes ... that ineffability which made the dimple in his dyed cheek, suppled his joints, and danced in his yellow curls, made him pre-eminently the Handsome Sailor." Claggart's physical description of Budd definitely shows what might be viewed as an erotic appreciation of the young man. Yet the eroticism is tempered by Claggart's "appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd ... [which] intensified [Claggart's] disdain of [Budd's] innocence." His hatred of Budd's innocence seems to be a passion that far outweighs any physical attraction Claggart may feel.

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