Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Chapters 14–16 | Summary



Chapter 14

One night Budd is sleeping in his hammock on an upper deck with a group of other sailors. He is suddenly awakened by someone touching his shoulder. The stranger tells Budd to go immediately to the fore-chains because "something [is] in the wind." Then the stranger disappears.

Budd's good nature prevents him from simply saying no to the request, especially as it did not seem openly absurd or hostile. So he got up rather "mechanically" and went to the place mentioned, a "secluded" and "tarry balcony ... overhanging the sea." Soon the stranger approached, but Budd could not identify him on this moonless night. Budd thought he was one of the ship's afterguardsmen. The stranger whispers to Budd, asking if he had been impressed, but Budd says nothing. The afterguardsman then explains there is a whole "gang" of impressed sailors on the ship. He asks Budd if he could "help—at a pinch?"

Budd does not understand and asks what the stranger means. The stranger responds by showing Budd two small, shiny objects he holds in his open hand. He says, "They are yours, Billy, if you'll only—." Budd becomes rather upset and, as is usual in times of stress, he begins to stammer. Budd manages to tell the stranger he doesn't know what he's talking about and that Budd will "toss [him] back over the r-rail" unless he departs immediately. The afterguardsman sees Budd is serious, so he leaves quickly.

A fellow foretopman, Red Pepper, has heard Budd stuttering and asks him what's going on. Budd says simply that he met an afterguardsman but told him to go away "where he belongs." Red Pepper is angry about the "sneaky" afterguardsman, but Budd's explanation of what happened satisfies him and no more is said about the incident.

Chapter 15

Budd is "sorely puzzled" by this incident, which seemed "underhanded." He wonders if the two objects he saw in the afterguardsman's hand were really guineas (valuable coins). The more he thinks about the incident the more "uneasy" Budd becomes. Although Budd did not really understand what transpired during that nocturnal meeting, he instinctively knows it must have involved "evil of some sort." He decides to try to see the afterguardsman in daylight to get a better idea of his appearance.

Budd sees the afterguardsman the next day smoking a pipe on deck. Budd recognizes him by his build more than his face. For this reason Budd wonders if the man he's looking at is really the person he'd met the night before. The man Budd sees appears "genial" and "free-hearted." Budd begins to question his identity. When the afterguardsman sees Budd looking at him, he nods slightly at Budd in a "familiar sort of friendly" way as if they were "old acquaintances."

A couple of days later the afterguardsman greets Budd as he passes him on deck. Budd is embarrassed by this and does not return the greeting. Budd is still nonplussed by the night incident but decides it's best to say nothing about it to anyone. Yet Budd cannot stop himself from hinting about the incident to Dansker.

Dansker listens to Budd's abbreviated version of the incident and, after thinking for a moment, says, "Didn't I say so, Baby Budd? ... Jemmy Legs is down on you." Budd is confused because he can't understand what Claggart has to do with the incident. Dansker explains the afterguardsman was a "cat's-paw." And that is all Dansker will say about the matter.

Chapter 16

Budd rejects Dansker's analysis of who was behind the nighttime incident. Budd cannot believe the man who "always had a pleasant word for him" would do something so underhanded. Budd can't believe Claggart would try to get him in trouble.

Budd is too inexperienced and childlike to recognize the evil in Claggart. Budd has grown up on board ships, so he has known mainly sailors. Budd thinks "the sailor is frankness," not cunning. He believes "life is not a game" for sailors, which makes them more "straightforward" and, in a way, more honest.

The narrator goes on to affirm Budd's judgment about sailors, saying, "as a class, sailors are in character a juvenile race" because sailors are "accustomed to obey orders without debating them." Further, spending a large part of his life on board a ship the sailor has little of that "promiscuous commerce with mankind where unobstructed free agency on equal terms" teaches him to distrust men.


The nighttime incident with the afterguardsmen brings up the theme of loyalty and the motif of mutiny. The afterguardsman approaches Budd ostensibly because he's an impressed sailor. It can be surmised, then, that the afterguardsman thinks Budd feels some loyalty to the other impressed sailors on the ship. It is not stated here if Budd feels loyalty to any group. It becomes clear the afterguardsman is trying to engage Budd in a mutiny. Even the innocent Budd senses the "evil" underlying the afterguardsman's proposition. The offer of a bribe, which Budd later correctly identifies as two valuable coins, confirms Budd's feeling something evil is afoot. That is why Budd rejects both it and the man making it.

The symbol of Billy Budd's stammer is used to show Budd recognizes the evil before him and is extremely discomfited by it. Budd's stammer represents his inability to confront evil head on and to speak clearly in opposition to it. Yet here Budd makes his displeasure and rejection of the afterguardsman relatively clear. It is interesting to note Red Pepper approaches Budd and asks him "What's the matter?" because he just heard Budd stutter. This suggests some sailors have heard Budd stutter in other situations and recognize his stammer as arising from stress.

Knowledge of the world and civilization is presented in the narrator's discussion of the "juvenile" nature of sailors who are trained only to obey orders and who lack experience in judging men and character. For example, Budd finds it hard to match the "free-hearted" appearance of the afterguardsman with the rather sinister sailor who'd awakened and tried to bribe him. The symbol of knowledge as civilization is clarified in the description of how men of the world view other men. Men of the world—civilized men—are keen judges of character. Unlike the more trusting (and less educated and knowledgeable sailors), men of the world instinctively view others with "distrust." This "habitual distrustfulness" is so ingrained in civilized men they are generally "unconscious" of it.

The theme of duty and loyalty arises, but mainly through Budd's ignorance. The narrator states Budd should have known "it was his duty as a loyal blue-jacket to report [the bribery incident to] the proper quarter"—to a ship's officer. The narrator explains that had Budd recognized his duty he would very likely not have carried it out. It's implied Budd feels some loyalty to his fellow sailors because he does not want to be a "telltale" (or tattle-tale) and get a fellow sailor in trouble.

The theme of innocence and malice is again at the forefront in these chapters. The afterguardsman is clearly engaged in some type of evil conspiracy. Dansker understands this particular conspiracy has been planned by Claggart (Jemmy Legs) as part of the plot to destroy Budd. Dansker explains the afterguardsman as a "cat's-paw," or someone who is used by another for the other's (often devious) purpose. The bribe the afterguardsman offers very likely came from Claggart, who also probably paid the afterguardsman for his participation in the plot. It is not clear that the afterguardsman is actually an integral part of Claggart's plan, but he shows his willingness to engage in evil by offering the bribe and trying to entangle Budd in a mutiny. Whether the mutiny is real or not makes no difference. Had Budd taken the bribe he would have revealed his support for the concept of mutiny.

Budd's innocence and "good nature" extend to his inability to say no to the afterguardsman's request for a clandestine meeting. However, his innocence does not blind Budd to the evil he senses in the overtures made by the afterguardsman. In his innocence Budd continues to deny the evil in Claggart that Dansker keeps trying to convince him of. Claggart's pleasant words and half-smiles convince Budd the master-at-arms feels no malice toward him. Budd is a "child-man" whose "intelligence" of the world remains "simple-minded." Experience cannot break through his innate innocence and teach him the "intuitive knowledge" required to judge others' characters and purposes.

The motif of animal imagery is used vividly to show how Budd reacts in the face of evil. The narrator states Budd recognized there was something evil afoot in the incident because he was like a "young horse fresh from the pasture suddenly inhaling a vile whiff from some chemical factory." The image is one the reader can easily relate to, as it conveys the contrast between nature's sweet air and the toxic, noxious air produced by civilization's foul chemicals. Any person, including Budd, would cringe at the chemical stench (the evil) the way a horse would.

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