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Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Chapters 17–20 | Summary



Chapter 17

Budd notices Claggart seems friendlier to him. But Claggart's looks belie other feelings. Claggart's expression is sad as he watches Budd having a good time in the company of the other sailors. Claggart's sorrow sometimes merges with a look of "yearning," as if he "could even have loved Billy." Yet these fond looks quickly change, revealing a "strange" and "fierce light." Budd sometimes sees these strange looks but is unable to interpret them. Budd's "thews," or sinews, don't enable him to recognize the "malign" in Claggart. Budd knows he's done nothing to earn the master-at-arms's disapproval, so he doesn't worry about Claggart's looks.

Budd barely notices two minor officers who also giving him "peculiar glances." The narrator suggests they were in some way "tampered with," the implication being they were in cahoots with Claggart. Although Budd knows these and other petty officers are Claggart's messmates, Budd does not connect them to Claggart. Budd is unconcerned about these officers' weird looks because he gets along so well with his fellow sailors. Everything seems to him to be fine.

When Budd passes the afterguardsman on the ship the latter greets Budd cheerfully. Budd thinks this indicates their earlier ominous encounter has been forgotten. The narrator suggests the afterguardsman acts this way because he's totally "baffled" by Budd's "simplicity." The afterguardsman's "crookedness" is disarmed by this simplicity.

Meanwhile Claggart's "monomania," though masked by his normal outward demeanor, becomes a "subterranean fire" consuming him. "Something decisive must come of it," the narrator states.

Chapter 18

For a while nothing of note occurs in Budd's shipboard life.

The narrator then describes Captain Vere's excellence as a commander causes the Royal Navy to order him to sail the Bellipotent immediately to another part of the sea. The warship will be far from the rest of the British fleet but near enemy French vessels. The Bellipotent finds and chases a French frigate, but it escapes.

After Vere has given up pursuing the French vessel, Claggart approaches him, "cap in hand," on deck. Vere is reflective as he walks the deck alone. Claggart "deferentially" waits for the captain to notice him. The narrator describes how little Captain Vere knows about Claggart. Vere assumes an expression of vague "repellent distaste" when he first sees Claggart and asks him what he wants. (It is unusual for a petty officer to seek an interview with a ship's captain.)

Claggart, with an expression of grief at being "a messenger of ill-tidings," begins to tell Vere why he's come. Claggart reports he had seen something while the warship was chasing the frigate that "convinced" him at least one impressed sailor was involved in a dangerous shipboard conspiracy. Claggart says he has suspected grumbling among the men for a while, but it was only during the pursuit of the French vessel that he observed "the man referred to" engaged in something suspiciously "clandestine." It is, Claggart says, his "deeply felt ... [and] serious responsibility" to report what he saw to the captain—especially in light of the anxiety he knows Vere and other commanders feel after the mutinies earlier that year.

The captain is "disquieted" and "indignant" that a petty officer would presume to speak of the Nore mutiny to a commander. Yet Vere controls his indignation to hear more of what Claggart has to say. Although Vere is surely mindful of the possibility of mutiny on his ship, he regards Claggart as something like a "perjured witness" in a trial.

Vere demands Claggart name the "one dangerous man" on board. Claggart promptly replies, "William Budd, a foretopman, your honor." The captains shows "unfeigned astonishment" at the naming of the "popular ... Handsome Sailor." Claggart insists that Budd insinuates himself with the sailors in order to turn them toward mutiny. Claggart cites Budd's jumping off the merchant vessel as an expression of anger at his impressment. Vere knows about the incident but has interpreted it as an example of Budd's high spirits, not his resentment. In fact since Budd has been on board his work has been so exemplary Captain Vere has considered promoting him to officer. All these thoughts about Budd cause Vere to seriously question Claggart's allegations.

Vere turns on Claggart, demanding to know why he's come to his commander with such a "foggy" tale. He challenges Claggart to cite one of Budd's actions that confirms the charge against him. He reminds Claggart to "heed what [he] speaks" and not to lie. Claggart reports some of the nefarious things he alleges Budd was overheard saying. He adds "substantiating proof" is not far. Yet Vere is filled with doubts about Claggart and his accusations. Vere is tempted to demand Claggart immediately produce his "substantiation," but he hesitates because doing that would make the accusations known throughout the ship. Vere wants to "test" Claggart before word gets out.

Captain Vere will pursue this matter in a more private place. He determines Budd is not on watch at the time. Vere has his hammock-boy go to fetch Budd and bring him to the captain's cabin where Vere will be able to question both Budd and Claggart in private.

Chapter 19

When Budd finds himself in the cabin with the captain and Claggart he is surprised but not alarmed. In fact Budd thinks the captain has summoned him to promote him.

Vere demands Claggart repeat his accusations in front of Budd so the captain can scrutinize the expressions on both their faces. Claggart moves intimidatingly close to Budd, looks him in the eye, and repeats his allegations.

At first Budd doesn't understand what Claggart is saying. When its import dawns on him he looks "struck as by white leprosy ... He stood like one impaled and gagged." As he speaks Claggart's eyes become inhuman and "alien."

Budd is "transfixed" and so paralyzed he cannot speak even when Vere demands he defend himself. But all Budd can do is produce a "strange dumb gesturing and gurgling." His "amazement" and his horror of the "accuser's eyes" have struck him dumb. His tongue is "convulsed," and he cannot utter a word. Budd is "straining forward in an agony of ineffectual eagerness to obey [Vere's] injunction," but Budd appears to be "suffocating" and cannot talk.

For the first time Vere recognizes Budd stutters. He approaches Budd, touches his shoulder, and says some soothing words to calm him down. "Take your time," he says. The kind words make Budd try even harder to speak. Yet the harder he tries the more tongue-tied he becomes. Budd is rigid with a "paralysis" so extreme it is like a "crucifixion."

An instant later Budd's right arm shoots out at Claggart. His blow is like "a discharged cannon" in its power. Struck on the forehead, Claggart falls over and remains motionless. "What have you done!" Vere says in amazement. Vere and Budd try to lift Claggart, but he is dead and they cannot move him. Vere orders Budd to wait in an adjacent stateroom while the captain calls for the ship's surgeon. The surgeon confirms Claggart is dead. The captain exclaims Claggart was "struck dead by an angel of God" who must "hang."

Vere has the surgeon leave. The captain will call a drumhead (shipboard) court to rule on the incident.

Chapter 20

The departing surgeon wonders about Vere's sanity after witnessing "such a tragedy." He thinks calling a drumhead court is a bad idea. Instead Vere should keep Budd locked up and have him tried later by a court of the admiralty. Again the surgeon wonders if the captain is "unhinged." He ponders that even if the captain is impaired it would be mutiny for the surgeon to question his judgment. The surgeon tells some other officers about the upcoming drumhead court. They, too, are concerned about the captain's decision and think the entire matter should be postponed until it can be brought before the admiralty.


The theme of innocence and malice dominates this section. Some part of Claggart recognizes the goodness in Budd to the extent he might even have been able to "love [him] but for fate." Claggart's eyes are "strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears" when he looks upon Budd. But his "sorrow" quickly turns into a "pinching and shriveling look," and his eyes emit a "fierce light" when he sees Budd. The intent here seems to be to imply that at moments of weakness even Claggart is fleetingly affected by Budd's innocence. Just as quickly, though, Claggart's malice overpowers his softer feelings.

Budd is oblivious to Claggart's plots against him. In his innocence Budd takes Claggart's pleasant words at face value. His innocence was his blinder to Claggart's devious dissembling. Budd is too "ignorant [and] innocent" to recognize the "proximity of the malign" in Claggart. Similarly Budd is unconcerned when Vere's hammock-boy summons him to the captain's cabin. Budd knows he's done nothing wrong, and he can't conceive of an evil that would falsely accuse him of any misdeed. Budd is even too innocent to understand that the "peculiar" glances he gets from officers who share the mess with Claggart might arise from their participation in the master-at-arms's intrigue. Even the afterguardsman's "crookedness" is undermined by Budd's perfect, simple innocence.

Budd's innocence is so pure a biblical reference is used to describe him. Budd is said to be like "Adam before the Fall." In the Garden of Eden, Adam had no knowledge of evil. If Budd is truly like Adam, he is totally without sin and is so innocent he cannot at first understand what Claggart is saying to him in Vere's cabin. Budd's innocence is of the kind that finds evil in others incomprehensible and, when sensed, horrifying. The narrator never explains why Budd strikes Claggart with his arm like "a discharged cannon." Is the blow compensation for Budd's inability to defend himself? Is it the only form of communication he can muster in the face of pure evil? Is it a type of divine retribution for Claggart's evil and his diabolical plots? Does Budd intend to kill? If not why does he lash out so fiercely, so fatally? It is up to the reader to decide.

Claggart's evil is pure, horrific, and manipulative. He plays at being the humble servant to Vere, but his eyes burn his evil intent into Budd when he confronts him with accusations of mutiny. Animal motifs are used to convey Claggart's looks and actions during his confrontation with Budd. When Claggart loses "human expression" his "protruding ... alien eyes" resemble those "gelid" eyes of monstrous "creatures of the deep." His initial gaze at Budd is one of "surprised fascination," intended to mesmerize Budd. Once Budd is in his thrall, Claggart's look becomes "the hungry lurch of the torpedo-fish." Claggart is portrayed as the overwhelming and inescapable predator.

Claggart's malice is entwined with the motif of mutiny. Claggart is very shrewd. He understands how paranoid Captain Vere is about the possibility of mutiny, so it is a brilliant ploy to concoct an accusation against Budd as a potential mutineer. Yet Claggart's evil genius goes even further. Although it is unstated, it is very likely Claggart timed his accusation to coincide with the Bellipotent's isolation from the rest of the British fleet. Claggart succeeds in his demonic plan by betting—correctly—that the anxious Captain Vere will want to try Budd for treason as soon as possible. Vere will be so paranoid about mutiny he will not want to wait to have Budd tried later, when the warship joins the rest of the fleet. Even if Budd is locked up while the warship heads back to the fleet, Claggart bets Vere would fear Budd's imprisonment might foment a mutiny. By waiting to bring his accusations to Vere when the warship is so far away, Claggart somehow knows Vere will use the law to destroy Budd immediately. Then Claggart will not have to worry that his flimsy "substantiations" of Budd's guilt might be rejected by an admiralty court. It's a brilliant plan hatched by someone described as "no uneducated man." This reference calls to mind the symbol of knowledge and its relationship to education and civilization. There is situational irony in the fact that the educated man in question is a "madman" consumed by hatred. Claggart's education belies the fact he's not at all civilized but acts like a vicious, insane savage.

The symbol of Billy Budd's stammer is vital to what occurs, yet exactly what causes his vocal paralysis is not made clear. Does Budd's paralyzed muteness arise from his inability to confront evil and verbally destroy it? Or is Budd's now-frozen stutter a symbol of his purity and superhumanness? Perhaps Budd is gripped by paralyzing silence because he cannot communicate with the baser aspects of human nature. If Budd is truly a divine nature far above that of sinful mortals, perhaps his clenched jaw reveals his elevation above sinful human nature. Budd's agony at trying but failing to defend himself, as Vere demands, is described as a "suffocation" and "crucifixion." The biblical motif seems to point to Budd's "convulsed tongue-tie" as an aspect of his pure, Christ-like divinity, which is struck dumb when it must engage with deep, innate human evil (although Jesus did not have the same impediment). Another biblical reference underscores this interpretation when Captain Vere exclaims after Budd has killed Claggart: "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!" Budd is at once divine but all-too human. He is a human who must be executed, but then so was Christ executed. Is the equation deliberate?

The motif of the Handsome Sailor is used to convey Budd's natural cheerfulness and the good will other sailors feel toward him. The narrator states that as a Handsome Sailor Budd is humble and does not put himself forward as someone superior to others. The motif of appearance is presented both as a key to or diversion from a character's true identity. Budd is just what he seems. But Claggart assumes the appearance of a sane and reasonable man, especially before his superior, Captain Vere. Claggart uses this veneer of normality and pseudo-sanity to mask the "monomania" that is eating ever deeper into his mind and soul. He appears before Vere as a humble underling, "cap in hand." Even a man of the world like Captain Vere gets only a hint of Claggart's true nature, as when the captain feels a vague "repellent distaste" around Claggart. Only on rare occasions, as when Claggart looks directly into Budd's eyes, is his true malice revealed.

The theme of truth, rumor, and falsehood is the engine of the action in Chapter 18. Claggart's accusations are not just flimsy rumors, they are absolute falsehoods. They are the result of the deceptions and entrapments Claggart and his "corporals" used to snare Budd. The reader does not even know—is not told by the narrator—what if any words or actions Budd was tricked into to support Claggart's allegations. It is likely Budd never fell into any of Claggart's nefarious traps. It is probable, if not certain, that Claggart's allegations are entirely false and baseless. The only "evidence" he offers of Budd's guilt is his jumping from the merchant ship into Ratcliffe's boat. And his presentation of that incident is mere personal interpretation and not evidence of anything. Even Captain Vere, who knows little about Claggart, intuits that the master-at-arms is more of a "perjurous witness" than a man offering concrete evidence or truth.

The theme of duty comes into play when Captain Vere's excellence as a commander has him steer his warship far from the fleet to chase enemy ships. Vere can be relied on always to do his duty as a commander and to do it well. The reader is also told Vere can be relied on "under unforeseen difficulties" to take "a prompt initiative." Vere's sense of duty and his reputation for taking quick and decisive action are exploited by Claggart, who knows it's the captain's duty to crush any hint of mutiny on his ship. Vere had a "strong suspicion" about Claggart that engendered "strange dubieties [doubts]." But in the end Vere cannot let his doubts overrule his duty. This duty will force Vere to take Claggart's statements at least somewhat seriously in case they contain a germ of truth about an insurrection. Vere is astonished when Claggart identifies Budd as the mutineer, but it is Vere's duty to take seriously even the most outlandish suspicion of mutiny. Vere cannot ignore his duty to the navy.

Captain Vere's sense of duty hardens after Claggart is dead. Earlier when Budd was paralyzed with speechlessness Vere soothed him as a father might. Now Vere assumes the role of the "military disciplinarian," the commander who must do his duty in carrying out the harsh, prescribed treatment of a murderer. The captain's strict adherence to his military duty and military law is so extreme his sanity is questioned by the surgeon and some other officers on board ship. This is the first time the reader might ask if an overzealous sense of duty might be undermining Vere's conscience and moral obligation.

Intertwining themes of justice and the law emerge during Claggart's allegations. Vere is so suspicious of Claggart's charges he warns the man to "heed what you speak ... in a case like this, there is a yard-arm-end for the false witness." Vere seeks justice for Budd by trying to determine the truth of what Claggart says. He also invokes the law that punishes false witness with death by hanging. It is Vere's suspicion that Claggart is bearing false witness that impels him to summon Budd to answer Claggart's charges.

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