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Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Chapters 22–25 | Summary



Chapter 22

Captain Vere goes into the stateroom to tell Billy Budd of the verdict and sentence. The narrator confesses nothing is known about what was said during that meeting. Yet he suggests it is likely that Vere was frank about Budd's situation and his role in getting the court to reach a guilty verdict. The narrator imagines Budd receiving this news "not without a sort of joy" because he was "not afraid to die." Or perhaps Captain Vere maintained his stern military demeanor in conveying Budd's fate to him. The "privacy" of the conversation is "inviolable," so no one will ever know what transpired.

A senior lieutenant who is the first to see Vere leaving the stateroom thought the captain's expression betrayed "the agony of the strong." The lieutenant is "startled" by this look and wonders that the conveyor of the verdict might be suffering more than the condemned man.

Chapter 23

The sailors and officers on the ship become aware that something important has happened. Rumors fly about what happened involving Claggart, Budd, and the captain. Both Claggart and Budd had been seen entering the captain's cabin, but neither had been seen leaving it.

Captain Vere calls all sailors to assemble on deck. Armed marine guards line up to the sides of the assembled men. In clear and concise terms, showing no emotion, Captain Vere explains to the crew what happened in his cabin: Claggart is dead and his killer has been tried and condemned to die early the next morning. The assembled men listen in silence, but a "confused murmur went up" when Vere finished speaking. The murmuring is suppressed by a loud whistle to get the men to disperse.

Claggart's body is prepared for burial at sea according to strict naval guidelines. Budd is transferred under guard out of the captain's cabin. Captain Vere has no further communication with Budd, and Vere has strict orders that no one else on the ship communicate with the condemned man. Only the chaplain may speak with Budd.

Chapter 24

This chapter opens with a description of the exposed spar deck, which is located above the upper gun deck. Billy Budd is lying down, chained to a part of the upper gun deck. Sentries guard him. All around are the heavy cannon and other weapons of war. Most things on the gun deck are painted in a black "funereal" hue. Budd stands out because he is dressed all in white, though his clothes are a bit dirty. Yet they "glimmer" in the early dawn light. Flickering lanterns cast "splashes of dirty yellow light" on the gun deck.

Budd's "agony" is over because he no longer has to experience the "diabolical incarnate" that was Claggart. Budd lay as if in a "trance" and like a "slumbering child in the cradle." The chaplain comes to see Budd but does not want to awaken him. As he leaves he notes Budd seems to be in a state of transcendent peace. A few hours later the chaplain returns to find Budd awake. Budd greets the chaplain almost "cheerfully." Budd has accepted his death so there's little guidance the chaplain can offer him. Budd has no "irrational fear" of death, and the chaplain's discourse about "salvation and a Savior" means nothing to Budd. The chaplain recognizes Budd's "innocence was even a better thing than religion," and so he stops talking. Upon leaving the chaplain leans over and kisses Budd's cheek. The narrator then explains the chaplain did nothing to plead for mercy for Budd because a warship's chaplain serves to "lend the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which practically is the abrogation of everything but force."

Chapter 25

Dawn comes slowly to the warship. At four o'clock in the morning a whistle summons all on board to "witness punishment" of Billy Budd. The entire crew assembles on deck. Most are silent, but a few whisper quietly. Captain Vere comes out onto the high officer's deck and views the assembled sailors.

Budd will be hanged from the spar on the main yard. Budd is brought to this place with the chaplain by his side. The rope is placed around Budd's neck. Just before he's executed Budd cries loudly, "God bless Captain Vere!" These words have a "phenomenal" effect on everyone there. His pure voice and "spiritualized" beauty enhance the effect of this astonishing statement. Then instantly, without forethought, the assembled sailors take up the cry, echoing "God bless Captain Vere!" even though "at that instant Billy alone must have been in their hearts." Throughout Captain Vere stands rigidly in a "sort of momentary paralysis."

Budd is hanged, but his body does not move at all. His lack of motion when the rope tightens around his neck and kills him astounds the men.


The theme of innocence and the symbol of knowledge as the mark of civilization are important in understanding these chapters.

Budd's innocence is evident to Vere when the captain realizes Budd "is not afraid to die." Vere suffers the "agony of the strong" when faced with Budd's peace and acceptance of death. Vere is not evil or malicious, but he suffers because he understands he has ordered the death of an innocent. As he lay in chains Budd is said to be clad in shroudlike white that "dimly glimmered" in the dirty lantern light. As he awaits execution Budd is again likened to the Handsome Sailor, a motif representing the innocence, goodness, and beauty of the perfect sailor. Budd's innocence is revealed in his face, which is "delicate [and] warm-tinted." Budd's "agony" is over because the incarnation of evil, Claggart, is dead. Budd feels no tension but lies like "a slumbering child ... [with] a serene happy light" emanating from his face.

Budd's innocence is further established when the chaplain realizes Budd exists at a spiritual level beyond the need for solace and religious comfort. Budd is ready to die and has no fear of it. His "peace transcending" all worldly things makes Budd welcome his death. The chaplain recognizes Budd's "innocence is ... better than religion"; his spirituality and purity transcend the teachings of the Church. When the chaplain kisses Budd's cheek he "[does] not fear for his future" for he knows Budd is a spiritual being.

When Budd is brought up to the spar to be hanged, he calls out a blessing for Captain Vere. Budd's voice sounds like "the clear melody of a singing-bird." Budd's "rare personal beauty ... [is] spiritualized." Budd's lack of physical movement when he dies further emphasizes his lack of attachment to his body and his true identity as a spiritual being. The image of the Lamb of God (Christ) "seen in mystical vision" is used to describe Budd's death scene.

The symbol of knowledge as the mark of a worthy and civilized person is ironically applied to Bud just prior to his execution. The narrator states Budd "was incapable of conceiving what death really is," which is why "he was wholly without irrational fear of it." In fact Budd is fearless because, it must be assumed, he knows precisely what death is and why he is unafraid of it. Instead of marveling at Budd's equanimity, the narrator explains "fear [of death is] more prevalent in highly civilized communities than those so-called barbarous ones which in all respects stand nearer to unadulterated Nature." Thus, by extension, civilized people are more "irrational" than "barbarians"—a suggestion that would horrify those who identify as "civilized." Budd is referred to as "a barbarian" because he is close to Nature and has no fear of death and thus no "irrational" fear. The situational irony is that spirituality and fearlessness in the face of death are portrayed as "barbaric" when in fact this degree of spirituality is rational and "angelic." It is the civilized man who, cowering and irrationally fearful before death, is less evolved spiritually than the so-called barbarian.

The motif of biblical references is important when the narrator speculates Vere may "have caught Billy to his heart, even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest" of God. Vere is likened to Abraham, who is filled with relief and love for his son when God calls off Isaac's sacrifice. The biblical reference humanizes Vere by suggesting his emotions were stirred by Budd's fate. It might even mean Vere truly hoped Budd could be spared. Yet the comparison to the Bible story also dovetails with Vere's "austere ... military duty." God in the Bible is as implacable as military law, and Vere must do his duty to martial law as Abraham did his duty to God. In a sense, of course, British naval law is even more draconian than the harsh demands of the Old Testament God. God spares Isaac at the last minute. Military law—and those whose duty it is to carry it out—spares no one.

It is arguable the chaplain's kiss may represent Judas's kiss in the Bible. Judas kissed Jesus to identify him to the Romans, thus betraying him. The comparability of the chaplain's kiss on Budd's cheek may be a type of betrayal, as the narrator states "the worthy man lifted not a finger to avert the doom of such a martyr to martial discipline." And although the chaplain is "a minister of the Prince of Peace [he serves] ... the God of War." Perhaps the narrator is equating the chaplain and his unwillingness to try to save Billy Budd with Judas. Thus the chaplain's subservience to the purveyors of war is an act of betrayal just as Judas's kiss was.

As Budd is hanged a vapory fleece in the sky is "shot through with a soft glory." The image of "fleece" refers to Christ, or the Lamb. The text then conflates Budd's death with "the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision," signifying that Billy Budd is indeed a Christ-like figure.

The symbol of the spar is mentioned in Chapter 23. It is a white cross-bar described as being "silvered" by moonlight. In Chapter 24 the spar deck is said to be above the gun deck, which may underline its elevation above worldly evil as represented by the cannons and other weapons of war. Billy Budd is executed by being hanged from the spar, which represents a cross such as the one on which Christ was crucified.

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