Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Chapters 26–30 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 26

The ship's purser and its surgeon are dining together at the mess and conversing. The purser wonders if it was Budd's "will-power" that kept his body motionless when he was hanged. The surgeon counters that all motion or lack of motion is physiological—a result of "mechanical spasm in the muscular system." Yet the purser gets the surgeon to admit that a hanged man "invariably" displays muscular spasms. The surgeon replies he cannot truly account for Budd's lack of spasms but suggests their absence probably came from Budd's heart stopping suddenly. The surgeon does admit the lack of spasms was "phenomenal" insofar as it cannot be easily explained. The purser goes on to wonder if Budd's strange manner of death was a form of "euthanasia," a proposition the surgeon rejects as being "imaginative and metaphysical." The surgeon then abruptly leaves.

Chapter 27

The narrator describes the strange silence at the moment of Budd's execution. The silence was broken only by the "murmurous indistinctness" of the sound of the sea. The narrator speculates it was the sound of "capricious revulsion" reflecting the sailors' feelings. As the sailors begin to murmur they are ordered to be silent and to clear the deck. Most seamen leave, but those working on deck remain. A while later the sailors are called back on deck to witness Billy Budd's burial at sea. As Budd's body slides into the sea the sailors begin to murmur. A flock of birds flies to the spot where Budd's body submerged, and even after the ship moves away the birds continue to circle the spot where Budd sank.

A drumbeat disperses the assembled sailors to their work on the ship's decks. Captain Vere has them disperse early to preclude any grumbling or revolt arising from Budd's execution. For Vere "forms, measured forms, are everything," and he uses the drumbeat command to impose form, or order, on the crew. Then a band on the quarter-deck plays "a sacred air," and the chaplain conducts a morning religious service. The clear, serene day begins.

Chapter 28

The narrator introduces the last three chapters as a kind of "sequel" to Budd's story.

The narrator says that the French warship St. Louis has been "rechristened" the Athée (The Atheist), which the narrator feels is more appropriate for a ship of the anticlerical revolutionary French. On its return trip to rejoin the British fleet, the Bellipotent engages with the Athée. During the confrontation Captain Vere is wounded. A senior officer takes over the fight, and the French ship is taken. All return to Gibraltar where Vere is taken ashore for medical treatment.

Vere's condition worsens. As he nears death he murmurs "Billy Budd, Billy Budd." Those who hear him say it note there was no remorse in Vere's voice.

Chapter 29

A few weeks after Budd's execution, an article about it and the incident that led up to it is published in a Mediterranean weekly newspaper. Although the narrator says the article was written "in good faith," it was clearly based largely on rumor.

The newspaper article completely misrepresents the story as told so far. It states Claggart had in truth discovered a mutinous plot led by Billy Budd. When Claggart reported the plot, the vicious Budd stabbed him in the heart with a knife he had hidden on his person. The vileness of the deed reveals, the article insists, that Budd "was no Englishman," for no true Englishman could commit such a heinous act. Budd must have been "an alien." Budd's execution was justified because of his "extreme depravity" in killing Claggart, a "respectable ... gentleman" and a "strong patriot." Budd's swift punishment was "salutary."

This article is the only record produced about the incident. And although the article is now long "forgotten," it is "all that hitherto has stood in the human record to attest what manner of men" were involved in the incident.

Chapter 30

In contrast to the distortion of the newspaper article, the sailors who knew of Budd and his story came to venerate the spar from which Budd was hanged: "They instinctively felt Budd was a sort of man as incapable of mutiny as of willful murder." The sailors kept the spar for several years, carrying it with them from "ship to dockyard" wherever they went. They recalled only Budd's "face never deformed by a sneer or subtler vile freak of the heart within."

The sailors' feelings about Billy Budd are recalled in a "Portsmouth ballad," or kind of sea chanty, about him. Although much of the song is not terribly good there are a few lines that commemorate Budd's death as a "Pendant pearl from the yard-arm-end ... 'tis me, not the sentence, they'll suspend" and "Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I'll dream fast asleep ... and the oozy weeds about me twist."

Analysis

The motif of biblical references occurs throughout these final chapters. The argument between the purser and the surgeon about the uncanny motionlessness of Budd's body when he's hanged is essentially a dialogue between religion and atheism, or faith and reason. The purser argues that Budd's lack of spasms is somehow a result of his "will-power," a phrase indicating Budd's superhuman or divine nature and ability to transcend normal physiology. The surgeon is the voice of reason. Although he can't explain why Budd's body didn't spasm he insists this is "phenomenal ... in the sense that it was an appearance, the cause of which is not immediately to be assigned." The surgeon's argument is scientific. The purser's is "metaphysical," implying something divine or otherworldly.

After Budd is executed his body is buried at sea. The birds that fly toward the site of his burial might represent doves, the birds of peace associated with Christ. Even after the warship leaves the area the birds continue to circle over the spot where Budd was submerged. They "circl[ed] low ... [with] outstretched wings and the croaked requiem of their cries." If these somewhat raucous seafowl are the maritime equivalent of doves, they honor or commemorate the spot where Budd went down and sing his praises in their cries. Budd's body would have sunk far beyond the depth at which seabirds could feast on it, so the suggestion the birds were "greed[y] for prey" does not make sense. They are mourning Budd's loss or perhaps celebrating his holy life.

As the day brightens "the fleece of low-hanging vapor had vanished." Earlier "fleece" had been used to represent the Lamb of God (Christ) and Budd's relationship to Christ on the day of his execution. The vanishing fleece, or vapor, in the air indicates Budd has truly departed and perhaps has been liberated to ascend to a spiritual realm or heavenly afterlife. It may also mean that once again a Christ born on Earth has been killed and has abandoned it.

In the last chapter biblical references combine with the symbol of the spar from which Budd was hanged. The sailors who knew of Budd and his death revere the spar as if "it were a piece of the Cross" on which Christ was crucified. They worship Budd in their way, especially as the Handsome Sailor (another motif) who was incapable of an evil thought or act.

The theme of truth, rumor, and falsehood is clearly explored in the newspaper account of Claggart's death and Budd's execution. The narrator admits the report was "partly rumor," but the entirety of the article is so antithetical to the novel's account of the incidents as to make it seem wholly fabricated. Or might part of the narrator's story be unfounded? Perhaps the narrator's willingness to give some credence to the article reflects his own uncertainty about the truthfulness of his account. The narrator is recounting a story he has heard but not witnessed, so his account may have questionable elements as well. Still the newspaper article turns the entire incident on its head, making Claggart the "respectable" victim and Budd the bloodthirsty and villainous murderer. There are two noteworthy instances of situational irony in this part of the text. First the article describes Budd as an "alien," meaning he is so evil he cannot be a true Englishman. Perhaps, though, there is truth in this description, for if Billy Budd is a Christ-like figure he is "alien" compared to the general run of mankind. Second there is situational irony in the article's supposed "refutation" of Dr. Johnson's famous remark "that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." The newspaper article supposedly "refutes" this remark by attributing patriotism to Claggart, who they elevate to the status of "gentleman." Yet of course, if the narrator's story is to be believed, Claggart is a scoundrel and the mask of patriotism he so cringingly assumes is contemptible.

The narrator addresses the theme of truth and lies at the beginning of Chapter 28. He states, "The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact ... such a narration is apt to be less finished." In a sense the narrator is admitting his story necessarily contains both fact and fable. It cannot be a "finished" work of absolute truth because it is not entirely fact. Such a story is "ragged," and it is up to the reader to decide what is true and what is not.

The theme of conscience and morality is suggested in Captain Vere's dying words. The narrator states that the words "Billy Budd, Billy Budd" were not spoken with remorse. This implies Vere does not feel guilty about executing Budd. Exactly what his last words mean is unclear. It is possible Vere's remorse or sorrow about his role in Budd's death is expressed, but this expression is misinterpreted by those who heard him. It is also possible Vere calls out to Billy Budd as a dying Christian might call out to Jesus. Vere's last words might be a recognition of Billy Budd as a Christ-like figure who will be his salvation after death. Remember that Budd's dying words were "God bless Captain Vere!" Vere's final words might reflect this blessing of God he experiences on his deathbed. There are many ways to interpret Vere's final words. It's up to the reader to decide which interpretation makes the most sense based on the story.

Finally, a few words should be said about the strange ballad that ends the book ("Billy in the Darbies"—darbies are two-handled plasterer's floats). As mentioned earlier, some critics believe Melville never finished writing Billy Budd. Perhaps the weakly poetic ballad was a placeholder left in the manuscript until Melville could finish the story. Yet it may also be intended as a tribute to Budd in the voice of common sailors. They sing of Budd's beauty ("his cheek it was like the budding pink"), his death (a "pendant pearl from the yard-arm-end"), and his acceptance of his death and burial ("And roll me over fair. I am sleepy and the oozy weeds about me twist."). Again, the reader must decide.

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