Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Chapters 6–10 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 6

At the beginning of this chapter the narrator introduces Captain Edward Vere, the commander of the Bellipotent. He is "a sailor of distinction" and a "renowned seaman." He is said to be fair aboard ship but is described as having a "grave" bearing, with "little appreciation of mere humor." He is "unobtrusive" in his demeanor though "resolute" in his nature.

The captain's naval nickname is "Starry Vere" due to his habit of standing alone on deck and "absently gaz[ing] off at the black sea." The name may have derived from his "kinsman," Lord Denton, who toasted Vere's successful maritime campaigns in the West Indies with the words "Give ye joy, Ed ... my starry Vere!" The word starry also comes from a poem by Andrew Marvell. In any case the nickname seemed appropriate and it stuck.

Chapter 7

This chapter describes Captain Vere in more detail. The narrator says Vere is "exceptional" and an "intellectual" who loved to read books. He favors histories and biographies, as well as philosophy. He prefers accounts of true events and real people. He chooses his reading to confirm his conservative views, which he feels will remain unaltered throughout his life. He therefore opposes innovations because he thinks they are inimical to established social institutions and a danger to "the peace of mankind."

His bookishness makes Vere seem "dry" and "lacking in the companionable quality." His peers find him to be a "noble" but rather odd person. The narrator confesses Vere never engaged in "jocosely familiar" conversation with others. His discourse consists mainly of allusions to classical figures or history, and he seems unaware his erudite comments bewilder others.

Chapter 8

The reader meets John Claggart in this chapter. Claggart is the ship's master-at-arms, or chief of police, who keeps an eye on the behavior of the sailors. Claggart is about 35 years old at the time of the story and is said to be "of no ill figure upon the whole." His face has good features except for his chin, which has a "protuberant heaviness" in its shape. His skin is described as having the pallor of "time-tinted marbles" indicative of his not working out in the sun. His dark hair covers a head that shows "more than average" intelligence.

Claggart's appearance gives him the look of an educated man of quality, which the narrator says was "incongruous" with his function on the ship. His personal history is a mystery to the sailors on board. Yet that doesn't stop the men from concocting elaborate rumors about Claggart's early and adult life. Sailors whisper of some sinister or criminal behavior in Claggart's past, but nothing can be verified. As an officer of the ship, Claggart is not "popular with the crew."

The narrator goes on to support this gossip, in a sense, by describing how police on shore were encouraged to nab anyone at hand as a suspect in any crime and then deliver him immediately to a waiting warship. This is another way the British navy filled its ranks. In other cases men who had committed crimes, who were bankrupt, or had other unsavory problems sometimes enlisted in the navy to escape their entanglements. For them the Royal Navy was a "sanctuary." The narrator goes on to tell a tale he heard from a man 40 years previously about a warship that "culled [its sailors] direct from the jails."

Claggart entered the navy without prior naval experience and at first was given a lowly job. But his intelligence was soon recognized, and he was promoted to master-at-arms. As such he has "corporals" or subordinates who do his bidding and are additional eyes and ears for him in overseeing the seamen. These underlings comprise an "underground" network of spies who, under Claggart's control and at his direction, can ensure the "mysterious discomfort" of any sailor aboard.

Chapter 9

Billy Budd enjoys his work as a foretopman, and he gets along well with his fellow sailors. He is "well content" and gives no "offense to anybody." He is always so eager to help out on a job when called upon his fellow topmen "sometimes good-naturedly laughed at him."

His eagerness to help out when asked is prompted not only by his mild disposition but also by a "formal gangway-punishment" he witnesses soon after coming aboard the warship. A young sailor had been absent from his post when the ship was put out to sea, and this was considered a severe transgression. The young man is punished by being flogged across his bare back as the assembled sailors look on. Budd is "horrified" and resolves never to shirk his duty and risk being punished himself. Yet life on board ship sometimes leads Budd to commit minor infractions, such as the wrong placement of his bag of belongings or other petty misdeeds. However petty they seem these minor errors earn Budd a degree of anger, even threat, from other sailors. Budd cannot understand how such small mistakes lead to potential danger. His lack of understanding "vexe[s] him."

Budd takes his bewilderment to Dansker (the Dane), a wizened old sailor who is wise in the ways of the navy and the world. The narrator states at first Dansker looked on Budd as an example of the Handsome Sailor, but he later regarded him quizzically, wondering how the inexperienced young man would fare on board the warship. In any case Dansker likes Budd and Budd "revere[s]" him. Budd asks Dansker why he sometimes gets into trouble. Dansker says, "Baby Budd, Jemmy Legs [meaning the master-at-arms] is down on you." Budd is confused, insisting Claggart always has "a pleasant word" for him. Dansker explains "that's because he's down upon you, Baby Budd." Budd is disturbed and uncomprehending as he leaves the wise but cynical Dansker.

Chapter 10

The next day Budd begins to disbelieve what Dansker told him. Budd is eating dinner while the ship is rolling in a strong wind. When the ship lurches Budd's soup spills out of his bowl. The soup flows across the deck and right to the feet of the passing Claggart. Claggart steps over the mess and says nothing until he sees that it is Budd who has spilled his soup. For an instant Claggart's face clouds over, but then he seems to smile and says, "Handsomely done, my lad!" As he moves on Claggart's expression changes to reveal a kind of scowl or "grimace." Other sailors who heard and saw the incident laugh "with counterfeited glee" to please the master-at-arms. Budd joins in, reassured Claggart bears him no ill will. He does not see Claggart's expression turn hostile, "usurping the face from the heart" as he walks away from the sailors.

Analysis

The themes of duty and justice converge in Captain Vere, who is described as an extremely conservative and sober man devoted to duty and the higher intellectual pursuits. The narrator notes he is "never injudicious," which implies a devotion to justice, something that later will seem dubious. He is "grave" and "resolute," an "undemonstrative" or unemotional man who prefers concrete history in his reading over imaginative novels. His lack of imagination and emotion will be seen to inform his judgment later in the book.

The symbol of knowledge as the mark of civilization is exemplified in Vere. Vere is clearly highly educated and therefore highly "civilized." He cannot engage in easy conversation with others because he is locked in his civilizing knowledge while his companions, who don't understand him, are clearly less knowledgeable (and therefore less civilized). That occasionally Vere gazes "absently" out at sea and at the sky is the only hint the reader has that Vere may have an inner life beyond pure intellect. Yet Vere's absolute loyalty to conservative, unchanging values as the foundation of civilization tells the reader he is rigid in interpreting and carrying out his duty (and the law). Vere is convinced that without "lasting institutions" the welfare of mankind, or civilization as Vere understands it, is at grave risk. The law is a foundational institution that Vere is determined to uphold, regardless of circumstances.

The association of knowledge with civilization is turned on its head when the narrator describes the sailors' assessment of Claggart. The narrator describes the sailors as having "conceptions of human wickedness [that] were necessarily of the narrowest, limited to ideas of vulgar rascality." The ordinary sailors and their negative (but valid) judgment of Claggart are disparaged because they are lower class and uncultivated, or uncivilized. Yet as will be seen later in the book, the sailors' judgment of Claggart's character is spot on. It will be the learned and ultracivilized Captain Vere who will misjudge the man.

The introduction of Claggart intensifies the theme of innocence and malice. Although he is not described as an out-and-out villain, Claggart's mysterious past hints at some sort of evil doing. The narrator reinforces the evil in Claggart by recounting how sailors were impressed from jails directly onto ships, or how criminals enlisted to avoid the consequences of their misdeeds. The narrator does not say so directly, but by moving directly from a description of Claggart to a discussion of criminal sailors, he makes the inference clear.

Claggart's malice is obvious when the narrator describes his "underground influence" that he operated "to the mysterious discomfort, if nothing worse, of any of the sea-commonality." Claggart has created a network of spies and goons who follow his instructions to "discomfort" any of the ship's crew Claggart targets. They are the agents of his malice.

The theme of innocence and malice reemerges when Budd seeks out Dansker for advice. In his innocence Budd cannot understand how he can have been admonished for extremely petty mistakes. Yet he is so worried about flouting even the tiniest rule Budd turns to the wise Dansker. Dansker is a master at recognizing hypocrisy and malicious conspiracy in others. He tells Budd of Claggart's enmity, but Budd is too innocent to believe it. Dansker is, in a way, intermediate between the malice of Claggart and the innocence of Budd. Dansker's wisdom is so hardened by harsh experience of men and the world he is ruled by cynicism. He may fear for Billy Budd but is said to be more "speculative" about the fate of such an innocent, because innocence "does yet in a moral emergency not always sharpen the faculties or enlighten the will." Dansker clearly sees Budd's innocence and the danger he is in from Claggart's malice. But Dansker's cynicism prevents him from protecting Budd. He will wait and see if, in the face of Claggart's malice, Budd develops the ability to fight back or defend himself. Yet in his innocence Budd finds Dansker's warning "incomprehensible," which only reinforces the older man's grim view of what is likely to come.

The incident of the spilled soup seems to buttress Dansker's conclusion that Budd's innocence is no match for Claggart's hostility. Budd cannot discern the malice lurking behind Claggart's seemingly pleasant words. He thinks Claggart's reaction to the spilled soup disproves Dansker's warning about Claggart being "down on him." But the narrator reveals the scowl that contorts Claggart's face as he walks away from Budd. Although the other sailors who witnessed the incident laugh at it, the narrator describes their reaction as "counterfeited glee," as if they are aware of Claggart's malicious nature despite his light-hearted words.

The theme of truth, rumor, and falsehood comes into play with the character of Claggart. The sailors know nothing of Claggart's past or his experience, but that does not stop them from conjuring up what may be fantastic rumors about what they imagine his history to be. The rumors become so widespread as to take on the aspect of truth. Even the narrator seems infected by the rumors. He says that the "dearth of exact knowledge" about Claggart still "opened to the invidious a vague field for unfavorable surmise." Then instead of giving a reasonable critique of the rumors, the narrator reinforces them with his discussion of criminals who become sailors to find "refuge" in the navy. The narrator is ambivalent about the rumors, stating "it would not perhaps be easy ... directly to prove or disprove the allegation[s]" about criminal sailors, but the same ambivalence applies to his seeming acceptance of the rumors about Claggart.

Both Budd's conversation with Dansker and Claggart's response to the spilled soup underscore the theme of truthfulness and falsehood. Budd cannot comprehend that sweetly spoken words can be a cover for falsehood. His innocence makes Budd take such things at face value. He cannot interpret the malice behind the spoken words. The same thing happens when Claggart speaks good-naturedly about the spilled soup. Budd takes Claggart's words as proof that Claggart has no evil intentions toward him. Of course, falsehoods lie beneath the words spoken in both incidents. The innocent Budd just can't see or comprehend them.

The law and justice are made visible when the young sailor is flogged in front of the assembled crew. Billy Budd, the innocent, is said to be "horrified" by the cruel punishment—and by extension what passes for justice before the law on the high seas.

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