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Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Quotes


And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man!

Billy Budd, Chapter 1

Billy Budd says this as he leaves the merchant ship whose name stands for freedom and liberty—all the things he'll be giving up on the warship.


Billy ... was little more than a sort of upright barbarian ... as Adam presumably might have been [in Eden].

Narrator, Chapter 2

Billy Budd is called a "barbarian" because he is not a gentleman in the English view. Budd is likely illiterate, but he is also purely innocent—as Adam was innocent in the Garden of Eden before he ate of the Tree of Knowledge. In the book knowledge is associated with civilization but, according to this quote, absolute innocence is uncivilized, even "barbaric."


Reasonable discontent growing out of practical grievances ... ignited into irrational combustion.

Narrator, Chapter 3

The Nore and similar mutinies against the Royal Navy arose from (practical, or everyday) mistreatment of impressed sailors. The narrator here calls the uprisings "irrational" even though they were incited by real grievances.


At sea precautionary vigilance was strained against relapse.

Narrator, Chapter 5

The threat of mutiny made it imperative that ships' commanders be exceptionally vigilant to make sure there was not a hint of muttered discontent that might lead to mutiny. This quote sets up Captain Vere's perhaps overcautious and paranoid fear of mutiny on board his warship.


As an officer [Vere] never tolerat[ed] an infraction of discipline.

Narrator, Chapter 6

Captain Vere was a reasonable man, but as a ship's commander he was a strict, even draconian, disciplinarian. He quickly and severely punished a sailor's violation of naval law.


What [is more] mysterious than an antipathy spontaneous and profound ... evoked in certain exceptional mortals?

Narrator, Chapter 11

It is a mystery to the narrator (and reader) why Claggart has such a profound and deep hatred of Billy Budd. Here the narrator tells the reader the innate hatred within some "exceptional" mortals, such as Claggart, is mysterious and its cause or origin cannot be known or explained.


Civilization, especially if [austere], is auspicious to [depravity]. It folds itself in the mantle of respectability.

Narrator, Chapter 11

This quote undermines the notion of civilization as it's presented in the text. It implies civilization is a veneer of accepted appearance and behavior that can easily be put on by someone who is not truly civilized but actually depraved. This applies to the behavior and appearance of John Claggart, who uses the outer trappings of civilized men to hide his inner evil.


[In] Claggart ... was the mania of an evil nature ... born with him and innate.

Narrator, Chapter 11

Again this quote reinforces the concept that Claggart's consuming hatred of Billy Budd arose from his evil nature. It is a tendency born in him and, as stated above, mysterious in its origins.


[Billy's] nature ... had in its simplicity never willed malice.

Narrator, Chapter 12

Claggart is said to hate Billy Budd not for anything Budd has actually said or done but simply because Budd is the antithesis of Claggart. Where Claggart has innate evil and malice, Budd has utter simplicity, innocence, and a mild nature. Claggart hates Budd in part because of his simple and pure nature.


You have but noted his fair cheek. A man-trap may be under his ruddy-tipped daisies.

John Claggart, Chapter 18

Claggart says this to Captain Vere when he accuses Budd of plotting mutiny. Claggart is being clever. He admits that Budd appears "fair," or innocent, but he suggests his good looks hide an evil nature. There is irony here in that it is Claggart who uses the disguise of a civilized man to hide his malicious intentions.


To an immature nature, essentially honest and humane, forewarning intimations of subtler danger from one's kind come tardily, if at all.

Narrator, Chapter 19

Billy Budd is so purely honest and good he cannot take seriously the warnings he gets about Claggart from Dansker. He cannot comprehend a being who plots and does evil so he doesn't recognize Claggart's malice at all.


Could I have used my tongue I would not have struck him.

Billy Budd, Chapter 21

Billy Budd says this to Captain Vere and the court officers to explain why he struck Claggart, killing him. Budd was so shocked by Claggart's accusations (and his evil intent) that he was speechless and could not defend himself against Claggart's charges. Instead he instinctively reacts to Claggart's malice by striking out. Here he explains his action as compensation for his muteness.


I strive against scruples that may tend to enervate decision.

Captain Vere, Chapter 21

Captain Vere feels it is his duty to strictly adhere to martial law. To do so in Budd's case means he has to put aside any scruples—principles or conscience—he may have about punishing Budd. He must also ignore extenuating circumstances that might interfere with his imposing the ultimate punishment on Budd.


Now and then ... a serene happy light born of some wandering reminiscence or dream would diffuse itself over his face.

Narrator, Chapter 24

This is how Billy Budd looks as he lies chained on deck waiting to be executed. He is serene—and fearless—in the face of death. In fact the quote suggests that Budd is happy because he remembers or dreams about a better place he knows of—perhaps a place where his true saintly identity exists.


Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.

Narrator, Chapter 28

This quote is important in understanding the questionable veracity of the narrator's version of Billy Budd's story. He is admitting here that his story may not be totally true. It may have "ragged edges" that leave many questions unanswered and some incidents unclear.

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