Summary and Analysis
Some days after Billy Budd's repulse of the attempted bribe, the Bellipotent gives chase to a heavily armored enemy vessel, but the French ship escapes. Shortly afterward, Claggart, departing from usual procedure, approaches Captain Vere on the quarterdeck and tells the captain in roundabout fashion that one of the impressed sailors is involved in a clandestine plot among the crew. He reports that the unnamed sailor acted strangely during the recent encounter with the enemy.
When Captain Vere impatiently interrupts the veiled allusions and demands the name of the dangerous crewman, Claggart replies, "William Budd." Captain Vere is astonished; he had been considering Budd for a promotion. Disbelieving Claggart's charges, he ponders the best method of quietly disposing of the matter. During the long interview, several officers, topmen, and other crewmen observe Vere and Claggart talking together.
Vere decides to bring Claggart and Budd unobtrusively to his cabin, where Billy may disprove Claggart's allegations and close the matter. Vere sends Albert, the hammock boy, to accompany Billy to the Captain's cabin and tells Claggart to stand by on deck and follow Budd into the cabin.
Ever mindful of form and symmetry, the author places the climax of his drama near the middle of the work. The climax of the novel is the point beyond which things can never return to the way they were. In this case, the climax brings into fateful contact two opposing characters in the novel. In the small, crowded, danger-fraught world embodied in the Bellipotent, the captain and chief magistrate, Vere, learns from master-at-arms Claggart that Billy Budd is a traitorous insurrectionist.
With the administrative ability developed through years of managing British warships and their crews, Captain Vere, still recovering from a failed pursuit of the French frigate, quickly perceives a potentially explosive situation. Other crewmen obviously suspect that something significant is taking place. Vere's solution — an immediate confrontation in the privacy of his cabin — is both discreet and characteristic of a forthright disciplinarian.
In this chapter, Melville demonstrates his mastery of characterization by means of his use of juxtaposition. Claggart's connivance to eradicate Billy corresponds neatly with Vere's drive for order and discipline aboard his vessel. Claggart's compulsive hatred parallels Vere's compulsion to control. This alliance of emotional needs sets the stage for the unexpected and tragic denouement in the next chapter. Here we see the skilled writer's superb handling of character and situation.
quarter-deck the part of the upper deck between main-mast and stern.
petty officer a non-commissioned officer.
the spokesman of the envious children of Jacob . . . of young Joseph This allusion from the Bible (Genesis 37:31–33) connects Claggart's deceitful act with that of the liar who convinced Jacob that a wild beast had devoured Joseph, his youngest and favorite son.
the wind in the cordage the sound of the wind passing through the ropes.
the waist the middle portion of the ship.