Summary and Analysis
To explain Claggart's malice toward Billy Budd, one would have to look for something innate, an inborn wickedness in Claggart. The point of the story turns on the hidden nature of the master-at-arms. Though given to dark moods and hidden animosities, Claggart recognizes the moral phenomenon embodied in Billy Budd. This insight intensifies Claggart's envy of Billy.
Claggart apparently takes the spilling of the soup on the deck not as a simple accident, but as evidence of Billy's dislike for him. Claggart's prejudice is fed by Squeak, one of his corporals, who has sensed his envy of Billy. Squeak's way of "ferreting" about the lower decks reminds the sailors "of a rat in a cellar." He makes up derogatory epithets which he tells Claggart are the sort of things Billy is saying about him.
Melville begins Chapter 11 with a series of rhetorical questions. "What was the matter with Claggart?" he asks. Whatever it is, how could it have any direct relation to Billy Budd, whom he had never confronted before the soup-spilling episode? Melville muses on the mystery of so deep and spontaneous a hatred, which is heightened by close quarters and unavoidable meetings. He rules out judging Claggart by the standards of normal behavior.
Chapter 13 utilizes one of Melville's most effective devices — contrast. He has used the device most effectively from page 1, when he vividly contrasts the black Handsome Sailor he once saw in Liverpool with the fair Handsome Sailor of this story. He contrasts the names of the Rights-of-Man and the Bellipotent, as well as the personalities and expectations of Captain Graveling and Lieutenant Ratcliffe. Later, he comments on the age difference between the old Dansker and "Baby" Budd, the upper and lower decks, the ship and land, sailors and civilians, the British fleet and the French fleet, and the warring elements in Claggart's personality — his envy of Billy and his unreasoning hatred of him.
Envy and antipathy are irreconcilable passions. Claggart envies Billy's good looks, good health, youth, enjoyment of life, and genuine innocence. This gnawing discontent spawns a murderous hatred. Critics label Melville's analysis of Claggart's mixed emotions and malice as one of his finest characterizations.
Radcliffian romance popular mystery novels written by Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823).
Jonah's toss the act of throwing overboard anything unlucky, as happened to Jonah in the Bible (Jonah 1:7–15).
Coke and Blackstone English lawyers who produced influential legal commentaries.
that lexicon which is based on Holy Writ a book that defines and explains scripture.
Calvin's dogma as to total mankind the philosophy of John Calvin, founder of the Presbyterian faith, that the fate of each person is determined from birth.
an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational a deceitful method of pretending to be logical.
Chang and Eng famous Siamese twins who lived from 1811 to 1874.
Saul's . . . the comely young David This allusion compares Claggart's deadly envy of Billy Budd to King Saul's envy of David after he creates a name for himself as a warrior and threatens Saul's heroic stance before his subjects (I Samuel 18:6–13).
groundlings inferior sailors.
understrapper a subordinate.
an inordinate usurer Revenge is like a moneylender who demands high interest rates.
the Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes a hypocrite like Guy Fawkes, the villain who tried unsuccessfully to blow up London's Houses of Parliament in 1605.