Summary and Analysis Chapters 15-17



The mysterious dark-of-night attempt by the afterguardsman to ensnare him in an implied mutiny deeply disturbs Billy, but he refrains from reporting the incident. Later, as he is sitting on deck with the old Dansker, Billy tells his confidant the principal details without disclosing that the crewman is in the afterguard. The Dansker repeats his earlier charge that Jemmy Legs (Claggart) is down on Billy. When Billy then wonders what Claggart has to do with this traitorous afterguardsman, the Dansker, perceiving the connection between the incident and Claggart, retorts that the traitor is just a "cat's-paw," or pawn.

Billy, guileless and unsuspecting, is disinclined to attribute these peculiar incidents to Claggart. While the master-at-arms acts strangely at times, still he often greets Billy pleasantly enough. And the incidents involving his bag and hammock have ceased. When messmates of Claggart stare suspiciously at Billy, he is unaware of the implications. Billy fails to discern, through Claggart's calm surface behavior, his smoldering internal malevolence — a sinister portent of disaster.


At twenty-one, Billy, by nature a man of heart but little intellect, has learned little of evil, for he lacks experience with any behavior other than the frankness common to sailors. Obviously Melville thinks of Claggart, a man of intellect but little heart, as older, less ingenuous, and more sophisticated. In contrast, Billy, his foil, is an old-fashioned sailor and it is through this persona that he perceives and interprets the actions and attitudes of others.

Melville wrote this novel as though it were a play. The players are now in place; the crucial episodes take shape. Even though the Dansker hints at disaster, Billy's innocence insulates and protects him. He does not think to report the traitorous act to his superiors. By his trusting nature, he sets himself up for the kill. Along with Claggart's monomania and ambivalence toward Billy, the total scenario forebodes doom.


that forward part . . . allotted to the pipe the part of the deck where sailors were allowed to smoke.

Delphic deliverances oracles proclaimed by Apollo's priestess at Delphi in ancient Greece.

Hyperion an ancient Greek sun god that predates Apollo.

the glittering dental satire of a Guise the toothy smile of a deceiver like one of the Guises, a powerful Ducal family of Renaissance Italy.

thews of Billy Billy's physical strength, as opposed to Claggart's more cerebral powers.

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