Summary and Analysis
At 4:00 a.m., all hands answer the summoning whistle to witness Billy's execution. Some sit on booms; others observe from the tops of masts. The prisoner, accompanied by the chaplain, is escorted to the deck. Billy faces the stern. At the last minute his words ring out — "God bless Captain Vere!" These words have a phenomenal effect on the crew, who echo — "God bless Captain Vere!"
There is complete silence at the instant of execution and for a brief time afterward. The men are dismissed. Reassembled after the sailmaker's mates have readied the body for burial, the crew observes Billy's interment. A strange murmur emanates from the men. The noise quickly ceases at the piping down of the watch. The shrill cry of sea birds prevails during and after the time when Billy's body, wrapped in his hammock, slides into the sea.
The drumbeat to quarters draws the men's attention from the burial and dispatches them to their various regular duties. The band on the quarterdeck plays a sacred tune, and the chaplain proceeds with the customary morning service.
Days later, the purser remarks on Billy's willpower and suggests that he suffered euthanasia. The surgeon retorts that Billy died as do most victims of execution. He labels as romantic any notion that Billy's death was out of the ordinary.
In these three chapters, Melville establishes a mood of somber tension offset by an extended metaphor of religious imagery. Into the cathedral-like arrangement of crew, some of whom observe from the balcony of the foretop, Billy, like a sacrificial lamb, appears, accompanied by the humane and compassionate chaplain. As Melville describes the fatal instant, Billy, hanged from the cruciform mast, does not simply die — he ascends, against the prophetic glory of the dawn just as the ship is regaining its balance against the roll of the sea. Breaking the silence, Billy and the men, like a minister and congregation, sound the litany, an involuntary choral rebellion — ironically, in the form of a benediction honoring Captain Vere.
The procedure for execution, particularly of a favorite crewman, holds a grim potential for disturbance — emotional and possibly physical. Though held one hour earlier than usual, the normal morning routine and its ingrained habits are a skillful diversion following Billy's hanging and burial. Melville deftly concludes this central episode with the coming of the morning, which he compares to smooth white marble, the symbolic tombstone for Billy Budd.
the prophet in the chariot . . . dropping his mantle to Elisha Melville compares the departure of night to the ascension of the prophet Elijah and the passing of his mantle to Elisha, his successor (II Kings 2:11–13).
powder-boys and younger tars the younger sailors, who climb to better vantage points from which to view the execution.
foreyard . . . mainyard Billy is hanged from the yardarm holding the mainsail rather than from a lower one, as is the usual practice.
purser the ship's accountant.
in short, Greek The terse words of the surgeon relegate the purser's musings to the more imaginative world of Greek literature, which he sets in stark contrast to the trenchant laws of science.
Orpheus with his lyre Captain Vere, a deep reader, knows the value of music, which he connects with the powerful performances of Orpheus, a character in Greek mythology who, with his music, sways the gods of the Underworld to let his dead wife, Eurydice, return to life.