Summary and Analysis
Upon returning to the English fleet in the Mediterranean, the Bellipotent encounters the French battleshipAthée (the Atheist). In the engagement that ensues, Captain Vere, while spearheading an attempted boarding of the enemy ship, is hit and seriously wounded by a musketball. The senior lieutenant succeeds him in command and leads the crew in capturing the enemy ship. He successfully guides both ships to the port of Gibraltar, not far from the scene of the fight. Here, Captain Vere and the other wounded men are put ashore. Dying and under the influence of a soothing drug, the captain murmurs, "Billy Budd, Billy Budd." The words are inexplicable to the attendant, but significant to the senior officer of the marines, to whom they are repeated by the attendant.
A few weeks after Billy's execution, a notice appears in an authorized weekly naval chronicle stating that Billy stabbed Claggart with a sheath knife. The account also states that the assassin was not an Englishman, but rather an alien taking an English name.
As is the custom in naval folklore, the spar from which Billy was hanged becomes a monument. The bluejackets keep track of it and revere it like a piece of the Cross. Even though they learn only parts of the whole tragedy, they feel that the penalty was unavoidable. Still, they know intuitively that Billy was guilty of neither mutiny nor murder.
The final three chapters of Billy Budd serve as a sequel to the main episode. Melville, like Hawthorne in his preface to The Scarlet Letter, insists that the work describes an actual incident. He is not content to let his story end with Billy's death. To get at the truth, Melville adds a coda, or concluding commentary, to establish a moral for his fable.
In the body of this short novel, three main characters dominate a third of the text. Billy Budd is the central figure of the first part, Claggart the middle, and Captain Vere the last portion. In like fashion, Melville arranges the sequel, although in reverse order. In the first chapter, Captain Vere dominates. The upshot of the piece is his invocation to Billy, as though he were either blessing or seeking to join him in the afterlife. The words form a kind of antiphony, or choral response, to Billy's original benediction. Whatever the interpretation, the captain's tone of voice precludes remorse as a motive.
The second chapter in the sequel is the most puzzling and probably the most crucial to Melville's true intent. John Claggart, who achieves a stature in the naval chronicle that he never approached in real life, dominates this chapter. From the official point of view, he is the hero of the Bellipotent affair. Indeed, he rises to glory as though he and Billy Budd had changed places, just as they reversed roles when Billy, newly impressed, became a peacemaker aboard the ship where the master-of-arms was titular keeper of the peace. And to compound the injustice to Billy's memory, Claggart, who spoke with a hint of foreign accent, is lauded as the true English citizen while Billy is denigrated as the dissembler.
This entire account is ironic, with the most striking satire appearing in the opening paragraph, which assures the reader that though doubtless it was written in good faith, the way the story reached the writer tended to distort the facts. Melville appears to attack many facets of civilized life, including the accuracy of the press. He may also be castigating the rumormongers who plagued him personally, as well as the normal vicissitudes of life, which often victimize those least deserving of ignominy.
Every detail in the account of Claggart's bravery in exposing sedition is false. The greatest irony is the closing restatement of Dr. Johnson's peevish remark about patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel." Indeed, Claggart, who libeled Billy as a traitor, resorted to the cloak of false patriotism.
To the public, Claggart is a martyr who saved the British fleet from another mutiny at the cost of his life; he is, as it were, crucified at the hands of a depraved felon. Again, the roles reverse, with Claggart cast as savior of his fellow man. And his initials, J. C., conform to the pattern of Christ figure. Critics suggest that Melville is creating a satire of formalized and false religion that depends on a facade of sincerity. If this view is correct, the main characters must symbolize three distinct entities — Captain Vere, the world; Billy, the spirit; and Claggart, the devil.
The last of the three chapters concludes with a poem composed by another foretopman, one who served with Billy. The gist of this chapter, the shortest of the three, is that Billy has become a legend to British sailors. The spar from which he was hanged has evolved into a monument, or shrine. A chip from it is revered like a piece of the Cross. For good reason, the last word belongs to Billy, who left an indelible impression on all.
Dr. Johnson Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709–84), English lexicographer.
jewel-block a device that extends a sail fully to each end of the yard.
belay rope tied around a rock or some other secure item.