Billy Budd

Billy Budd Summary and Analysis of Chapters 23-27

That night, in the second dogwatch, all hands are called and Captain Vere tells the crew that a sailor has struck and killed an officer. Said sailor will be hanged the next day. At some point, although Melville does not give us an idea of the time beyond that it is "a suitable hour," Claggart is buried at sea with all the honors appropriate to his rank. Billy's transfer from the cabin is done quietly. In both the case of Claggart and Billy Budd, the officers strive to do all things by the book, so that the sailors will sense no disturbance in ritual or routine.

Billy is kept in the upper gun deck. That night, he sleeps between two cannons. The chaplain comes to see him, but on seeing Billy peacefully asleep cannot bear to wake him. He returns early in the morning, before dawn, to find Billy awake. Billy receives him politely, but he has little need of comfort. He listens to the chaplain's words about death and Christ but does not seem touched by them. The chaplain is moved by Billy's innocence, and as he leaves, he kisses Billy on the cheek.

At dawn, all hands are assembled to watch the execution. Before Billy is hanged, he calls out, "God bless Captain Vere!" The other men, as if their wills are not their own, repeat his benediction. Vere reacts not at all to this occurrence. As Billy hangs, he is hit by light from the heavens, taking on "the full rose of dawn" (376). His body does not move at all, save with the motion of the ship. There are no spasms of death.

We move to a few days later, when the ship purser and the surgeon are at a meal discussing the body's lack of movement. The purser attributes the phenomenon to strength of will. The surgeon, speaking arrogantly about proof and science, discounts the idea. But he must admit that the body's stillness is inexplicable. Not liking the turn of the conversation, he excuses himself to tend to a patient.

We return to the scene of Billy's execution. There is silence for a moment, and then a low murmur, ambiguous in meaning and possible promising dark developments, begins among the men. But the gathering is dispersed, and the men are put to work. They are brought together again a few hours later for Billy's funeral. Billy's body, wrapped in the canvas of his own hammock, is dropped into the sea. Sea birds shriek and dive at the place where the body dropped down, and for a while they circle over the spot where the body sank underwater. Superstitious as always, the sailors attach meaning to this event. Another unarticulated, low, murmuring sound begins among them, but once again whistles and shouts put the men back to work.


The scene with the chaplain is loaded, not because of anything that happens but because of Melville's detailed musings on the paradox of a man of the cloth serving on a warship. Also, the meeting with the chaplain would seem to nullify the reading of Billy Budd as Melville's reconciliation with Christianity and God. Melville was a confirmed unbeliever where Christianity was concerned, although he appreciated Christianity on an aesthetic level. There are fierce strains of the mystic and the transcendentalist in him, but he does not work these strains into a system of belief, nor is he consistent in his attitudes throughout his literary career. Each book must be examined on its own.

The chaplain's faith, though being presented to one who has been depicted throughout the book as a Christ or god on earth, makes no significant impression on Billy: "It was like a gift placed in the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fingers do not close" (373). From the sense we have of Billy, most readers feel that he does not need it. Nor, for that matter, does the chaplain. When he sees Billy sleeping, he quietly steals away. Melville suggests that the chaplain believes he has "no consolation to proffer which could result in a peace transcending that which he beheld" (372). The chaplain, in talking to Billy, still feels no fear for Billy's soul: "innocence was even a better thing than religion wherewith to go to Judgment" (373). He is so moved by Billy that before leaving he kisses the condemned on the cheek.

Melville reminds us again and again of the contradictions in the chaplain's work. The chaplain's faith is necessarily compromised, as he is "the minister of Christ though receiving his stipend from Mars" (372). He is powerless to act on conviction: "Marvel not that having been made acquainted with the young sailor's essential innocence the worthy man lifted not a finger to avert the doom of such a martyr to martial discipline" (373). Though a minister of God, the chaplain eats the King's bread. Melville is simply reminding us of the contradictions that are part of every human life. As Melville is always asking the place of an individual in society, the chaplain's entrance provides yet another situation where different ethical systems come into conflict, and yet an individual must live with both. Despite the Christ elements of the story, Melville will not stand for having his novella being reduced to a story of taking comfort in Jesus. He finishes the chapter of the chaplain's visit with words that come close to indicting religion. Speaking of why the chaplain is there, he says that the minister "lends the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which practically is the abrogation of everything but brute Force" (374). Contradictions abound for the chaplain, and most of the contradictions are none too flattering for the Christian faith. War and its machinery are unavoidable. The chaplain meets Billy between two cannons. Even as Billy is visited by his final spiritual guide, they are surrounded by the unholy implements of warfare.

But arguably, Billy's death scene is asking us to believe in something. Billy's power over others is once again clear. When he calls out "God bless Captain Vere!" the other men echo him, as if he is a religious leader. Much has been made of Billy's name. Some interpreters have suggested that Budd comes from Buddha; Melville was no stranger to the writings of Indian spirituality, and he lived in a period when Indian mysticism was in vogue among educated American elites. Such an origin for Billy's name would emphasize Billy's saintliness and awareness, which transcend both conventional knowledge and religion. His execution is something of a miracle: there are none of the spasms always seen in deaths by hanging.

Melville also plays with Billy's name during the death scene. In going to his death with such grace, Billy shows the full power and beauty of what a nature like his is capable of. As Billy hangs, the skies seem to pass comment: "At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and ascending, took the full rose of the dawn" (376). Never one to waste time with subtlety, Melville turns Billy into a martyr blessed by near-visions and near-miracles. We see a vision of the "fleece of the Lamb of God," cementing Billy's link to Christ. The body does not twitch, as all bodies do when hanged. Again, Melville plays with Billy's name, turning it into a symbol of the boy's metamorphosis into something beautiful and powerful: Billy Budd takes on the rose of dawn. His death is also a transformation. Melville does not describe his body as hanging. He chooses to emphasize the upward motion of the execution, so that Billy is not suspended: he ascends.

Regarding the body's mystic stillness, Melville inserts a tiny chapter relating a later conversation between the purser and the surgeon. Typically, he makes neither man a particularly bright debater. The purser wishes to chalk up Billy's stillness to an act of will. The surgeon refuses to accept anything that cannot be explained easily and rationally. He excuses himself before the conversation can turn to fields in which he feels uncomfortable. Melville is pushing us into the territory of belief. The surgeon plays the role of the skeptic, but the irrational skeptic: he fears what he cannot explain. But Melville does not make it easy for us. The purser is not exactly a brilliant man. The narrator tells us he is "more accurate as an accountant than profound as a philosopher" and the way the purser speaks confirms this assessment. Both officers have missed something vital in Billy's death: one out of lack of astuteness, and the other out of a fear of the scientifically unexplainable. Later, we will see the very different reaction the sailors have in the years after Billy's death.

In the short term, immediate discipline and routine are used to keep the sailors in line. The threat of mutiny is just below the surface. After Billy's death, and again after his funeral, there begins among the men an inarticulate and ambiguous murmur, one that might very well signal a rebellion. It is kept in line by routine, by form, by the rituals of sea life.