Billy Budd

Billy Budd Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-13

The narrator points out that sometimes, in some men, a target's harmlessness makes him all the easier to hate. On board a seventy-four, all men have contact with all of the other men. The crew is a small, small world, and it is the only world for long periods of time. Any friction between persons can soon become bitter hatred. The narrator begins to ask about the nature of evil in man.

Claggart's deepest problem, the narrator tells us, is a deep, innate depravity. It is not a continuous insanity, but something more sinister: "toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of atrocity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgment sagacious and sound" (326). His evil is his capacity for malevolence, and the cool intelligence he employs for malevolence's sake.

We then move to the nature of envy, and the feelings evoked in Claggart when he beholds Billy. Billy's innocence and good looks both give Claggart all the more reason to hate the boy; Billy possesses goodness, and is devoid of malice. Claggart can never be so. He is also drawn by it: "Yet in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it" (328).

Claggart comes to interpret the spilled soup as an insult from Billy. His hatred of Billy has become so profound that he is waiting for some sign that the malice is reciprocated; such is the nature of evil in men, which seeks justification for itself. One of his corporals, a disgusting little man named Squeak, fills Claggart's ears with false reports of Billy's dislike for Claggart. Squeak has noticed Claggart's antipathy for Billy, and he is eager to ingratiate himself to his master. Claggart takes every small gesture from Billy as signs of something grave; that, too, is the nature of hatred. Thus he justifies his hatred of Billy, and moves toward a plan of terrible, unjust revenge.


These three chapters defy summary; they are an extended meditation on the nature and origins of evil. The theme of evil is important to the novella. While Melville treats his subject with humility, not daring to remove the ineffable and mysterious elements of evil, he is not afraid to explore, with convincing and articulate brilliance, the psychology of hatred. Claggart is moved to hate what he cannot possess: Billy's goodness and beauty. There are yet more hints of a sexual attraction, as the narrator speaks of Claggart's fascination with Billy's physical appearance. Claggart sees "in an aesthetic way" Billy's attractiveness, and "fain would have shared it" (328). The language is ambiguous. He wishes he could have Billy's charm; implicitly, he wishes he could have Billy. His hatred of Billy also may come from a fear of rejection: he protects himself by imagining that Billy has already rejected him, and that Billy is nursing a deep hatred for him.

Part of Claggart's evil is the "perversion of conscience." He has subverted his own sense of right and wrong, twisting his conscience, seeing justification for his hatred where none exists. Claggart's anger parallels the devil's. In both the Christian and Moslem interpretations of the devil, Satan came to hate out of jealousy. In Christian lore, Satan rebelled against the God who had been nothing but benevolent to him, out of envy for God's power and goodness. In the Moslem tradition, the final straw was the creation of man. When God told all of the angels to bow before this new creation, Satan, jealous of the new creature, refused.

So in Billy Budd, we are dealing with an archetypal form of evil, the kind of evil that feeds on its hatred of goodness. Billy's innocence and Claggart's malignance are going to come into conflict, at the cost of both men's lives.