Billy Budd

Billy Budd Summary and Analysis of Chapters 28-30

The narrator apologizes for real life's ragged edges, which do not correspond to the "symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction" (380). While the principle part of the story is over, there are still some stories that need to be told. He promises that three chapters will suffice.

Not long after Billy's execution, the Bellipotent came up against the French line-of-battle ship Athée (the Atheist). During the battle, Captain Vere was seriously wounded. Under a subordinate officer, the Bellipotent managed to subdue the enemy ship and made it back to the English port of Gibraltar. There, Captain Vere lingered for a few days before his death. The captain, therefore, was not destined to see the great battles to come at Trafalgar and the Nile. Not long before his death, an attendant heard the drugged Vere murmuring "Billy Budd" again and again. The senior officer of the marines hears of the incident from the attendant, but says nothing about who Billy Budd was.

A few weeks after the execution, an article reporting the incident appears in one of the officially sanctioned papers. As the article reports it, Billy was involved in a plan for mutiny. When confronted by Claggart, he stabbed the master-at-arms. The article speculates the Billy must have been a foreigner masquerading as an Englishman. The article goes on to decry the loss of Claggart, whom the article praises as a respectable man, the kind of man who by fulfilling his duties as a petty officer helps to keep His Majesty's navy efficient.

But the sailors who knew Billy seem to know instinctively that Billy was innocent. Though they do not know the details of the story, for years afterward they keep track of the location of the spar from which Billy was suspended. They follow the spar's career as it goes from ship to dockyard to ship to dockyard again, until it ends its career as a dockyard boom. For the sailors, a sliver from the spar is like a piece of the Cross. One of the sailors who knew Billy composes a sailor's song, "Billy in the Darbies" ("Billy in Irons"), about Billy awaiting his execution. The novella ends with this song.


Despite the allegorical nature of the novella, which has long made it popular on high school reading lists, Melville begins his denouement by telling us that fable and fact cannot finish the same way. This moment requires a suspension of disbelief, because the novella is, in fact, fiction, but Melville is actually making a more profound distinction.

If Melville were a different kind of writer, we might close with Billy's execution. We have the beautiful martyrdom, and Vere's justifications would seem less problematic. The Christ allegory would close, tidy and uncomplicated. But in light of what follows, a complicated situation takes on a dark, unsettling edge.

For one thing, Melville suggests that Captain Vere, in steadfastly doing his duty, may also have had partially selfish motivations. The narrator bemoans Vere's early death, which cut off the possibility of Vere participating in the great battles at Trafalgar and the Nile. But listen to why: "The spirit that Œspite its philosophic austerity may yet have indulged in the most secret of all passions, ambition, never attained to the fullness of fame" (382). Passion is the same word he used to describe Claggart's secret obsessions. Melville is hinting that another side of Vere may have existed, one interested in earthly rewards and renown as much as duty. But it is only a possibility.

The ship responsible for Vere's death has a symbolic name: Athée, or the Atheist. Crude allegory cannot be imposed here, but the name suggests that the specter of disbelief and cynicism haunts the novella's story. Billy's beautiful sacrifice, his transfiguration; perhaps after all they were only tricks of light. Maybe his death was nothing more than a waste, the product of a petty officer's hate and a captain's misguided sense of duty. Maybe his death was without meaning. Captain Vere, for one, cannot seem to escape his own conscience. He mumbles Billy's name on his deathbed, unable to put aside his thoughts about the boy. And though the narrator seemed gung-ho enough at the start of the novella about the glories of war, he here does not shy away from its dark side, suggesting that the Athée is the most apt name imaginable for a war ship. War, when revealed in all of its ugliness, tends to pulverize the stories we tell to justify it.

The news article further problematizes our comfort with Vere's decision and Billy's seemingly acquiescent martyrdom. Both men served a cause that has some undeniably ugly machinery. The biased news article is clear propaganda, designed to keep up moral and convince readers of the navy's goodness and necessity. There is a fiercely xenophobic strain as well, as the article suggests that Billy may have been a foreigner masquerading as a true Englishman. Earlier, Melville also reminds us that war is business when he speaks of "oil supplied by the war contractors (whose gains, honest or otherwise, are in every land an anticipated portion of the harvest of death)" (370). At the start of the novella, the narrator praised the heroics of Nelson and the glories of naval victory. As the novel closes, he hits a very different note. He mentions the business profits of war, suggests ambition as part of the makeup of even the most dutiful and honorable man, and shows the biased and unjust reporting of officially sanctioned wartime papers. These dark notes are not constitutive of an anti-war polemic; what Melville is doing is far subtler. Captain Vere is undoubtedly an honorable man. But we might become too comfortable with his viewpoint and Billy's death if Melville did not show us the ugly machinery of war.

In turning the spar into a relic, he brings Billy's parallels to Christ back to the forefront. But we are left to consider, as Vere did on his death bed, the difficult questions surrounding the boy's execution. Following these unsettling ending notes, we have the eerie sailor's song, where the waiting Billy imagines being dead at the bottom of the sea. Though the sailors think of Billy as a kind of Christ, the song does not imagine Billy waking up in heaven. The final note is dark and unsettling, as the speaker of the song imagines death in the deep: "I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist" (385). Fable and allegory elucidate and instruct. Billy Budd does something else. Melville gives us difficult situations, with difficult questions, but refuses to resolve them for us. The final images of the novel are disconcerting, dark. We are left in imagined darkness, with Billy's corpse, forced to come to our own conclusions about the events surrounding Billy's death.