Billy Budd, Sailor – Chapters 3–5

Summary: Chapter 3
In these chapters, the narrator digresses from Billy’s
story. In Chapter 3, he discusses two major
mutinies that occurred in the ranks of the British navy during the
spring of 1797, the year in which Billy Budd
takes place. The Great Mutiny at Nore, a sandbank in the Thames
estuary that was the primary site of anchorage for the British fleet,
rocked the British navy to its core. This mutiny was, according
to the narrator, more menacing to the British Empire than all of
the propaganda of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s armies combined.
Britain’s navy was, after all, the right arm of the one free European
power that continued to hold out in the face of Napoleon’s conquest
of the Continent. The “reasonable discontent” of the sailors over
shoddy rations, impressment, and poor pay was ignited into an inferno
by the anti-authoritarian philosophy spouted in France. But the
narrator insists that rebellion against authority is not truly in
the nature of British sailors, and that the mutinies were like temporary
fevers that the healthy British navy soon shrugged off. Of the thousands
of men who participated in the mutiny at Nore, many of them gloriously
absolved themselves by their heroism at Trafalgar, where the French
were defeated.
Summary: Chapter 4
The narrator digresses further into a laudatory discussion
of Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, the national hero who commanded the
British fleet at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.
He notes that Nelson and his ship, the Victory, represent
the last vestiges of a more poetic age, before the ugly—albeit efficient
and powerful—ironclad warships of the present took over. Throughout
the chapter, the narrator argues that Nelson’s flashy heroism and
love of glory were superior to the more technologically efficient
present-day methods of war. For instance, whereas some people might
be inclined to fault Nelson for sentimentally decorating himself
with all of his medals and insignia before going into battle, thus
making himself an easy target for the sharpshooter who killed him
at Trafalgar, the narrator insists that a thirst for glory is the
most important trait of a leader, and that Nelson’s personal style
is part of what makes him the most famous naval commander ever.
Summary: Chapter 5
The narrator returns to a discussion of the mutinies of 1797. Although
some of the mutinous sailors’ demands were met, the navy could not
afford to give up the practice of impressment, so naval authorities
had good reason to fear that mutiny could flare up again at any
time. As a result, the admiral in command of the fleet in 1797 sent
Nelson, who was then a rear admiral, to command one of the ships
that had recently mutinied, so that his heroic personality would
galvanize the men back into loyalty.
Analysis: Chapters 3–5
Although Chapters 3–5 represent
a departure from Billy Budd’s story, they are very important in
establishing the context within which the events of the novel take
place. Most importantly, the fact that Billy Budd is
set only months after the two major rebellions of 1797 would
lead us to expect an atmosphere of fear to the point of paranoia
on the part of the officers of Billy’s ship—which, as we later see,
is in fact the case. The Nore mutiny involved thousands of soldiers
and struck at the heart of the British navy—not halfway around the
world but within England’s borders. At the time, the English had
been fighting for four years to quash the French Revolution, which
represented the overthrow of the monarchy and the established social
order. Britain relied upon its navy to defend itself against the
Revolution spreading to its shores. The widespread mutiny in the
ranks of that very navy raised the specter of a homegrown revolt
that could overturn British society altogether, opening the floodgates
of revolution. Although the mutinies were put down, and some of
the underlying causes were addressed, the navy was not able to ameliorate
discontent completely because it still had to rely upon impressment
to fill its ranks. Mutiny could strike again at any time.
The fact that so many of the sailors in the navy had
been involuntarily impressed into service is also important in helping
us understand Billy’s story. Since they were there against their
will, many of these men were dangerously disaffected, which explains
in part the undercurrent of danger and hostility that we sense on
board the Bellipotent. We later learn that Billy’s
nemesis, Claggart, whom we have yet to meet, may even have been
impressed into service from a jail, given how desperate the navy
is for men.
Finally, though it may be difficult for us to immediately
see the relevance of the narrator’s praise of Horatio Nelson, who
is not a character in the novel, his example does bear on the story
that we are going to read. Nelson’s heroism and the glory he had
accrued to his name were exploited by the navy to keep down mutiny.
Though Billy’s ship does not have a Horatio Nelson on board to inspire enthusiastic
loyalty, Chapter 4 prepares the foundation
for a comparison between Billy’s captain and Nelson. Ultimately,
the events of the novel are determined as much by the personalities
of the men who lead as by the policies and rules that the officers
claim to follow.