Billy Budd, Sailor – Chapters 6–12

Summary: Chapter 6
The narrator introduces Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere,
an officer of aristocratic lineage. He is about forty years old. Though
he is a highly distinguished and capable officer, there is nothing
flashy about Captain Vere. He does not flaunt his nautical profession
when he is onshore, and on ship he does not flaunt his authority
or his rank. Beneath his modest exterior, however, he is a highly
resolute man. Though practical enough when the situation calls for
it, he has a tendency to lapse into a dreamy and abstracted state
when not in action. He acquired the nickname “Starry Vere” after
his cousin greeted him with that title upon his homecoming. The
name comes from a poem by Andrew Marvell, where it refers to a military
leader renowned as a severe disciplinarian.
Summary: Chapter 7
The narrator expands upon his initial introduction of
Captain Vere. A veteran of the sea, Vere has acquired certain habits
over time, including a devotion to the reading of biography, history,
and unconventional, common sense philosophers such as Montaigne. His
penchant for reading gives him a bookish, slightly pedantic demeanor
that sometimes alienates him from his fellow officers.
Summary: Chapter 8
The narrator attempts the difficult task of describing
John Claggart, the ship’s master-at-arms, who functions as a sort
of police captain on the vessel. In the midst of this description,
the narrator explains some of the unsavory means that were employed
to recruit men to ships at that time. He considers the fact that
suspects and convicted criminals make up a significant portion of
any given crew, especially in a time of war. While speculation abounds
that Claggart himself may be a product of the prison system, the
narrator dismisses this talk as idle guesswork.
Summary: Chapter 9

“Baby Budd, Jemmy Legs is down on you.”
(See Important Quotations Explained)

From the foretop, Billy has a bird’s-eye view of the activity
on the decks below. On the day after his arrival on board the Bellipotent, he
witnesses a formal gangway punishment for the first time. After failing
to show up at his assigned post, a novice suffers several lashes on
his bare back, resulting in a grid of bloody welts. This incident makes
a significant impression on Billy, who resolves to perform his duties
diligently so as to avoid a similar beating. Nevertheless, he occasionally
finds himself being censured for one minor infraction or another
and feels a vague sense of threat directed toward him from his superiors.
Concerned about his predicament, Billy seeks out the Dansker, an
elderly Danish mastman and seasoned veteran of the high seas. Finding
him off duty on the gun deck, Billy proceeds to reveal his troubles
to the Dansker, who listens attentively. After Billy finishes his
tale, the Dansker volunteers his impression that Claggart, who oversees
the day-to-day operations of the ship, dislikes Billy. Billy is left
to puzzle over the possibility that he has fallen out of favor with Claggart,
since Billy feels Claggart has spoken of him only in positive terms
thus far.
Summary: Chapter 10
The next day at lunch, Billy accidentally spills his soup
on the newly scrubbed deck of the mess hall when the ship lurches.
In passing, Claggart notices the accident and remarks on the handsome
effect of the spill and its maker. The comment elicits a chorus
of perfunctory laughter from the crew, and Billy, unable to see
the sour grimace on Claggart’s face when he made the comment, takes
the incident as proof of Claggart’s esteem for him. As Claggart
continues on his way, he inadvertently bumps into a drummer boy,
whom he reproves for his carelessness.
Summary: Chapter 11

For what can more partake of the mysterious
than an antipathy spontaneous and profound. . . .
(See Important Quotations Explained)

In an aside, the narrator confirms that Claggart does,
in fact, dislike Billy. The narrator can point to no rational reason
for Claggart’s aversion, and he suggests that to understand truly
the nature of someone like Claggart, one would have to turn to the
Bible for sufficiently deep insight into the human heart. Even as
the narrator says this, however, he indicates that he is no great
believer in the Bible, and thinks that his readers are likely to
regard it as out of fashion as well. Ultimately, the narrator concludes
that Claggart is simply naturally depraved. He was not corrupted
by wicked books or evil influences—he was just born bad. Moreover,
his depravity is especially sinister because in every outward appearance
he seems rational, temperate, and free from sin. His madness cleverly
hides itself deep within him.
Summary: Chapter 12
The narrator explains that Claggart’s dislike of Billy
is rooted in envy. In the first place, Claggart envies Billy simply
because it is his nature to be envious. He envies Billy’s heroic
good looks, but he also envies Billy because he can plainly see
that Billy has never experienced envy or malice himself. In fact,
Claggart can understand Billy’s intrinsic goodness and innocence
better than anyone else on the ship, and though he might like to
enjoy or share in Billy’s goodness, his own evil nature does not
allow it. Instead, he has to play the evil role ordained for him.
Analysis: Chapters 6–12
Because Captain Vere is introduced right after the discussion
of Horatio Nelson in Chapter 4, our attention
is immediately drawn to how different Vere is from the much flashier
Nelson. Although the nickname “Starry Vere” seems to suit him because
of his abstracted and dreamy quality, the narrator points out that
the nickname is ironic: though he is a thoroughly excellent captain,
Vere does not shine. We might well be inclined to consider his modest
and unassuming manner a good quality, except that the narrator has
just finished explaining that the personal heroism exhibited by
Nelson was an effective tool to galvanize and unite the discontented
sailors. Since Vere does not lead through personal charisma, as
Nelson did, we may wonder how exactly Vere will deal with the dangerously restless
atmosphere in the fleet in the months following the Great Mutiny.
The narrator only points to Vere’s settled personal convictions.
Vere leads by means of his commitment to principles, rather than
by means of his personality or love of glory.
Vere’s nickname is ironic in a second way, although
the narrator does not point this irony out explicitly. The character
referred to as “Starry Vere” in the Marvell poem is a severe disciplinarian, whereas
Captain Vere is anything but harsh or brutal in his conduct. But
while the name seems ironic at this point in the story, the passage
quoted from the poem provides an important piece of foreshadowing.
Vere does indeed impose an unexpectedly harsh discipline upon Billy,
and his commitment to principle is what prompts him to be severe.
Claggart’s fundamentally depraved nature is, as the narrator implies,
a central component of the story. In contrast with those who have
been led astray into evil ways, Claggart is simply evil beyond reasoning.
The good man led astray may possibly still be rehabilitated. But
the one born to evil is more difficult to understand or deal with.
Even though Claggart’s somewhat menacing demeanor is often attributed
by his associates to his past misfortunes, the narrator asserts
in no uncertain terms that Claggart is simply evil at heart. Claggart’s
inherently evil nature, moreover, is all the more insidious because
he conceals it. The naturally depraved man, in complete possession
of his faculties, may be civilized, thoroughly self-controlled,
outwardly respectable, characterized by moderation, too proud to
be petty, neither sensuous nor foul, and yet thoroughly evil, nonetheless.
The naturally depraved man employs reason strictly in the service
of irrational evil.
Thus, when Billy seeks out the Dansker in an attempt
to understand his sense of foreboding, the older sailor is able
to indicate a source but not a cause. The Dansker understands that
Claggart’s apparent friendliness toward Billy actually conceals
a pernicious dislike. As hard as Billy searches for a reason behind
Claggart’s disapproval, he is completely at a loss for an answer.
In his earnest quest to understand the situation, Billy reveals
his innocence and naïveté, in contrast to the saltier, more perceptive
members of the crew. In fact, in recognizing Billy’s inexperience
and innocence, the Dansker anoints him with the title “Baby Budd.”
The respective moral natures of Billy Budd and John Claggart
are symbolized by their appearances. Every bit the Handsome Sailor, Billy
Budd is exactly what he appears to be: the paragon of virtue. Claggart,
on the other hand, is black-haired and pale, in singular contrast
to the other sailors. His visage seems “to hint of something defective
or abnormal in the constitution and blood.” Meanwhile, the rose-tan
in Billy’s cheek is seemingly lit by “the bonfire in his heart.”
Claggart himself reinforces the parallel between appearance and
character when he cryptically remarks that “handsome is as handsome
did it” in reference to the soup spill.
The narrator indicates that a clash between these polar
opposites is inevitable. The discrepancy between the two, both physically
and morally, inspires a hatred in Claggart that is both visceral
and sustained. Most likely, Claggart finds Billy’s harmlessness
objectionable out of envy. In addition, although Claggart is certainly
capable of recognizing and containing his complex animosity for
Billy, he can hardly overcome it. Thus, within the confines of the
warship, the simmering conflict between Claggart and Billy seems
destined to continue brewing until it boils over.