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Billy Budd: Novel Summary: Chapters 26-31

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Billy Budd is brought to the mainyard, accompanied by the chaplain. Billy's last words before he is hanged, even as the rope is around his neck, are "God bless Captain Vere!" The assembled men spontaneously repeat his words, although they are really thinking not of the captain but of Billy. When Billy is hanged, his body makes no movement other than that created by the roll of the ship.

Chapter 27 is a digression. A few days after the hanging, the ship's purser is in a discussion with the surgeon. The purser says that the reason Billy's body did not jerk around as he was hanged is a tribute to will power. But the surgeon replies that the muscular spasms involved in such a situation are entirely involuntary. Will power has nothing to do with it. The surgeon declines to offer another explanation for why there were no spasms in the body.

In chapter 28, the narrative returns to the scene at the hanging. Immediately after the execution, there is a low murmur amongst the men. But this is cut off by the call back to duty. In a little while the crew reassembles in order to witness Billy's burial. His hammock serves as his coffin, and he is lowered into the sea. A group of large birds flies screaming to the spot where Billy's body disappeared. The men on the ship, being superstitious, view this as a matter of great significance. But before they can discuss it amongst themselves, they are called back to duty. The captain brings forward some of the ceremonial routine of the day, so that the men are kept occupied and in order. Then there is the customary morning religious service, and life on the ship continues as before.

As the Indomitable sails back to rejoin the rest of the English fleet, it engages a French warship, the Atheiste, in battle. The Indomitable is victorious, but Captain Vere is wounded. He is taken ashore at the British port of Gibraltar, where he dies a few days later. When he is near death, he is heard to mutter the words, "Billy Budd, Billy Budd," but it does not sound as if he is remorseful.

Some weeks after the execution, an account of the incident appears in an official naval publication. It gives a very misleading account of what happened, claiming that Claggart thwarted a plot and was then stabbed in the heart by Billy Budd.

The men on the Indomitable, however, preserve different memories of what happened. They remember Billy with more than affection. They keep track of the spar (wooden beam) from which Billy was hanged, following it from ship to dockyard and back again, and still pursuing it when it is reduced to a mere dockyard boom. A chip from it is as valuable to them as a piece of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. One of the foretopmen writes a ballad which circulates among the men, and is finally printed in Portsmouth. It is called "Billy in the Darbies."

At the time of Billy's death and afterwards, he becomes a Christ-like figure. At his death "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." The narrator attributes this phenomenon to chance, but it is a clear indication that there is something about Billy that resembles Christ, who in the New Testament is described as the Lamb of God. Another parallel between the status of Billy and that of Christ is in how the men of the Indomitable revere the spar from which Billy was hung. For them it is a sacred relic, no less than if they had found a piece of the Cross.


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