Billy Budd: Novel Summary: Chapters 6-14
Chapters 6 to 8 are devoted to detailed descriptions of two of the main characters. First, there is the captain of H.M.S. Indomitable, Captain Vere. Vere is a modest man with a very distinguished naval record. Nicknamed "Starry Vere" by one of his relatives, he is a practical man but possesses a dreamy side. He is also something of an intellectual, and loves reading, mainly history and biography. His reading has given him some steady convictions about life, and he resists getting drawn to new ideas in politics and society, which he regards as not being in the best interests of mankind. (This refers to the ideas of democracy and liberty that stem from the French Revolution that began in 1789, eight years before the events recorded in the novel.)
Chapter 8 introduces the third major character in the novel, after Billy Budd and Captain Vere. This is John Claggart, the master-at-arms. Claggart is a petty officer, which is the rough equivalent of a noncommissioned officer in a modern army. Claggart's main job is to preserve order on the lower gun decks. Claggart is a man of above average intelligence, and his manner suggests that of an educated man. Nobody knows anything about his early life, although rumors circulate that he was a swindler (a "chevalier") who entered the Navy in order to avoid prosecution. The rumor gains credence because it was not uncommon in this period for those who were suspected of having committed a crime, to be seized by the police and sent off to join the fleet. Sometimes debtors joined the Navy in order to escape their difficult situation. On some occasions, also, if a warship was short-handed, men would be recruited direct from the jails.
The narrator suggests that the talk amongst the crew about Claggart is not very plausible because no master-at-arms can ever hope to be popular with his men. They are likely to believe anything bad they hear about him.
Chapter 9 returns to Billy Budd. He settles down quickly on the ship and is content in his position in the foretop. He gets on well with everyone. His strict attention to his duty is enhanced by the fact that soon after he joined the Indomitable, he witnessed the severe flogging of a man who was accused of dereliction of duty. As a result of what he saw, Billy determined that he would never give even the slightest cause for such a punishment to be imposed on him. He is therefore surprised when he finds himself getting into minor trouble about small things, such as something not quite right about his hammock. He wonders how this could happen when he is so careful not to offend or break the rules.
Billy goes for advice to an old Danish sailor, a man whom he regards as a hero for his earlier service under Admiral Nelson. The Dankser tells him that Claggart, the master-at-arms, whom he calls "Jimmy Legs," is down on him. Billy expresses his astonishment, because Claggart always has a pleasant word for him. The Dansker replies that that is because Claggart is down on him. But he will not elaborate, leaving Billy even more puzzled than before.
The next day an incident occurs that seems to prove to Billy that the Dansker's words are unfounded. Billy accidentally spills his soup on the freshly cleaned deck. Claggart is walking past at the time, and takes little notice of the incident, until he realizes who spilled the soup. He taps Billy and says, "Handsomely done, my lad!" Billy does not notice the grimace that accompanies Claggart's words. He laughs with his shipmates at the incident, which seems to suggest that Claggart has no hostile feelings toward Billy.
At the beginning of chapter 11, the narrator confirms that appearances to the contrary, Claggart is indeed down on Billy Budd. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to exploring why Claggart feels this way. There is no reason for his hostility, which is spontaneous and profound, other than Billy's innocence and his harmlessness. This attracts the enmity of Claggart because the master-at-arms embodies what the narrator describes as "natural depravity." His evil nature was something he was born with rather something he acquired during his life.
In chapter 13, the narrator reveals that Claggart's hatred of Billy was first aroused by Billy's great personal beauty. But this was made worse by the fact that not only was Billy handsome but he was completely without malice toward anyone. Claggart understands more than anyone else on the ship the unusual phenomenon that is Billy Budd, and this only fuels his hatred more. Claggart is able to hide the evil in himself, but he cannot renounce it. It is part of his being.
The narrator suggests that Claggart may have believed that Billy's spilling of the soup was a spontaneous expression of feelings of antipathy toward him, Claggart. This is because Claggart has been employing a cunning sailor named Squeak to lay little traps for Billy Budd. Squeak likes to please his master and invents incidents and words that put Billy Budd in a bad light. Claggart believes that the lying Squeak is telling the truth, and this gives him even more cause, in his own mind, to persecute Billy. He thinks he is being righteous in bringing retribution to Billy.
The investigation of character is an important element in Billy Budd, and this section completes the picture of the three main characters, Billy Budd, Captain Vere and John Claggart. The actual events in this section are few: the spilling of the soup, Billy's conversation with the Dansker, the information about Squeak's "dirty tricks" against Billy.
Melville's concern is not so much with outer events, since in terms of the plot, this is a very simple story. His concern in this section is to build up the coming clash between the principle of evil (embodied in Claggart) and the principle of good (embodied in Billy Budd). It is as if the drama is taking place on a metaphysical plane, rather than-or at least in addition to-the human one. Of particular interest is Melville's exploration of the nature of Claggart's evil. All that can be said about it is that it simply exists; it is innate. It does not arise from any human cause, since Billy Budd gives no offense. Melville seems to be saying that evil is naturally drawn to destroy good. It cannot do anything else. In this case, the principle of good, because of its embodiment in the na�ve and trusting Billy Budd, has as yet no inkling of the peril that it is in.