Billy Budd

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Billy Budd Character Analysis

Billy is the protagonist of the novella and a perfect example of the type of person the narrator calls the Handsome Sailor. His beautiful appearance reflects his upstanding character and because of this he earns the admiration of almost all of those he serves with aboard both the Rights-of-Man and the Indomitable. Billy is an innocent, child-like young man, whom the narrator often compares to Adam before the fall of man. His innocent nature ends up being a liability aboard the Indomitable, though, as he is unable to understand or even notice the wickedness of Claggart, who irrationally hates Billy. His death is represented as a tragic martyrdom by the narrator, and although the only official record of his death condemns him as a criminal, he is remembered more sympathetically in the sailors' ballad with which Melville's story ends, "Billy in the Darbies."

Billy Budd Quotes in Billy Budd

The Billy Budd quotes below are all either spoken by Billy Budd or refer to Billy Budd. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Billy Budd published in 1986.
Chapter 1 Quotes

But they all love him. Some of 'em do his washing, darn his old trousers for him; the carpenter is at odd times making a pretty little chest of drawers for him. Anybody will do anything for Billy Budd; and it's the happy family here.

Related Characters: Captain Graveling (speaker), Billy Budd
Page Number: 296
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described a ship in the British Navy, the Indomitable, which was short of men and thus recruited civilians. The ship also recruited Billy Budd, a handsome, loveable young sailor who had previously served aboard another ship, called the Rights-of-Man. In this passage, the narrator explains that the sailors of the Rights-of-Man loved Billy Budd and would do endless favors for him. This makes clear that Billy Budd was not only an unequivocally good person, but someone who united people through their love for him, creating a "happy family." This description emphasizes the way in which the world of a ship functions as a self-contained society, with men taking on traditionally feminine tasks such as darning (mending patches in) a man's trousers for him. 

Indeed, from a contemporary perspective it is possible to identify a note of homoeroticism in the narrator's description of the other sailors' love for Billy Budd. The sailors' absolute devotion to Billy seems almost romantic in nature, and the tasks they perform for him are similar to the loving acts performed by romantic partners and family members for their loved ones. This emphasizes the extremely close-knit nature of the men living on a ship, and the importance of living harmoniously as a community and even a "family." 

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And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man.

Related Characters: Billy Budd (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ship Names
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

Billy Budd has been conscripted to leave his old ship, the Rights-of-Man, to join a new ship named the Indomitable. The captain of the Rights-of-Man has complained that he is losing his best man, and that Billy has ended the quarrelling that used to take place among his sailors. As Billy leaves the ship, he says "and good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man." On the surface, this reveals Billy's fondness for his previous ship, as well as his calm acceptance of moving onto a new one.

At the same time, his farewell also has a symbolic meaning; as illustrated by the ship's name, Billy is bidding farewell to a community in which the rights of individuals were respected. The name "Rights-of-Man" comes from Thomas Paine's 1791 book, which morally condoned revolution against a government if that government does not respect the rights of individual citizens. This argument has a strong connection to the issue of mutiny aboard ships. On the new ship, the Indomitable, the rights of individual sailors are suppressed in order to ensure the absolute power of the ship over the French Republic. This tension between the authority of society and its leaders and the rights of the individual is one of the main themes of the novel. 

Chapter 2 Quotes

Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.

Related Characters: Billy Budd
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 301
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator begins Chapter 2 by describing Billy Budd's physical appearance in more detail, noting his striking beauty and "ambiguous smile." The narrator has compared Billy both to courtly women and Classical Greek sculptures, before explaining that as a baby Billy was found abandoned, and thus people suspect that his real family may indeed be noble. In this passage, the narrator compares Billy to the Biblical Adam before the Fall of Man, suggesting his childlike innocence and moral purity. This association means that, by this point, Billy has been linked, whether explicitly or in-explicitly, to three major Biblical characters: Adam, the first man, Moses, who was also found as a baby and raised within the Egyptian royal family, and Jesus, who was the son of God and yet was raised by a humble Jewish couple. 

Through these associations, Billy takes on a kind of holy significance within the play. His unusual beauty and moral goodness suggest that he is an exceptional person akin to a mythic or religious hero. His connection to Adam and Jesus in particular is important, as both characters end up severely punished for acts that are arguably no fault of their own. By describing Billy's similarity to these characters, the narrator hints at the tragic fate that will eventually befall the innocent Billy. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!

Related Characters: John Claggart (speaker), Billy Budd
Page Number: 322
Explanation and Analysis:

On a particularly rough day at sea, Billy spills a bowl of soup in the mess hall. Claggart walks past and at first pays no attention, but once he sees that it is Billy who spilled the soup, he stops and remarks, "Handsomely done, my lad!". Claggart's remarks are clearly laced with sarcastic antagonism, but because Billy is so pure-hearted he fails to pick up on this. Indeed, it is ironic that Claggart teases Billy precisely by pointing to his "handsome" nature, while this very nature prevents Billy from understanding the true meaning of Claggart's words. Note the subtle overtone of erotic tension created by the fact that Claggart uses the word "handsome" three times, perhaps indicating he is jealous of Billy's beauty and popularity.

Chapter 14 Quotes

But the incident confirmed to him certain telltale reports purveyed to his ear by "Squeak," one of his more cunning corporals... the corporal, having naturally enough concluded that his master could have no love for the sailor, made it his business, faithful understrapper that he was, to foment the ill blood by perverting to his chief certain innocent frolics of the good-natured foretopman, besides inventing for his mouth sundry contumelious epithets he claimed to have overheard him let fall.

Related Characters: Billy Budd, John Claggart, Squeak
Page Number: 329
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator observes that powerful feelings can be evoked by completely ordinary incidents, as is the case with Claggart's anger at the spilled soup. The narrator adds that Claggart may believe that Billy spilled the soup as a deliberate affront to Claggart; this suspicion could have resulted from rumors created by a corporal named Squeak, who tells Claggart lies insinuating that Billy doesn't like him. Once again, the narrator illustrates the complex web of hierarchical power that connects all the men onboard the ship, and shows that this hierarchy creates feelings of jealousy, suspicion and resentment between the men.

This passage is also a compelling lesson in the danger of rumor. While Squeak views himself as "faithful," and his actions merely as the perversion of "innocent frolics," the lies he tells about Billy inadvertently lead to both Billy and Claggart's deaths. The name "Squeak" alludes to this sense of whimsical harmlessness, as well as the notion that Squeak is both mischievous and subservient, like a little mouse. "Squeak" could also represent the lies that Squeak tells, which he perceives to be inconsequential but which lead to devastating consequences. 

Chapter 19 Quotes

The same, your honor; but, for all his youth and good looks, a deep one. Not for nothing does he insinuate himself into the good will of his shipmates, since at the least all hands will at a pinch say a good word for him at all hazards. ...It is even masked by that sort of good-humored air that at heart he resents his impressment. You have but noted his fair cheek. A man trap may be under his ruddy-tipped daisies.

Related Characters: John Claggart (speaker), Billy Budd
Page Number: 344
Explanation and Analysis:

Claggart has gone to Captain Vere to tell him he is suspicious that a mutiny is being planned, led by Billy Budd. This rumor is false, and at first Captain Vere reacts incredulously; he doesn't believe Billy could be capable of such a deed, considering his kind, appealing manner. In this passage, Claggart agrees about Billy's "youth and good looks," but suggests that his outward appearance might be concealing internal resentment at having been conscripted onto the Indomitable. Note the cunning way in which Claggart manages to persuade Captain Vere that Billy is duplicitous. Rather than denying the assertion that Billy is handsome, Claggart agrees, but proposes that this in itself is suspicious. 

Indeed, this idea that beauty is inherently suspicious or deceitful has a long history in Western culture, although it has been much more commonly used to discredit women. This idea is particularly relevant in the context of the sea, as one of its most famous manifestations is in the figure of the siren, a supernaturally attractive woman (in some interpretations) who would lure sailors to their deaths through the beauty of her singing. Although Claggart is not accusing Billy of being a siren, he is suggesting that Billy has committed a very similar crime––luring sailors into self-sabotage through his handsome appearance. This point is emphasized by Claggart's claim that "a man trap may be under his ruddy-tipped daisies." 

Chapter 20 Quotes

Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!

Related Characters: Captain Vere (speaker), Billy Budd, John Claggart
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 352
Explanation and Analysis:

Captain Vere has summoned Billy to his cabin and informed him of Claggart's accusations. Billy is so shocked that he cannot speak, and when Captain Vere compels him too, Billy strikes out his hand, accidentally killing Claggart. After the doctor pronounces Claggart dead, Captain Vere declares that Claggart has been "struck dead by an angel of God!". This dramatic language highlights the peculiarity of the events within the captain's cabin. First, despite his total innocence, Billy is unable to defend himself verbally. When he finally reacts to the accusation, it is by accidentally murdering his accuser. It is almost as if Billy's body has acted in revenge against Claggart, even while his mind and soul are unable to do so––an idea that reveals Billy's angelic purity. 

Captain Vere's words further emphasize the notion that Billy is an "angel," incapable of intentionally committing sin. Indeed, this connection furthers another comparison: the similarity between Billy and Jesus. Like Jesus, Billy is morally innocent––and yet is punished by death. Based on Captain Vere's exclamation, it seems clear that he knows it is unjust to hang Billy. However, as captain of the ship, Vere is also forced to maintain law and order, a fact that prohibits him from acting according to his own individual conscience and delivering justice. 

Chapter 22 Quotes

But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?

Related Characters: Captain Vere (speaker), Billy Budd
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

During his trial, Billy admits to accidentally killing John Claggart, but maintains that Claggart was lying about Billy's supposed plan to start a mutiny. Billy himself lies, however, when asked if he knows of any mutinies being planned and swears he doesn't. In this passage, Captain Vere ponders the difficulty of the decision facing the drumhead court. Because Billy has confessed to the "overt act" of killing Claggart, in some ways the matter is rather simple; he is inarguably guilty of committing murder, even if it was accidental. At the same time, as Vere points out, there is much more to the story than this simple picture.

Like the contradiction between Billy's outward appearance and the rumors Claggart attempted to pin to him, there is a large tension between the crime to which Billy has confessed and his evident kind and innocent character. This raises the question of whether we should judge a person based on their outer appearance or behaviors, or seek to evaluate the internal truth of their personality. As Vere points out, this becomes particularly complicated in the context of Christian beliefs about morality. Billy is seemingly "innocent before God," as God can see past superficial appearances into a person's internal motivations. However, in the context of the military, Billy is guilty and therefore must be condemned to death. 

Chapter 25 Quotes

Not that like children Billy was incapable of conceiving what death really is. No; but he was wholly without irrational fear of it, a fear more prevalent in highly civilized communities than those so-called barbarous ones which in all respects stand nearer to unadulterated Nature.

Related Characters: Billy Budd
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 372
Explanation and Analysis:

Billy, condemned to death, is being kept on the upper gun deck. He is wearing white and has a peaceful expression; the ship's chaplain approaches, but is left speechless by how serene Billy looks. In this passage, the narrator describes Billy's lack of fear about death, comparing Billy's disposition with the attitude of "so-called barbarous" peoples who have a better understanding of nature than "highly civilized communities." Although on one hand the narrator is associating Billy with non-Christian, indigenous populations, it is clear from the rest of the imagery in this scene that Billy is representative of a holy, Christ-like serenity. His calm disposition in the face of death directly resembles Jesus's (presumed) attitude to his own crucifixion, as does Billy's white outfit glowing mystically in the darkness. 

Chapter 26 Quotes

Billy stood facing aft. At the penultimate moment, his words, his only ones, words wholly unobstructed in the utterance, were these—"God bless Captain Vere!"

Related Characters: Billy Budd, Captain Vere
Page Number: 375
Explanation and Analysis:

At four in the morning, Billy is executed. The chaplain accompanies Billy in his final minutes; as Billy stands ready, he cries out "God bless Captain Vere!" and is then hanged. Billy's choice of final words show that he is a loyal sailor right until the very last moment of his life. At first, it seems almost ridiculous that he should be so loyal, considering he is being unjustly killed for a crime he committed by accident.

On the other hand, by pledging loyalty to Captain Vere before his execution, Billy ensures that his death is not for nothing. Through his devotion, he inspires his fellow soldiers to remain obedient to their captain; the effectiveness of this is demonstrated by the fact that those present echo "God bless Captain Vere" after Billy's death. Meanwhile, Billy's words are also a message to Vere himself, showing the captain that Billy does not resent him for the way everything turned out. 

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Billy Budd Character Timeline in Billy Budd

The timeline below shows where the character Billy Budd appears in Billy Budd. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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The narrator says that this kind of handsome sailor was precisely what Billy Budd, also known as "Baby" Budd, was. Billy was a 21-year-old sailor, who joined the... (full context)
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The sailors of the Rights-of-Man view Billy with "silent reproach" as he prepares to leave their ship. The narrator describes the ship's... (full context)
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...that he is taking away his best man. His crew was full of quarrels until Billy came. Billy's virtue improved those around him, who became fond of him, except for one... (full context)
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...to know that Captain Graveling was offering up his best man to a naval ship. Billy Budd emerges from his cabin with a box of things and the lieutenant tells him... (full context)
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As he's leaving the boat, Billy says farewell to his old ship and shipmates. This irritates Ratcliffe, who thinks it's a... (full context)
Chapter 2
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The narrator describes how Billy looked even younger than his age, with an almost feminine face. His transition from a... (full context)
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The narrator compares Billy to classical Greek sculpture, though he notes there was another quality in his appearance. An... (full context)
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The narrator continues to describe Billy, who was intelligent but illiterate. Not at all self-conscious, he was an "upright barbarian," like... (full context)
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According to the narrator, Billy had "masculine beauty" but did have one flaw, just like "the beautiful woman in one... (full context)
Chapter 9
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Aboard the Indomitable, Billy served in the foretop, with other young men managing the smaller top sails. This duty... (full context)
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But on the Indomitable, Billy repeatedly found himself in trouble involving minor infractions like stowing his bag incorrectly. Troubled by... (full context)
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When the Dansker had first seen Billy on the Indomitable, he had "a certain grim internal merriment," perhaps because the naïve Billy... (full context)
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Billy told the Dansker about his troubles with minor infractions and asked for advice. The Dansker... (full context)
Chapter 10
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One day, in the ship's mess hall, Billy spilled a bowl of soup onto the floor. Claggart was walking by and was going... (full context)
Chapter 11
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The narrator wonders what reason Claggart could have had for being down on the innocent Billy Budd. The narrator admits it would be easy to invent some incident involving the two... (full context)
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In attempting to explain Claggart's dislike of Billy, the narrator notes that life at sea necessarily puts very different personalities in close contact:... (full context)
Chapter 13
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The narrator repeats that Claggart was very handsome except for his chin. Billy, though, was much more good looking. The narrator guesses that this may be the reason... (full context)
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...than mere jealousy of good looks, though. According to the narrator, he was envious of Billy's upstanding moral character and innocence. The narrator says that Claggart could hide the evil within... (full context)
Chapter 14
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...does not always arise from great circumstances, but can be provoked by trivial things, like Billy's spilled soup. The narrator thinks that Claggart must have interpreted the soup as a deliberate... (full context)
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Claggart had been ordering Squeak to carry out small pranks on Billy and Squeak, guessing that Claggart didn't like Billy for some reason, had been making up... (full context)
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The narrator guesses that Claggart's persecution of Billy was originally intended as a way of making a trial of his innocent character, to... (full context)
Chapter 15
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Not many days after the soup incident, the narrator says that something worse happened to Billy. He was sleeping in the upper deck one night and was awakened by someone, who... (full context)
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Billy went to meet the man, whom he did not recognize in the dark. The man... (full context)
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Billy refused the coins and told the stranger to go back to his post, or else... (full context)
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Another awakened sailor nicknamed Red Pepper doubted Billy's story and said he'd like to punish Billy and whomever he was talking to. However,... (full context)
Chapter 16
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Billy was confused by this nighttime incident, which made him uneasy. The next day, he saw... (full context)
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Billy knew that he should report the after-guardsman, but also feared being a tattletale. One night... (full context)
Chapter 17
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Billy Budd was reluctant to believe that Claggart disliked him. The narrator characterizes Billy as naïve,... (full context)
Chapter 18
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Billy continued to notice Claggart smiling at him and acting nicely toward him. However, there were... (full context)
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...ship's armorer and captain of the hold, both messmates of Claggart, also habitually looked at Billy with critical glances, but Billy did not think this was suspicious and his handsomeness and... (full context)
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The after-guardsman who had approached Billy in the night behaved kindly toward Billy whenever the two saw each other. The narrator... (full context)
Chapter 19
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For some time after the night when Billy was awakened by the after-guardsman, nothing important happened. The narrator describes the Indomitable, which—on account... (full context)
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...He asked Claggart to identify the suspected sailor, and Claggart told him that it was Billy Budd. (full context)
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Citing Billy's handsomeness and general popularity on the ship, Captain Vere was incredulous, but Claggart told him... (full context)
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...to try to settle the matter in private, the captain sent a sailor to tell Billy he was wanted in the captain's cabin and ordered Claggart to enter the cabin when... (full context)
Chapter 20
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Billy was surprised to be summoned to the captain's cabin, but had no idea that he... (full context)
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Billy went pale at hearing the accusation and was so shocked he couldn't speak. Captain Vere... (full context)
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Captain Vere had known a young schoolmate who suffered from a speech impediment similar to Billy's, so he recognized Billy's inability to speak as mere nervousness, rather than a sign of... (full context)
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Captain Vere was stunned, and his former fatherly demeanor toward Billy was "replaced by the military disciplinarian." He ordered Billy to go to another room and... (full context)
Chapter 21
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...a trial immediately. The surgeon, for example, thought that it would be better to confine Billy Budd onboard and wait for the navy's admiral to pass judgment on him. He even... (full context)
Chapter 22
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...of the event (right after numerous mutinies in the navy) and notes how Claggart and Billy have reversed their roles: the innocent victim Billy is now the perpetrator of a crime,... (full context)
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...right and wrong, but had to follow the law. Vere feared that if word of Billy's deed reached the crew, it might stir up dissent and possibly lead to mutiny. Thus,... (full context)
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...captain of marines, and the sailing master to serve in the drumhead court. He had Billy brought in and Captain Vere himself served as the trial's only witness. Captain Vere gave... (full context)
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Billy then spoke. He said that Captain Vere had spoken the truth, that he had not... (full context)
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The court then asked Billy if he knew of any possible mutiny developing onboard the Indomitable. Billy paused and debated... (full context)
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Billy was then asked why Claggart maliciously lied against him. Billy responded that he had no... (full context)
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Captain Vere then said that the court should only consider Billy's deed itself, and that the killing of Claggart demanded an equal punishment—death. Since Claggart was... (full context)
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The first lieutenant asked if Billy had anything more to say for himself. He didn't. Billy was taken out of the... (full context)
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Vere summarized their predicament as follows: Billy killed the ship's master-at-arms and deserved the punishment of death. But, at the same time,... (full context)
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...they had two options: "condemn or let go." A lieutenant asked if they could convict Billy but not punish him, but Captain Vere said that if they did not hold to... (full context)
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...court to reach a decision than it is for a reader to pass judgment now. Billy Budd was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. (full context)
Chapter 23
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Captain Vere had the task of informing Billy of his sentence. He went to the room where Billy was being held and the... (full context)
Chapter 24
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The narrator says that about an hour and a half passed between when Claggart and Billy first entered Captain Vere's cabin and when Captain Vere informed Billy of his sentence. In... (full context)
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...Claggart was given a proper burial at sea. Captain Vere had no further contact with Billy after informing him of his sentence, and those guarding Billy were told to let no... (full context)
Chapter 25
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The narrator describes Billy being kept watch over in an upper gun deck, lying between two guns. The narrator... (full context)
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The ship's chaplain approached Billy, but felt that he could not say anything to him, because Billy looked so peaceful.... (full context)
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The chaplain attempted to convey to Billy some idea of death and of salvation. Billy listened politely, but did not take a... (full context)
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...narrator says that it was out of the chaplain's power to do anything to stop Billy's death, even as he saw Billy's great innocence. To try to do something would be... (full context)
Chapter 26
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At four in the morning, the crew was called to deck to witness Billy's execution. The chaplain was with Billy in his final moments, but the narrator notes that... (full context)
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Billy was hanged, and at that precise moment the sun illuminated the fog hanging over the... (full context)
Chapter 27
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A few days after Billy's death, the ship's purser and the surgeon discussed the event in the mess hall. The... (full context)
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The purser continues to debate the issue with the surgeon, emphasizing the extraordinariness of Billy's stillness. The surgeon refuses to see the event as phenomenal, as the purser would have... (full context)
Chapter 28
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The narrator returns to the moment of Billy's death. Right after his execution, a strange murmur started to grow among the crew, until... (full context)
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Billy was then given a burial, and the narrator describes another strange murmur arising at the... (full context)
Chapter 31
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The sailors remembered Billy fondly and memorialized him in a song that became a sailors' ballad. The narrator gives... (full context)