Billy Budd

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John Claggart Character Analysis

The antagonist of the novella and the Indomitable's master-at-arms, Claggart is a deceptively wicked character. He has an attractive appearance (except for a protruding chin) and is able to fit in with society at most times, which hides his inner anger and sinister nature. For reasons unknown, he develops a hatred of Billy and harasses him onboard. He falsely accuses Billy of plotting mutiny against Captain Vere and is accidentally killed by Billy in the ensuing meeting between Vere, Billy and him.

John Claggart Quotes in Billy Budd

The Billy Budd quotes below are all either spoken by John Claggart or refer to John Claggart. 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 8 Quotes

His brow was of the sort phrenologically associated with more than average intellect; silken jet curls partly clustering over it, making a foil to the pallor below, a pallor tinged with a faint shade of amber akin to the hue of time-tinted marbles of old. This complexion, singularly contrasting with the red or deeply bronzed visages of the sailors, and in part the result of his official seclusion from the sunlight, though it was not exactly displeasing, nevertheless seemed to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood.

Related Characters: John Claggart
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has introduced John Claggart, a the "master-at-arms" on the Indomitable. Advances in weapons technology have made John's role on the ship somewhat redundant, and he is thus now charged with simply maintaining order on deck. In this passage, the narrator describes Claggart's physical appearance, noting the correspondence between Claggart's looks and his inner personality. The narrator makes use of phrenology, a branch of pseudoscience popular in the 19th century that held that the size and shape of a person's head reflected details about their intelligence, abilities, and temperament. (Phrenology has since been refuted as scientifically meaningless as well as racist.) Here, the narrator claims that Claggart's brow indicates that he is more intelligent than the average person. 

Claggart is also unusual in another way; whereas most sailors have a "red or deeply bronzed" face as a result of spending their time outside in the sun, Claggart is pale. The narrator notes that this gives the impression that Claggart is unwell or "abnormal in the constitution and blood." This description creates a somewhat contradictory impression of Claggart; he seems at once unusually intelligent and also sickly, a fact that hints at his defective moral character. As in the rest of the novel, the narrator seems committed to the idea that a person's outward appearance reflects their internal personality, even when their looks provide contrasting clues about what's inside. 

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But the less credence was to be given to the gun-deck talk touching Claggart, seeing that no man holding his office in a man-of-war can ever hope to be popular with the crew.

Related Characters: John Claggart
Page Number: 316
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has mentioned a rumor that some men are recruited to join ships directly from jail, and added that some people say this is true of John Claggart. However, the narrator dismisses this as unfounded conjecture that probably originated because the nature of Claggart's position inherently makes him unpopular with the crew. This statement raises sympathy for Claggart, as it suggests that nothing he could do would make the sailors he supervises like him. At the same time, it indicates the fundamental problem of the hierarchical structure of authority aboard the ship. In one sense, it is possible to view the ship as a microcosm of society as a whole, with struggles between different ranks reflecting tensions between the ruling and working classes of the general population. 

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 11 Quotes

Now something such an one was Claggart, in whom was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living but born with him and innate, in short "a depravity according to nature."

Related Characters: John Claggart
Page Number: 326
Explanation and Analysis:

Following the incident in which Claggart sarcastically insults Billy for spilling his soup, the narrator ponders the reason why Claggart dislikes Billy. The narrator has observed that Claggart perhaps envies Billy's good looks and kindly disposition, and in this passage contrasts Billy's goodness with Claggart's "evil nature."The narrator emphasizes that Claggart did not become evil as a result of "vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living," but was simply born that way. This coheres with the theme that people conform to certain types––such as noble heroes and evil villains––and that these types are so naturally embedded within a person that they can be detected through that person's physical appearance. Note how this contrasts to the social determinist view of humanity, which posits that people's personalities are the result of their experiences. And while the narrator here seems to support this view that one's "nature" is inborn, elsewhere Melville undercuts its validity.

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. 

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John Claggart Character Timeline in Billy Budd

The timeline below shows where the character John Claggart appears in Billy Budd. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 8
The Present vs. the Past Theme Icon
The narrator describes one of the petty officers of the Indomitable, named John Claggart, who was the master-at-arms. This position was originally for the purpose of instructing those onboard... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Claggart was 35 years old, tall, and reminiscent of figures from ancient Greek coins—except for his... (full context)
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
Claggart's origins are uncertain, which prompts the narrator to describe some of the ways the navy... (full context)
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
There are rumors that Claggart came to the navy through one of these disreputable means, but the narrator assures the... (full context)
Chapter 9
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
...and asked for advice. The Dansker replied by saying that "Jimmy Legs" (a nickname for Claggart) was "down on" Billy. Billy was confused, because he thought Claggart liked him, but the... (full context)
Chapter 10
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
...day, in the ship's mess hall, Billy spilled a bowl of soup onto the floor. Claggart was walking by and was going to let someone else handle the issue, but saw... (full context)
Chapter 11
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
The narrator wonders what reason Claggart could have had for being down on the innocent Billy Budd. The narrator admits it... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
In attempting to explain Claggart's dislike of Billy, the narrator notes that life at sea necessarily puts very different personalities... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
The narrator tells the reader that Claggart exemplifies the most dangerous kind of madman: he is not always mad and so can... (full context)
Chapter 12 (not in all editions)
Justice Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
...morality and human evil. He justifies this digression by saying that it was necessary because Claggart's mysterious, evil nature is central to the story. (full context)
Chapter 13
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
The narrator repeats that Claggart was very handsome except for his chin. Billy, though, was much more good looking. The... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Claggart's envy was deeper than mere jealousy of good looks, though. According to the narrator, he... (full context)
Chapter 14
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
...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 affront to him, because of what Squeak... (full context)
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
Claggart had been ordering Squeak to carry out small pranks on Billy and Squeak, guessing that... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
The narrator guesses that Claggart's persecution of Billy was originally intended as a way of making a trial of his... (full context)
Chapter 16
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
...as proof that "Jimmy Legs" was "down on" Billy. Billy was confused and asked what Claggart had to do with it. (full context)
Chapter 17
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Billy Budd was reluctant to believe that Claggart disliked him. The narrator characterizes Billy as naïve, but not unintelligent. He simply lacked experience,... (full context)
Chapter 18
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Billy continued to notice Claggart smiling at him and acting nicely toward him. However, there were other indications that Claggart... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
The 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... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
...what was going on. Such questioning, though, was out of line with Billy's nature. Meanwhile, Claggart's hatred for Billy was growing, such that "something must come of it." (full context)
Chapter 19
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Shortly after this pursuit, Claggart paid a visit to Captain Vere. It was unusual for someone to approach the captain... (full context)
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
Claggart began speaking to the captain as if he didn't want to be the bearer of... (full context)
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Claggart told Captain Vere that he had been suspicious of this sailor for a while, but... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
Captain Vere considered his options for responding to a possible mutiny, but also regarded Claggart's claims with some suspicion. Something in the manner of Claggart's speech reminded him of a... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
Citing Billy's handsomeness and general popularity on the ship, Captain Vere was incredulous, but Claggart told him that Billy's nice appearance and demeanor hid a more sinister nature. The narrator... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
Captain Vere was inclined to disbelieve Claggart and angrily asked if he had any proof for "so foggy a tale." Claggart "alleged... (full context)
Chapter 20
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
...him to the position of his coxswain. When he arrives and he, Captain Vere, and Claggart were alone in the cabin, though, Claggart repeated his accusation against Billy. (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
...tried to say something but still couldn't, and suddenly "his right arm shot out," hitting Claggart, who fell to the floor. (full context)
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
...another sailor to bring the ship's surgeon to his cabin. The surgeon arrived and pronounced Claggart to be dead. (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
Captain Vere was overcome with emotion and cried out that Claggart was "struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!" The captain... (full context)
Chapter 22
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
...horrible timing 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... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
...the trial's only witness. Captain Vere gave his testimony, describing exactly what had happened with Claggart and Billy. The three members of the court were shocked to hear that Billy had... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
...said that Captain Vere had spoken the truth, that he had not meant to kill Claggart, and that he had no malice toward Claggart. However, he said that Claggart had lied:... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
Billy was then asked why Claggart maliciously lied against him. Billy responded that he had no idea, and his confusion may... (full context)
Justice Theme Icon
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
...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 dead, Captain Vere said that his motivations would... (full context)
Chapter 24
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
Captain Vere told the crew what had happened, and then Claggart was given a proper burial at sea. Captain Vere had no further contact with Billy... (full context)