Billy Budd

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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

The moral nature was seldom out of keeping with the physical make. Indeed, except as toned by the former, the comeliness and power, always attractive in masculine conjunction, hardly could have drawn the sort of honest homage the Handsome Sailor in some examples received from his less gifted associates.

Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has begun to describe the world within which the story is set. It is the time before steamships, when a type of seaman the narrator calls the "Handsome Sailor" was adored by the men he worked with. The Handsome Sailor is admirable for his masculine "power" as well as his trustworthy, "honest" character. In this passage, the narrator introduces the idea that a person's outer appearance usually reflects their internal personality. As the rest of the novel will show, this is a notion that is both supported and contested by the story of Billy Budd. This passage stresses that while "comeliness and power" is respected within the world of the sailors, so is morality. As will become clear, these values can sometimes prove contradictory. 

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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." 

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 3 Quotes

To the British Empire the Nore Mutiny was what a strike in the fire brigade would be to London threatened by general arson.

Page Number: 303
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has mentioned the Nore Mutiny, one of several recent rebellions aboard ships of the British Empire. The narrator claims that the Nore Mutiny was more dangerous to the Empire than the French (their enemies in the present war), and in this passage compares the mutiny to what would happen if "a strike in the fire brigade" coincided with London falling victim to arson. This comparison highlights the way that mutinies make even the most powerful militaries extremely vulnerable, a fact that shows that the slightest threat of rebellion is dangerous to all in authority.

Yet the comparison also highlights another important connection; both strikes and mutinies take place because those resisting (in the case of these examples, firemen and sailors) wish to use their collective strength in order to achieve some level of power over their superiors. In both cases, this often happens when groups of workers are treated badly by those in authority, and thus subvert their "duty" with the aim of pursuing justice. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

Discontent foreran the two mutinies, and more or less it lurkingly survived them. Hence it was not unreasonable to apprehend some return of trouble sporadic or general.

Page Number: 308
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described the victory of Admiral Nelson in reverent terms, before returning to focus again on the Nore Mutiny. Although the mutineering sailors were defeated, the same discontent that existed before the mutiny continued after it ended. As a result, people remain on the lookout for "some return of trouble." The narrator's words here connect the Nore Mutiny to possible future events in the novel, and indeed, the world of the novel and actions of its characters are haunted by this possibility of mutiny from the beginning. The threat of mutiny causes everyone to regard each other with suspicion, and encourages ship captains to harshly punish anyone breaking the rules in order to dissuade others from instigating another rebellion. 

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. 

Such sanctioned irregularities...lend color to something for the truth whereof I do not vouch, and hence have some scruple in stating; something I remember having seen in print, though the book I cannot recall... In the case of a warship short of hands whose speedy sailing was imperative, the deficient quota, in lack of any other way of making it good, would be eked out by drafts culled directly from the jails.

Page Number: 315
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has introduced John Claggart and described his intelligent-seeming yet strangely pale appearance. The narrator notes that the way in which John joined the crew of the Indomitable is unknown, and in this passage mentions a rumor that some warships without enough sailors would recruit men "directly from the jails." The narrator's words emphasize the theme of storytelling, rumor, and the slippery nature of the truth. He says he remembers seeing this rumor "in print, though the book I cannot recall...". Such a statement highlights the unreliability of human memory and the ease with which false statements can be given the illusion of authority. After all, even if the narrator did see this story in a book, the author of the book could also have been lying about or misremembering the truth. Furthermore, this calls into the question the narrator's reliability, particularly as he claims (in other cases) to be presenting pure fact.

The rumor itself also increases the sinister impression of Claggart, while pointing to an important paradox in the way that society treats prisoners versus men serving in the military. Prisoners are people deemed harmful to society, whose crimes theoretically warrant them being locked up. Meanwhile, military men are supposed to represent upstanding, honorable citizens who possess the skills and temperament necessary to defend the country. However, if the rumor the narrator mentions is true, there are some contexts in which prisoners are thought capable of serving in the military, a fact that suggests that in both cases, men are simply used as "pawns" by leaders in order to increase the power of the Empire. 

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 17 Quotes

Every sailor, too, is accustomed to obey orders without debating them; his life afloat is externally ruled for him.

Page Number: 337
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described Billy's difficulty in understanding that Claggart disliked him. Although not stupid, Billy is nonetheless innocently naïve, and it is in fact this quality that makes him a good sailor. As the narrator explains in this passage, sailors must be "accustomed to obey[ing] orders without debating them," and thus Billy's trustful innocence is a useful quality, even while it makes him oblivious to the threat presented by Claggart.

Once again, the narrator has highlighted a troubling paradox when it comes to the life of sailors. Although Billy's ability to accept his life being "externally ruled for him" makes him an effective member of the overall community, it prevents him from seeking justice for himself and, arguably, those around him. He is unable to recognize Claggart's unfair treatment simply because Claggart is his superior. As a result, he suffers a loss of individual dignity. 

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

Feeling that unless quick action was taken on it, the deed of the foretopman, so soon as it should be known on the gun decks, would tend to awaken any slumbering embers of the Nore among the crew, a sense of the urgency of the case overruled in Captain Vere every other consideration.

Related Characters: Captain Vere
Page Number: 355
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has commented that it is difficult to assess whether or not Captain Vere acted fairly in summoning a drumhead court (a court assembled "in the field" of battle for urgent matters). While the doctor was concerned that Captain Vere was suffering from momentary madness, in this passage the narrator suggests that Vere's actions were necessary in order to prevent a mutiny like the one that took place aboard the Nore. In this passage, the narrator describes historical events as being akin to "slumbering embers" that can be awakened within the present, thus recreating the "fire" of the original event. Within this analogy, Vere takes on the role of a fireman, extinguishing the embers before they destroy his ship. This also recalls the earlier comparison of the Nore Mutiny to a fire brigade strike in the middle of an arson attack. 

For the time, did I not perceive in you—at the crisis too—a troubled hesitancy, proceeding, I doubt not, from the clash of military duty with moral scruple—scruple vitalized by compassion.

Related Characters: Captain Vere (speaker)
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

Billy's trial is taking place, and the drumhead court has heard the accusations against him as well as Billy's own testimony. Billy has confirmed that he killed Claggart by accident, but added that Claggart was lying when he claimed that Billy was planning a mutiny. When asked if he knows of any mutinies being planned, Billy hesitates, before lying and saying that that he doesn't. In this passage, Captain Vere explains that he noticed Billy hesitate, and suspects that he was deciding to act on "military duty" or "moral scruple." This is a correct assessment of Billy's behavior, proving Captain Vere's keen insight into human nature. The fact that Vere is so perceptive and yet is still overseeing Billy's wrongful condemnation makes Billy's fate even more tragic. 

Captain Vere's words also highlight that the dilemma Billy faced as an individual is representative of a larger problem within the military. If there is a "clash" between one's individual moral principles and one's duty as a sailor, does this not indicate that there is something immoral about aspects of serving in the military? As Billy's case makes clear, whatever action he took would constitute a betrayal, whether of himself, his peers, or Captain Vere. 

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. 

Marvel not that having been made acquainted with the young sailor's essential innocence...the worthy man lifted not a finger to avert the doom of such a martyr to martial discipline. So to do would not only have been as idle as invoking the desert, but would also have been an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function.

Related Characters: The Chaplain
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 373
Explanation and Analysis:

The ship's chaplain has come to visit Billy before his death, and has spoken to him briefly about death and the afterlife. Although Billy did not seem particularly interested, the chaplain reasons that this is due to Billy's profound innocence rather than any lack of religiosity. In this passage the narrator observes that, in spite of his affection for Billy and knowledge of Billy's innocence, the chaplain does not take action to try to avoid Billy's fate. The narrator reasons that such a choice would be impossible and would not alter the situation. 

The narrator's observations constitute a powerful and damning statement on the nature of morality, authority, and society. The chaplain is supposed to be the religious and moral centre of the ship, and yet is powerless to prevent the death of an innocent man. This highlights the force of the ship as a whole, and the helplessness of any one individual in the face of this might. Just like Captain Vere, the chaplain knows that Billy does not deserve to die; yet like Captain Vere, the chaplain places the larger community above his own moral reasoning, thereby sacrificing Billy's life. 

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. 

Chapter 29 Quotes

The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact. Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial.

Page Number: 380
Explanation and Analysis:

The story of Billy Budd has come to an end with Billy's execution and burial at sea. The narrator announces that it is impossible to achieve "the symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction" when relating stories from real life. He confesses that there is no neat conclusion to the narrative, and that "truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges." This passage is an example of metafiction, in which the novel draws attention to itself as a novel (although it does so through the narrator's insistence that the story of Billy Budd is true). By claiming that Billy's story has no clear conclusion, the narrator emphasizes the ambiguity and complexity of the tale.

Meanwhile, the narrator's words also clarify the realist nature of the novel. This is also somewhat paradoxical, as the story contains many mystical elements, as well as strong religious overtones and a reliance on character "types" (such as the handsome sailor) that are more suited to a genre such as a fable than a realist novel. Despite toying with these tropes, however, the narrator's emphatic statement that Billy's story is true suggests that the moral problems raised by the narrative are akin to those found in real life, and should be treated seriously as a result. 

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