Billy Budd

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Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
The Present vs. the Past Theme Icon
Storytelling, Rumor, and Truth Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Billy Budd, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Theme Icon

Within the naval world of the story, almost nothing is more important than the camaraderie among sailors on the same ship and their loyalty to their captain. The close bonds between fellow sailors can be seen in the example of the handsome sailor that the narrator describes early in the story (surrounded by his proud, admiring comrades), as well as the reluctance with which the captain of the Rights-of-Man lets Billy go. In addition to this camaraderie between sailors, each individual sailor also has a duty to the ship's captain, which ultimately stands in for a duty to the king. Every sailor has his own individual duties, depending on where in the boat he serves, but all these individual duties are part of a larger sense of loyalty to one's ship and captain.

In this naval culture, though, the specter of mutiny looms large. The story of Billy Budd takes place just after a period of time when the British navy had experienced a high number of mutinies, including the large-scale Nore Mutiny. Captain Vere is so careful not to have any kind of disloyal mutiny happen on his ship that he doesn't even permit Claggart to name the Nore Mutiny when he is accusing Billy of plotting against the captain. From the captain's perspective, mutiny is almost contagious: even a mere mention of the idea risks spreading disloyalty among the loyal comrades of his ship.

The line between loyalty and disloyalty is not always so clear, though. Claggart's accusations against Billy and Billy's trial blur this distinction. The reader knows that Claggart is being disloyal, lying to the captain and spreading false rumors, but Claggart makes his accusations seem as if they are arising from his loyalty to Captain Vere. (And this is how he is remembered in the naval chronicle story about Billy and him.) Billy is loyal to Captain Vere, but his act of striking Claggart is in contradiction of his duty as a sailor. In pronouncing judgment on Billy, Captain Vere is also forced to make a difficult decision involving loyalty and duty. Condemning Billy to death is, in a sense, turning his back on his comrade, the innocent sailor of whom he is quite fond. However, it is his duty as captain to follow the law. Moreover, in case a prolonged trial might lead to any possibility of insurrection on the ship, he has to make a quick decision that will ensure the safe functioning of his vessel. Thus, while the concepts of duty and loyalty become somewhat confused in the story, in the end Captain Vere makes a decision that respects his ultimate duty—to his ship and to the king—by following the law and executing Billy. But in doing so, is he in some sense being disloyal to his comrade?

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Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Quotes in Billy Budd

Below you will find the important quotes in Billy Budd related to the theme of Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie.
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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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 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 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

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.