Study Guide

Billy Budd Chapter 24

By Herman Melville

Chapter 24

  • We get an elaborate description of Billy in his chains and his white smudged outfit, "like a patch of discolored snow," standing among the black guns on the upper gun deck (24.2).
  • Billy is captured in the lantern-light, already wearing his funeral shroud, whether he realizes it or not.
  • Though he has not gone pale ["through the rose-tan of his complexion no pallor could have shown" (24.3)], Billy's cheek bone seems to be jutting out a bit harshly as if his flesh has just begun to thin.
  • Billy's agony was all derived from his encounter with a truly evil man, and that is over now. He looks peaceful, "now and then in the gyved one's trance a serene happy light born of some wandering reminiscence or dream would diffuse over his face, and then wane away only anew to return" (24.4).
  • The chaplain comes to see him, but seeing his expression thinks that there is nothing he can do for a man that already looks so content.
  • The narrator thinks that, though Billy's understanding of death is not as simple as a child's, the way he thinks of it is somewhat similar. He has no irrational fear of it, being much more like the barbarians than the supposedly civilized men who tremble at the idea of death.
  • The narrator recalls the first time that the early British barbarians who were taken to Rome to see the Pope and who the Pope greatly admired for their angelic complexion.
  • The chaplain vainly tries to impress some idea of death on Billy, and he listens without awe or reverence, only out of a sort of natural politeness. The sailor's way of listening to Christian discourse is not so different, the narrator thinks, from the way the savages listened to it when the Christian missionaries (or invaders, take your pick) first preached it to them.
  • The chaplain's preaching, "was like a gift placed in the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fingers do not close" (24.7).
  • The chaplain, as he is getting up to go, stoops and kisses Billy on the cheek. It is hugely unconventional, but he can't help but admire "one whom though on the confines of death he felt he could never convert to a dogma; nor for all that did he fear for his future" (24.8).
  • Why doesn't the chaplain protest on Billy's behalf? In short, because it would be utterly futile. In reality, a chaplain is just doing his duty on a military ship and is as out of place "as a musket would be on the altar at Christmas" (24.9).
  • Then why is he there? Because, oddly enough, his presence seems to give religious sanction to the firing of the cannons, despite the fact that war goes exactly contrary to what he preaches.