Study Guide

Billy Budd Chapter 8

By Herman Melville

Chapter 8

  • Now, there's no need to concern ourselves with most of the crew since the story only focuses on a few particular characters.
  • But there is one guy worth worrying about and his name is John Claggart.
  • Claggart is the master-at-arms on the ship. Us landsmen, who don't know much about ship life, might think that title doesn't mean much because we associate it with simply teaching men basic sword play.
  • Yes, this was true at a time, but ever since guns have become more common on ships, there has been less hand-to-hand combat. The result being that the master-at-arms' duties have vastly increased, and Claggart functioned as a sort of chief of police on the ship.
  • Claggart's a big, good-looking guy with a broad, intelligent-looking forehead. Oddly enough, when the narrator describes how big his chin is, it reminds him of the chin of Dr. Titus Oates, who was part of the Popish plot against Charles II.
  • Of course, Claggart (like Billy) seems to come from too good of a background to be stuck sailing around a ship. The men gossip about him, some saying that perhaps he committed a crime and is paying his duty to the English king by being part of the navy.
  • The fact that Claggart doesn't share any information about his past whatsoever doesn't exactly help matters, and the gossip flourishes.
  • It's also supported by the fact that the English fleet needs men so badly that the police have the right to take any criminal and just plop him on board a ship.
  • Plus there were a bunch of lower-class bottom-feeders who realized that they could escape threat of punishment by joining a ship because "they were as much in sanctuary as the transgressor of the Middle Ages harboring himself under the shadow of the altar" (8.3).
  • The narrator has heard (though he can not absolutely verify that it is true) that, in some cases, when a ship's quota has not been filled, they simply pull men from the prisons.
  • Now, what makes practices like this so threatening right now is because it's not too long after the French Revolution ["the fallen Bastille" (8.3)], and so there's a revolutionary spirit in the air amongst the lower classes.
  • Of course, all of these rumors about Claggart come from the lowest ranks of men, and therefore are not to be trusted. Add to that that masters-of-arms are never popular guys on board a ship, and we quickly realize that – who knows? – maybe Claggart's a totally decent guy.
  • When he first came in, he was at the bottom of the ship hierarchy totem pole, but he quickly rose due to his intelligence, confidence, and general strength of spirit.
  • He now commands such devotion from his corporals, that it's "almost inconsistent with entire moral volition" (8.7).