Study Guide

The Chaplain in Billy Budd

By Herman Melville

The Chaplain

The chaplain appears late in the novel to give Billy his last rites before he is executed. He perceives that his preaching is "like a gift placed in the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fingers do not close" (24.7). In an odd way, though, the chaplain can't help but admire one whom "though on the confines of death he felt he could never convert to dogma; nor for all that did he fear for his future" (24.8). Before sending Billy out to be hanged, the chaplain bends down and kisses his head.

The narrator notes that the chaplain does not protest on Billy's behalf because it would be utterly futile onboard a military ship. Truth be told, the chaplain is as out of place "as a musket would be on the altar at Christmas" (24.9). Ironically, though, the chaplain's mere presence on a man-of-war appears to give sanction to the violence of the wars, despite the fact that such violence goes exactly contrary to what he preaches.

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