Billy Budd Chapter 19 Summary and Analysis
by Herman Melville

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Chapter 19 Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Albert: Captain Vere’s hammock-boy who is sent to summon Billy Budd

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The Indomitable is occasionally detached from the squadron and used for special service. This is due to the esteem in which Captain Vere is held. He is known to possess the ability to adapt well to new situations, make quick decisions when necessary, and take charge under difficult circumstances.

During one such expedition, an enemy ship is sighted. It proves to be a warship. Although pursued by the Indomitable, the enemy flees and manages to escape.

During the return trip back to the fleet, the master-at-arms appears before Captain Vere. He stands waiting deferentially, hat in hand, waiting to be acknowledged by Vere. Vere has an inexplicable distaste for him. When he realizes who is standing before him, a “peculiar expression” comes upon Vere’s face.

Claggart tells Captain Vere that during the chase he became convinced that one of the sailors is a “dangerous character,” and that “something clandestine” is going on, “prompted by the sailor in question.”

Captain Vere is not “unduly disturbed” by Claggart’s accusation. He mistrusts Claggart. Vere demands that Claggart name the “dangerous man,” and he is astonished when “William Budd” is named. Vere warns Claggart not to perjure himself, but he sticks to his story.

Vere prefers to avoid the undesirable effect of a full inquiry. He decides to have Claggart confront Billy in his presence. Vere directs Albert, his hammock-boy, to bring Billy to him.

Melville repeats his comparison between Vere and Lord Horatio Nelson. Like Nelson in an earlier chapter, Captain Vere is often called upon for “any duty where…a prompt initiative might have to be taken” requiring his special abilities beyond “those qualities implied in good seamanship.” Melville thus announces to the reader that such an event is about to occur.

Vere is not taken in by John Claggart, and he is skeptical about the latter’s accusation. Nevertheless, his duty is to investigate the charges.

Claggart imputes to Billy Budd the very abominable traits which he himself possesses: he claims that Billy “insinuates himself into the goodwill of his shipmates.”