Billy Budd Chapters 20-21 Summary and Analysis
by Herman Melville

Billy Budd book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Billy Budd Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Chapters 20-21 Summary and Analysis

New Character:
The Surgeon: he is summoned after Billy knocks down John Claggart, and it is he who pronounces Claggart dead. Later, he discusses the mysterious occurrence at Billy’s death

At first, Billy is surprised but not at all apprehensive. Claggart approaches Billy, “mesmerically looking him in the eye,” and repeats the accusation. Only slowly does Billy come to understand of what he is being accused, and he is transfixed. Vere urges him to “Speak, man…Speak! Defend yourself!” Horrified by the accusation, his stutter becomes intensified “into a convulsed tongue-tie.” Straining to obey Vere’s counsel to defend himself, Billy feels like he is suffocating.

Vere had not previously known about Billy’s impediment, but now he surmises the problem and attempts to soothe Billy. However, his words have the opposite effect, for Billy responds by straining even harder to please. In his frustration, his right arm shoots out at Claggart, who falls to the deck. Captain Vere’s manner changes from “the father in him” to “military disciplinarian.” He sends Billy to a stateroom and orders him to remain there, while he sends Albert to summon the surgeon.

The surgeon confirms that Claggart is dead. He is disconcerted by Vere’s appearance and is concerned for his mental stability.

Vere orders the surgeon to tell the lieutenants and the captain of the marines what has happened, and to instruct them to “keep the matter to themselves.” The surgeon is to inform them, too, that there is to be a drumhead court.

The surgeon complies, although he is troubled by the Captain’s decision. He feels it is “impolitic” to do so, and that a better course would be to wait until they could rejoin the squadron and refer the matter to the admiral.

Claggart’s appearance undergoes a startling change as he stands facing Billy with his accusations. His eyes turn from their normal blue to a muddy purple color, and the “lights of human intelligence” seem to go out. His face loses its human expression, and he takes on the appearance of an alien “uncatalogued creature of the deep.” Melville thus dehumanizes Claggart, and he suggests that he has become a monster.


(The entire section is 562 words.)