Chapters 26-27 Summary and Analysis
The Purser: he discusses the “singularity” of Billy’s death with the surgeon
At four in the morning, whistles blow to summon all hands to the deck to witness Billy’s punishment. They come pouring onto the deck, quickly filling up all the spaces. Even the boats and booms are filled with crewmen, the topmen line the “sea balcony,” and the marines fill the quarter deck. Captain Vere faces forward from the break of the poop deck.
At that time in the navy, executions were usually held from the fore yard. However, Billy’s execution takes place on the main deck.
Billy is brought up to the main deck, with the chaplain attending him. The chaplain’s manner toward Billy conveys the “genuine Gospel,” rather than any sermonizing words.
Final preparations are made. The rope around his neck, Billy astounds everyone by blessing Captain Vere. He speaks clearly without stammering, saying “God bless Captain Vere.” These words have a “phenomenal effect.” Billy’s “rare personal beauty” appears “spiritualized now…” In unison, and without apparent volition, the crewmen respond, “God bless Captain Vere.”
As these words are said, Captain Vere stands rigidly erect, demonstrating stoical self-control.
The signal to complete the execution is given just as the ship is recovering from a periodic roll to leeward. At the same time, a vapory cloud hangs low in the eastern sky, “shot through” by the sun’s rays, “like the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision.” In that setting, Billy is yanked up by the halter.
It has been scientifically established that a muscular spasm is “more or less invariable” at the point of complete bodily suspension. However, to the wonder of all, Billy’s ascending body, with “the full rose of dawn,” hangs motionless.
At the moment of execution there is utter silence. All that can be heard is the sound of the sea awash against the ship. The silence is gradually displaced by a strange, remote murmur. A command is given to “Pipe down the starboard watch…” The boatswain and his mates blow their whistles, piercing “that ominous low sound.” The sailors soon disband.
In a digression, Melville recounts the attempt by the purser and the surgeon to understand the strange phenomenon of the motionlessness of Billy’s hanging body. They are unable to account for this extraordinary occurrence.
Melville uses a biblical reference as a simile : the coming of dawn is “like the prophet in the chariot...
(The entire section is 625 words.)