Billy Budd Chapters 30-31 Summary and Analysis
by Herman Melville

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Chapters 30-31 Summary and Analysis

An account of Billy’s execution appears a few weeks later in an official naval publication, but the report is full of misinformation and distortion, due, in part, to the factors of rumor and distance.

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Under the heading, “News from the Mediterranean,” the report reads, in part, as follows:

“…a deplorable occurrence took place on board H.M.S. Indomitable…the ship’s master-at-arms, discovering…some sort of plot…and that the ringleader was one William Budd…in the act of arraigning the man before the Captain was vindictively stabbed to the heart by…Budd.

The deed…suggest(s) that…the assassin was no Englishman…
…the victim (was) a middle-aged man, respectable and discreet…

The criminal paid the penalty of his crime…

Nothing amiss is now apprehended aboard the H.M.S. Indomitable.”

This official version of the incident gravely distorts the characters of Claggart and Billy Budd. There is a quite different story making the rounds among the common sailors. For them, the events of Billy’s life and death have become legendary. As with many legends, the tale becomes embellished, and Billy comes to be regarded as a sort of holy saint. In fact, chips off the spar from which Billy was hanged are regarded as holy relics, in much the same way as chips of wood from Jesus’ Cross are so regarded.

Although most of the ordinary seamen who were not immediately present or involved in the tragic events related here remain ignorant of the full facts of the case, they believe in Billy’s essential goodness. They remember “the fresh young image of the Handsome Sailor,” an image now imbued with mystery and sanctity. In death, Billy is glorified.

No doubt the strange and mysterious circumstance of his ascending body at his death greatly influence the embellishment of the stories that are making the rounds.

There is an acquaintance of Billy’s, another foretopman from Billy’s own watch, who happens to have some talent for writing poetic verses. In order to honor and celebrate the life of his heroic friend, he composes some appropriate lines to immortalize Billy’s tragedy . The poem makes the rounds, and it is eventually printed as a ballad. It...

(The entire section is 561 words.)