Chapters 9-11 Summary and Analysis
Dansker: an old veteran aboard the Indomitable who befriends Billy Budd and who tries to warn Billy to look out for John Claggart
Billy is competent in his position as foretopman aboard the Indomitable.
When they are not busy working, Billy’s topmates form a kind of “aerial club.” They lounge around against the smaller sails where they relax, tell tales, and generally amuse themselves.
Billy is good-naturedly teased by his mates because he is conscientious about responding to calls to duty. His alertness to his obligations derives from having witnessed a formal gangway punishment. The culprit was whipped on his bare back and was deeply humiliated. Billy has resolved never to act in such a way as to merit such severe punishment. Nevertheless, he is astonished to find that occasionally he gets into some petty trouble. He cannot imagine, for example, how his hammock could be in such disarray that the result is a rebuke from one of the ship’s corporals.
Billy becomes acquainted with Dansker, an old veteran who had previously served with Nelson aboard the Agamemnon. Dansker’s nickname, “Board-her-in-the smoke,” was earned when he was part of a boarding party from the Agamemnon. Dansker was hit in the face by a shot, and he remains with a scar that resembles “a streak of dawn’s light falling” across his dark-complexioned countenance.
Dansker’s chief character trait is his “pithy, guarded cynicism.” At first he is amused by Billy’s incongruity aboard a naval warship. His initial amusement soon turns to affection and concern. Unlike the other junior members of the crew, Billy has always greeted Dansker with affectionate respect.
When Billy tells Dansker of his troubles, the latter warns him that “Jimmy Legs” (a derogatory name he is using to refer to the master-at-arms) is “down” on him. Billy is incredulous, for Claggart has always spoken kindly to him. Dansker tries to explain that it is precisely Claggart’s show of kindness that is a sure sign he is indeed “down” on Billy.
The next day, when the ship is rolling from the wind, Billy’s soup spills upon the newly scrubbed deck. Claggart happens to be passing at that moment. He appears to think nothing of it until he observes that it was Billy who had done the spilling. He is about to say something “hasty,” when he thinks better of it and says playfully to Billy, “Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome does.” Everyone present takes the remark as humorous, and they laugh “with counterfeited glee.” Billy is thus convinced that Dansker is wrong about Claggart being “down” on him.
But in fact, Claggart is indeed “down” on Billy Budd. This dislike is spontaneous and irrational. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the two personalities are wholly opposite: Billy is naturally wholesome and good, while Claggart appears to be naturally depraved.
Melville quotes Plato on “natural depravity,” and explains that a naturally depraved person would not appear so obviously, that such a person would eschew “vices and small sins,” and “partakes nothing of the sordid or sensational.” Rather, such a person would be very serious, logical, and at the same time harbor an insane antipathy toward some special object. Claggart fits this description.
In these chapters, the conflict between Good and Evil comes to the fore. Billy and John Claggart have parallel lives, yet totally divergent...
(The entire section is 859 words.)