Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
The narrator once heard a friend expound upon the mysteries of "knowing" someone. He believed that no one can ever really know another person, for knowing the world is not the same as knowing human nature, which is always mysterious and obscure.
There is no justifiable reason for Claggart's strong dislike of Billy; it is just one of those mysteries of human nature. They are, of course, entirely different sorts of people, and Billy's goodness and innocence must irritate Claggart; but Claggart's feelings seem to run deeper than a mild irritation.
Deep and passionate envy is suggested. After all, Claggart is a small man with a pallid face and a weak chin, while Billy's whole being is heroic. The young sailor's personal beauty may deeply offend Claggart. Since Claggart is judged as mysterious and a bit evil, perhaps the master-at-arms finds Billy's purity repugnant. No matter the reason, it is obvious to Dansker and to the reader that Claggart feels great envy and antipathy for Billy. Claggart himself despises the fact that he cannot get Billy to outwardly acknowledge the hatred he shows toward him. He is pleased that one of his own underlings, who goes by the name of "Squeak," undertakes to pull little tricks on Billy, hoping to get in good with Claggart.
Whereas the first ten chapters of the book give mostly introductory Background Information, the plot now begins to advance. Since it is Claggart who drives the story forward, Melville analyzes him in these chapters, especially his inner nature, in an attempt to understand what makes him tick. It is strongly hinted that Claggart is trying to entrap Billy, and because of his naiveté, Billy is easy prey.
Melville begins the eleventh chapter by asking a series of questions about Claggart. By suggesting and then dismissing a series of possible connections between Billy and Claggart, Melville prepares the reader for the idea that Natural Depravity may be the only reasonable explanation for Claggart's behavior. When the narrator goes on to explain that Claggart feels both antipathy and envy towards Billy, for no valid reason, it does seem that Claggart is naturally depraved.
Since no direct explanation of Claggart's obsession is given, some twentieth century critics read the novel as a story of homosexual passion, of Claggart's desire to have a relationship with Billy and his frustration at not being able to do so. Since he can't "have" Billy, he must destroy him. The passionate level that Melville uses to describe Claggart's feelings for Billy helps to support such an interpretation. Failed love could be Claggart's motivation for his hatred of Billy.
It is important to notice the contrasts that Melville develops in these chapters. Claggart's cunning is contrasted with Billy's innocence and honesty; Claggart's pallor and small size are contrasted with Billy's handsome body and good looks. Claggart's evil ways are contrasted to Billy's purity. These contrasts are not the first ones employed by Melville in the book. The entire novel is structured around a series of contrasts. The African Handsome Sailor is contrasted to Billy Budd. Dansker's age and wisdom are contrasted to Billy's youth and naiveté. The Rights of Man is contrasted to the Indomitable. Melville contrasts the upper vs the lower decks and the land vs the sea. The contrasts add much to the description and meaning of the entire book.