This chapter is the key to the main religious motif in the novel. Melville’s famed irony takes hold of the scene. In describing the prisoner early in the chapter, Melville again sounds a sarcastic note in an obvious attack on war, profiteering, and hypocrisy. The height of irony comes in Melville’s depiction of Billy, the peacemaker and epitome of innocence, lying between two guns amid an orderly arrangement of the paraphernalia necessary for firing them. Color symbolism heightens the scenario: Billy’s clothing is white; the equipment is tarry and black. But the day’s activities have soiled Billy’s uniform. A poignant simile likens his appearance to “discolored snow.”
Overhead, a symbolic light, supplied by burning oil from war-time profiteers, pollutes him further. In preparation for the chaplain’s arrival, Melville likens the physical layout to a confessional. Billy still exhibits his shipboard tan, but the outlines of his skeleton show through as evidence of the strain he is under. Following a brief agony, reminiscent of Christ’s suffering, Billy has made peace with the captain, a symbol of both father and deity. Billy, still the bud-man, the handsome infant, resembles a baby in a cradle. With this image, Melville merges two views of Christ — one as condemned man, the other as innocent babe in the manger.
It is significant that the confrontation between the chaplain, a representative of organized religion, and Billy Budd, the “upright barbarian” as Melville calls him, resembles the first meeting between the Tahitian savage of long ago and the first missionary. The scene is a confrontation and not a conference because Billy does not speak, but listens courteously. The chaplain, serving as an agent of Christ, the Prince of Peace, knows the doomed man’s innate guilelessness, yet does not dare protest against the machinery of war to save his life. The chaplain’s efforts are futile. Billy accepts his approaching death without fear. The chaplain, a “discreet man,” acknowledges Billy’s innocence as a better preparation for death than tedious theological doctrine. In this meeting between devout clergyman and untutored seaman, Melville stresses extreme irony. Why does this adherent of Christianity, a religion rife with joy in the afterlife, exhibit an irrational fear of death, which he believes will reunite him with his Savior?
harness of breeching and strong side-tackles the devices that anchor back and sides of cannons to prevent them from jolting out of position.
long rammers and shorter instocks tools for loading and firing cannons.
tampioned stoppered (when not in use).
the minister of Christ though receiving his stipend from Mars Melville is emphasizing a paradox: the chaplain’s service to a god of peace is salaried by the War Department.
living trophies . . . in the Roman triumph of Germanicus Ancient Romans during the time of Germanicus Caesar (15 B.C.–19 A.D.) celebrated wartime victory with a period of thanksgiving marked by a triumphal procession of captured weapons, horses, and human hostages, especially nobles and their children.
the Pope of that time Gregory the Great (c. 540–604).
Fra Angelico’s seraphs angels painted by Giovanni da Fiesole (1387–1455), known as “Fra Angelico,” or the angelic friar.
plucking apples in gardens of the Hesperides The Hesperides were nymphs of early Greek mythology who guarded a grove of trees bearing sacred golden apples.