Summary of the Novella
Billy Budd typifies the Handsome Sailor in his demeanor of moral goodness and grace. A merchant seaman on the vessel the Rights-of-Man, he is removed from his ship by Lieutenant Ratcliffe and pressed into service on board a British naval ship, the Indomitable. (Several versions, including the Penguin Classics series, name the ship the Bellipotent instead of the Indomitable.)
There he becomes a popular hero among his new shipmates, universally well-liked and respected by all with the exception of the sinister master-at-arms, John Claggart. Billy even becomes a favorite of Captain Vere, the commander of the Indomitable.
Claggart wrongfully accuses Billy Budd of participating in a mutiny plot and demands that Billy answer to the charge. Billy is unable to defend himself verbally because of a stammer. In angry frustration Billy suddenly strikes out at Claggart, stabbing him to death.
It is Captain Vere’s sad duty to try Billy on the charges of murder and mutiny. Despite his love for Billy, Vere’s first obligation is to the preservation of law and order.
Billy Budd is convicted by a drumhead court and sentenced to death. All hands on board are summoned to watch the sentence carried out. As Billy is hanged, his last words are “God Bless Captain Vere.”
Despite the fact that officially Billy is found to be guilty, his shipmates remember him as a perfect example of moral goodness and innocence. His story becomes legend among sailors, even being immortalized in a ballad, “Billy in the Darbies.”
The Life and Work of Herman Melville
Herman Melville was born in New York in 1819. His forebears were well-to-do and socially prominent, but his immediate family suffered from financial instability. His once prosperous household fell upon hard times. In 1832 his father’s bankruptcy and death cut short his formal education and forced him to give up hopes for a suitable career. He tried several jobs to help out his family, including teaching school and clerking in a bank. In 1839, when all his attempts to restore his family’s fortune had failed, Melville went to sea on a British ship, the St. Lawrence, bound for Liverpool.
In 1841 he signed aboard the Achushnet, which was headed for the South Seas. The brutal conditions aboard that ship led Melville and a companion to desert in the Marquesas Islands, where, in 1842, he became the well-treated captive of the cannibalistic Typees. Later he was rescued, only to become involved in a mutiny before finally returning home to the United States on a naval vessel in 1844.
Although he had never before considered a career as a writer, his friends urged him to publish memoirs of his adventures. His early works were quite successful, but his later writings were neither commercial successes nor critically appreciated. His successful sea novels included Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Redburn (1848), and White Jacket (1850). In 1851, he wrote Moby-Dick, which most reviewers at the time criticized as incomprehensible.
After his story Pierre (1852) was similarly attacked, he began writing for magazines, and tried farming to make ends meet. He had married Elizabeth Shaw of Massachusetts in 1847, and he had a family to support. He tried his hand unsuccessfully at lecturing before finally taking a job as a customs inspector, a position he held for 20 years. He died on September 28, 1891, and lies buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York.
Herman Melville’s life spanned a good part of the nineteenth century, a time of growth, upheaval, and change in the United States. It was a period during which the United States began to take its place among the world powers. In addition to the remarkable expansion of industry, there were equally outstanding developments in the fields of science, politics, and philosophy. The great intellectuals and literary figures of the day included William James, Walt Whitman, and England’s Charles Darwin. Melville’s literary idol was the great novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom Melville shared an emerging symbolist style of writing.
The abolition of slavery and the rise of trade unionism provoked a major rethinking of moral and social ideas. Many Americans were concerned with relieving the worst aspects of urban poverty. Some were influenced by the social ideas of transcendental philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as well as by the ideology of Karl Marx, who championed the rights of workers. The compelling ideas of his day, which are reflected in the themes of Billy Budd, included naturalism, the “noble savage,” and idyllic innocence.
In his preface, Melville historically situates Billy Budd in the year 1797, the end of the eighteenth century, which has come to be called the “Age of Revolution.” The upheavals that took place then were the forerunners of the changes in Melville’s own time.
The eighteenth century saw the toppling of the old regimes throughout Europe. This heady atmosphere contributed to the Spithead and Nore mutinies in 1797, when ordinary seamen revolted against the British naval authorities to protest long-standing abuses. The mutinies greatly embarrassed Britain, and the ringleaders of the mutinies were swiftly and publicly executed. The need for swift justice in this context lies at the very heart of the crisis in Billy Budd.
Herman Melville often heard a family tale of how his older brother had presided over the court martial of an insubordinate sailor. It is very likely that Melville drew upon that tale, as well as upon his own experience with mutiny, for the development of Billy Budd.
In his later years, Melville was regarded as an avant-garde nonconformist, who was more widely known for having lived among cannibals than for his literary accomplishments. Neglected by the public, he died virtually forgotten.
At his death, Melville left a semi-final draft of Billy Budd. It remained unpublished until 1924, when there was a revival of interest in Melville’s work.
Today Herman Melville is regarded as one of the greatest of all American writers. He is revered for his contribution to the creation of a characteristically American style of symbolic fiction.
Master List of Characters
Albert—Captain Vere’s hammock-boy on the Indomitable.
The Armorer and the Captain of the Hold—minor officers on board the Indomitable.
Billy Budd—an example of a “Handsome Sailor,” a “jewel” pressed into service on the HMS Indomitable.
Captain Graveling—the skipper of the Rights-of-Man, who is reluctant to lose Billy to Lieutenant Ratcliffe.
Captain of the Marines, the First Lieutenant, and the Sailing Master—the three members of the drumhead court that tries Billy for murder and mutiny.
Captain Vere—the virtuous commander of the Indomitable, who looks upon Billy as a son.
Chaplain—he tries to minister to Billy after the court martial.
Dansker—an old sailor to whom Billy turns for advice.
Handsome Sailor—a traditional figure exemplifying a specific type, a man who possesses natural goodness.
John Claggart—master-at-arms of the Indomitable, a sort of chief of police on board ship. He has a bad reputation and an unexplainable dislike of Billy.
Purser—in a digression, he discusses with the surgeon the strange phenomenon that occurs at Billy’s death.
Lieutenant Ratcliffe—he takes Billy off the Rights-of-Man, and presses him into service on the Indomitable.
The Surgeon—the medical officer on the Indomitable who pronounces Claggart dead.
Estimated Reading Time
Billy Budd is a novella (a short novel). Reading time is approximately 20 pages an hour. The novella has 105 pages, so it can be finished within four to five hours.
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Billy Budd, Foretopman was written during Melville’s final years. He may have begun it after reading “The Mutiny on the Somers” in The American Magazine in June, 1888. Melville’s cousin Guert Gansevoort had been a lieutenant on the U.S. brig-of-war Somers in 1842 and had been a member of the military court that condemned a young seaman accused of mutiny. Melville may have wanted an opportunity to reinterpret the situation.
The manuscript was discovered after his death, and it was not published until 1924. Many critics have suggested that Billy Budd represents Melville’s most mature vision of the metaphysical questions that troubled him throughout his life. They suggest that in this novella Melville came as close as he could to reconciling the confrontation between free will and authority.
William Budd is a young, handsome sailor aboard the Rights-of-Man who is impressed into service aboard H.M.S. Indomitable in 1797. Although the ironically named ships comment on the tyranny of such an act, Budd accepts his enforced change of ships with good spirits. Indeed, Budd is a character of remarkable innocence. Neither stupid nor weak, he nevertheless is untouched by the knowledge of evil. He is an image of man before the Fall, marred only by his tragic flaw, a tendency to lose the capacity to speak during times of emotional stress.
The captain of Budd’s new ship,...
(The entire section is 589 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In 1797, the British merchant ship Rights-of-Man, named after the famous reply of Thomas Paine to Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution, is close to home after a long voyage. As it nears England, the merchant vessel is stopped by a man-of-war, HMS Indomitable, and an officer from the warship goes aboard the Rights-of-Man to impress sailors for military service. This practice is necessary at the time to provide men to work the large number of ships that Britain has at sea for protection against the French.
The captain of the Rights-of-Man is relieved to have only one sailor taken from his ship, but he is unhappy because the man is his best sailor, Billy Budd. Billy is...
(The entire section is 1090 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
The Handsome Sailor: a prototype of the morally good man, whose inner goodness is manifested by recognizable grace and charm
Billy Budd: a young seaman, an example of a Handsome Sailor
Lieutenant Radcliffe: boarding officer from the naval ship the Indomitable
Captain Graveling: shipmaster of the merchant vessel Rights-of-Man
Melville describes the Handsome Sailor, a superior figure with both moral and physical strength and beauty. He digresses to describe an encounter with a common seaman who typifies the Handsome Sailor. This seaman is an African, who is clearly the leader and the center of attention as he...
(The entire section is 791 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
Billy very soon becomes a celebrity, as well as a favorite, among the men aboard the Indomitable.
Billy Budd is a very young man, and he looks even younger than his years. His extremely youthful appearance is due largely to his facial aspect, which Melville describes as that of “a lingering adolescent.” It is Billy’s naiveté which is apparent in his face. Billy also possesses a complexion so soft that it is “all but feminine in (its natural) purity….”
After Billy is taken aboard the Indomitable, he adapts extremely well to life aboard ship, and he is liked by the crew. His striking good looks have a favorable effect upon the common sailors as well...
(The entire section is 497 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
At the time of Billy Budd’s impressment, the Indomitable is on her way to join the Mediterranean fleet. The meeting with the fleet is accomplished shortly afterward.
Melville provides the historical context for Billy’s impressment. This occurred in the same year, 1797, as did the mutinies at Spithead and Nore. The latter insurrection came to be called the “Great Mutiny,” and it has gone down in British naval history as an event of dire threat to England.
After the Spithead mutiny was put down, some of the seamen’s minor grievances were redressed, but these were not rectified sufficiently to prevent the later uprising at the Nore.
(The entire section is 348 words.)
Chapters 4-5 Summary and Analysis
Lord Horatio Nelson: A great naval hero, immortalized by the poet Alfred Tennyson as “the greatest sailor since the world began”
Digressing in Chapter 4, Melville speaks about the invention of gunpowder and the revolution in warfare this development has brought about. He regrets the fact that firearms make possible the ability to kill at a distance. Melville regards this distancing as a cowardly way to fight. Previously, warfare at sea had been largely “crossing steel with steel.”
Nevertheless, despite the use of firearms, there is one Great Sailor, Lord Nelson, who still exhibits the traits of bravery and poise in battle. Melville praises Nelson for...
(The entire section is 518 words.)
Chapters 6-8 Summary and Analysis
Captain Edward Fairfax Vere: the virtuous commander of the
John Claggart: master-at-arms on board the Indomitable, who has a mysterious and disreputable past
The casual observer of the crew and the activity on board the Indomitable will find little evidence of the discontent and the mutinies spoken of in previous chapters. The commissioned officers behave with equanimity toward the crew. In this they take their cue from their superior officer, Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere.
Captain Vere is a “sailor of distinction,” as well as a man of nobility. He is a conscientious...
(The entire section is 568 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 859 words.)
Chapters 12-14 Summary and Analysis
Squeak: one of Claggart’s “more cunning corporals,” a spy and henchman for Claggart
At the beginning of this chapter, Melville digresses a bit to note that there are certain criminal cases which seem to baffle the courts. The juries hear various legal and medical experts who disagree with one another, and the courts are thwarted in their search for separating falsity from truth. Melville suggests, “Why not subpoena as well the clerical proficients?” He argues that the clerics come into contact with human beings during their most unguarded moments, and that they, rather than the medical or legal professionals, are more likely to truly know...
(The entire section is 637 words.)
Chapters 15-18 Summary and Analysis
The Afterguardsman: a mysterious figure who tries to inveigle Billy into participating in a mutinous intrigue
Red Pepper: a forecastleman who asks Billy about the commotion in the forechains
The Armorer and the Captain of the Hold: two minor officers who begin to take note of Billy
A few days after the spilled soup incident, an even more troubling event occurs.
Billy is awakened from sleep by a touch and a “quick whisper,” by a shadowed person whom Billy cannot discern. He is instructed to go to the sheltered forechains, for “there is something in the wind.” Loath to say “no” to anyone, Billy does as he is told.
(The entire section is 856 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary and Analysis
Albert: Captain Vere’s hammock-boy who is sent to summon Billy Budd
The Indomitable is occasionally detached from the squadron and used for special service. This is due to the esteem in which Captain Vere is held. He is known to possess the ability to adapt well to new situations, make quick decisions when necessary, and take charge under difficult circumstances.
During one such expedition, an enemy ship is sighted. It proves to be a warship. Although pursued by the Indomitable, the enemy flees and manages to escape.
During the return trip back to the fleet, the master-at-arms appears before Captain Vere. He stands...
(The entire section is 358 words.)
Chapters 20-21 Summary and Analysis
The Surgeon: he is summoned after Billy knocks down John Claggart, and it is he who pronounces Claggart dead. Later, he discusses the mysterious occurrence at Billy’s death
At first, Billy is surprised but not at all apprehensive. Claggart approaches Billy, “mesmerically looking him in the eye,” and repeats the accusation. Only slowly does Billy come to understand of what he is being accused, and he is transfixed. Vere urges him to “Speak, man…Speak! Defend yourself!” Horrified by the accusation, his stutter becomes intensified “into a convulsed tongue-tie.” Straining to obey Vere’s counsel to defend himself, Billy feels like he is suffocating.
(The entire section is 562 words.)
Chapter 22 Summary and Analysis
The First Lieutenant, the Captain of the Marines, and the Sailing Master: these are the officers who are chosen by Captain Vere to compose the drumhead court
There is a blurred line between sanity and insanity. Melville tells us that it is up to the reader to determine whether or not the surgeon is correct in his evaluation of Captain Vere’s mental state.
The fatal event has occurred at the worst possible time. The fact that it is so “close on the heel” of the suppressed mutinies requires extraordinary leadership ability from a commanding officer, and as well, the skills of prudence and vigor, which Melville notes are “qualities not readily...
(The entire section is 1042 words.)
Chapters 23-24 Summary and Analysis
Captain Vere personally informs Billy of the court’s decision. The interview is private, but knowing the character of each man involved, we can guess what took place.
It is likely that Vere would be totally frank, even admitting the part he himself played in bringing about the verdict. Billy would appreciate with “joy…the brave opinion of him implied in his captain making such a confidant of him.” At the end of the interview, Captain Vere would very likely have allowed himself to feel those fatherly emotions toward Billy which his stoical nature usually concealed.
After the interview, when Vere exits the cabin in which Billy is confined, the senior lieutenant observes...
(The entire section is 568 words.)
Chapter 25 Summary and Analysis
The Chaplain: he ministers to Billy, who is awaiting execution
On the Indomitable, the uppermost deck is, for the most part, uncovered and exposed to the weather. Consequently, it is not a place where sailors go to spend their recreational time.
The starboard side of the upper gun deck is where Billy is lying, in chains, in one of the bays between the heavy guns.
The guns, carriages, and most everything else on the upper gun deck are painted black. Melville describes Billy’s appearance. His “exterior apparel, white jumper and white duck trousers,…
more or less soiled…(glimmers) like a patch of discolored snow in early...
(The entire section is 539 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 625 words.)
Chapters 28-29 Summary and Analysis
The crew is convened once more, this time to witness the burial at sea. When this is completed, a “second strange human murmur” is heard, this time, however, blending with the sounds of the sea fowl circling the burial site.
The presence of the sea fowl has great significance for the superstitious sailors. (See analysis.) Deeply moved by this omen, the sailors begin to display an “uncertain movement,” an infringement of naval decorum. The officers move quickly—they give the order and the crew is swiftly dispersed by a drumbeat. The sailors, long accustomed to military discipline, now stand “erect and silent.”
On the return trip to England, the Indomitable...
(The entire section is 326 words.)
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.
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...
(The entire section is 561 words.)