In spite of the innocence and simplicity that characterize Billy Budd, he is a complex character in terms of what he represents. His name suggests an almost childlike youthfulness: Although he is an adult, his name, William, is shortened into the child's nickname, Billy, and the Dansker refers to him as "Baby Budd" because he seems so young. His last name, Budd, suggests the immaturity of a flower that has not yet bloomed. And yet it is Billy's very immaturity that brings about his end.
Billy's innocence is the dominant aspect of his character. He is unable to distinguish between his friends and his enemies, or even to comprehend that he might have an enemy. Happy-go-lucky and popular with his fellow sailors, the handsome Billy is scrupulous about following orders and performing his duties correctly. Knowing nothing of his own heritage except that he was a foundling, Billy recalls "young Adam before the Fall": unburdened by a past, uncomplicated by civilization, meeting the world on his own terms, innocent of evil.
And yet this seemingly perfect human being is indeed flawed: Billy stutters when he becomes agitated. The narrator says that Billy's stutter is Satan's reminder that "I too have a hand here"; no one can escape his power. His innocence ironically comes to function as another flaw because he lacks "that intuitive knowledge of the bad which in natures not good or incompletely so foreruns experience." In Billy's encounter with...
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John Claggart, the master-at-arms on the Bellipotent, is a difficult character to grasp, even for the narrator: "His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it." Claggart's essential nature eludes not only the narrator and Billy Budd but also the perceptive Captain Vere; in fact, the only character who seems to understand Claggart and his motives is the wise yet taciturn Dansker. Claggart in turn is "perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd," and ironically, Billy's goodness is what drives Claggart to destroy him.
Claggart is portrayed as being different from the other men on the Bellipotent. His physical description emphasizes his pallor, unusual among sailors and hinting of "something defective or abnormal." His background is mysterious, and he seems somehow foreign: "It might be that he was an Englishman; and yet there lurked a bit of accent in his speech suggesting that possibly he was not such by birth " He is not popular among the ship's crew, but "no man holding his office in a man-of-war can ever hope to be popular with the crew."
Having set Claggart up as an outsider on board the Bellipotent, the narrator goes on to establish Claggart's evil nature, which the narrator says is innate in him. Essentially envious of Billy's "significant personal beauty," Claggart is disdainful of Billy's simple innocence, and goaded by...
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Noble, intellectual Captain Vere commands the Bellipotent and is an "austere devotee of military duty." He is, ultimately, responsible for Billy Budd's execution, as he instructs the drumhead court trying Billy's case in their responsibility to "adhere to...and administer" the law, whether they agree with it or not. Respected by his crew, although seen by some as a martinet, Captain Vere is "an officer mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline"; he believes that duty to the King comes before all else.
Captain Vere is an aristocrat, both by birth and in temperament, and his finely tuned "moral quality" enables him to be, "in earnest encounter with a fellow man, a veritable touchstone of that man's essential nature." The fact that Vere is puzzled by John Claggart and doubts his charges against Billy suggests that the events that follow Claggart's accusation will not be ordinary. Upon perceiving that Claggart is dead at Billy's hand, Captain Vere is transformed: "The father in him, manifested toward Billy thus far in the scene, was replaced by the military disciplinarian." The military relation overrides the emotional relation between Billy and Vere. When Vere speaks to the members of the drumhead court about the decision they must make regarding Billy's punishment, he tells them they are not "natural free agents" but officers of the King. Setting up the tension between emotion and intellect, Vere tells the...
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The afterguardsman first appears as a mysterious whispering figure that awakens Billy as he sleeps on deck one warm night. He tries to draw Billy into a shady plot, which angers Billy. Billy sends the man away, raising a commotion, and when the others on board ask what is going on, Billy deliberates whether he should reveal what the afterguardsman has said to him. He decides not to be "a telltale" and keeps the incident to himself, although he is deeply puzzled by it. It is "the first time in his life that he had ever been personally approached in underhand intriguing fashion." When, during the next few days, the afterguardsman nods knowingly at Billy or speaks to him, Billy is "more at a loss than before." Billy's friend the Dansker connects the afterguardsman's act to Claggart's being "down on" Billy.
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Meeting Billy as Billy prepares to die, the Bellipotent's chaplain is amazed by Billy's peacefulness and realizes that he has little to give Billy. He finds Billy's ideas of death to be like those of a child; Billy is "wholly without irrational fear of [death]." And as the chaplain feels that "innocence [is] even a better thing than religion wherewith to go to Judgment," he does not impose himself on Billy. The narrator cautions the reader not to expect the chaplain to speak out on Billy's behalf, having seen his essential innocence. Such an attempt to save Billy's life would be, the narrator points out, "an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function, one as exactly prescribed to him by military law as that of a boatswain or any other naval officer." The chaplain knows he must not step outside his realm of duties.
Billy's confidant, the Dansker, is a man of few words, a navy veteran with a "wizened face" to whom Billy goes "for wise counsel." The Dansker, who dubs Billy "Baby Budd," tells Billy that Claggart is "down on" him. Billy cannot understand what the Dansker means; his innocence contrasts with his old friend's "pithy guarded...
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