Billy Budd, Foretopman (Magill Book Reviews)
Billy Budd, called the Handsome Sailor, displays near physical perfection and possesses a purity of innocence alien to the world he inhabits; but a single flaw leads to his destruction as this symbolic tale unfolds in its leisurely paced, digressive, yet powerful manner.
A British navy ship, short of hand, borrows Billy from a homeward bound merchant vessel. Unfazed by his impressment, Billy boards the Indomitable and soon earns the crew’s admiration for his good nature. Even the strong-willed Captain Vere takes special note of him.
Like an Adam aboard a floating Garden of Eden, Billy has no grasp of wrongdoing. So when the master-at-arms, John Claggart, makes his hatred and envy known, Billy fails to guard against the evil that Claggart manifests. Eventually Billy’s flaw--his stutter--causes him to murder Claggart. The circumstances surrounding Billy’s punishment provide a dramatic and significant climax to this sad account of the Handsome Sailor.
The novel gives yet another version of the Fall of Man, so apparent are the symbolic roles of the major characters: Billy as Adam; Claggart as Satan; Captain Vere as the Almighty Judge. It takes up, as well, the eternal opposites embedded in love and hate. For the innocent Billy, love is spontaneous and natural; yet such love is his undoing. For the depraved Claggart, hatred becomes the twisted response to a love so pure. And for Captain Vere, whose name means truth, love must be...
(The entire section is 551 words.)
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
HMS Bellipotent. Seventy-four-gun warship onto which seaman Billy Budd is impressed to serve in the British Navy. In earlier versions of the story, this ship is called the Indomitable. Both names suggest power as a means of preserving order. The ship, one of many in Britain’s Mediterranean fleet, represents the authority of the state and also serves as the guardian of the state’s citizens’ welfare. At the same time it is a microcosm of the society it is designed to protect. It consists of a variety of social types and a range of social classes all governed by the ultimate authority, Captain Vere. Class stratification and character type are reflected in the various deck levels and compartments of the ship, where the men live and work. Billy, for example, works on the foretop while Claggart works on the lower gun decks. A particularly important location on the ship is Vere’s cabin, the scene of Claggart’s death and Billy’s trial. It represents Vere’s irreproachable authority and is the place where he makes his decision about Billy’s fate and society’s welfare. While the mission of the Bellipotent is to protect the British from the French, British society is also threatened by anarchy, a threat stemming from rights-of-man theories and preceded by actual mutinies in the British fleet, namely that of April, 1797, at Spithead in the English Channel, and May, 1797, at the Nore in the Thames Estuary. To protect...
(The entire section is 545 words.)
The Royal Navy in the Late Eighteenth Century
Between 1794 and 1797, the number of seamen and marines serving in the British navy jumped from 85,000 to 120,000. England was at war with France at this time, and the navy's need for manpower was immense. Most of the men in the British naval service had not chosen to be there. While some men did join the navy, sailors could also simply be taken off merchant ships by a warship's officer, as happens to Billy Budd. The sailors from merchant ships were valued for their sailing experience, and "topmen" such as Billy—those who could work up in the riggings—were especially useful.
Some men were "impressed" into naval service: these were the able-bodied men who could not be convinced to join the navy, so they had to be "pressed," or forced, to join, often through brutal means. Impressed men often resented their circumstances, but they had no choice but to stay aboard the warships, facing punishment if they shirked their imposed duty. When the afterguardsman comes to Billy to try to draw Billy into his mysterious plot, he first attempts to establish a bond with Billy regarding the way they were each brought onto the ship: "You were impressed, weren't you?...Well, so was I...We are not the only impressed ones, Billy. There's a gang of us." The context of this encounter is the tradition of impressment into the British navy and the resulting resentment, which has the potential to flower into mutiny....
(The entire section is 1024 words.)
Chapter 1 Questions and Answers
1. What are the qualities of a Handsome Sailor?
2. How does Billy exemplify the Handsome Sailor?
3. Explain the fact that Lieutenant Radcliffe appears to have greater authority than Captain Graveling.
4. Why is Captain Graveling sorry to lose Billy?
5. Describe what type of man Captain Graveling is.
6. Why does Billy offer no resistance to his impressment?
7. What is the reaction of Billy’s shipmates when Billy is removed from the Rights-of-Man?
8. How does Billy bid farewell to his old life on the Rights-of- Man?
9. What is Lieutenant Radcliffe’s reaction to the way Billy bids farewell?
10. How does Billy adjust to life on his new ship, the Indomitable?
1. The Handsome Sailor is naively good, honest, noble, congenial, open-hearted, graceful, and amiable. He also possesses great physical and moral strength.
2. Billy Budd is a natural peacemaker, well-loved by his shipmates, handsome, kind, and naively innocent.
3. Radcliffe is an officer of the British Navy, while Graveling is the skipper of a private merchant ship.
4. Graveling regards Billy as his “jewel,” who changed the atmosphere aboard his ship from strife to comradely peace.
5. Captain Graveling is conscientious, prudent, and serious about his duties. He is a...
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Chapter 2 Questions and Answers
1. How is Billy received by his new crew mates aboard the Indomitable?
2. What is the mystery concerning Billy’s birth and origins?
3. How is Billy like Adam before the Fall?
4. What is Billy’s one blemish?
5. How do Melville’s references to Adam and the Serpent relate to the theme of conflict between Good and Evil?
6. What is the reaction of the “more intelligent gentlemen of the quarter-deck” to Billy’s good looks?
7. To what classical hero does Melville compare Billy Budd?
8. What is the state of Billy’s mental faculties?
9. How is Billy similar to other sailors?
10. How does Melville demonstrate that Billy Budd is not a “conventional” hero?
1. Billy is well-received by his new crew mates, and he has a favorable effect upon them.
2. Billy has a noble bearing, despite his humble condition; he explains that he is a foundling and doesn’t know his own origins.
3. Like Adam, Billy is pristinely innocent and guileless.
4. In periods of emotional stress, Billy stutters.
5. The Bible story of Adam and his temptation is the prototype in Western civilization for the theme of conflict between Good and Evil.
6. These gentlemen greatly admire Billy for being a fine example of a pure Saxon strain of...
(The entire section is 245 words.)
Chapter 3 Questions and Answers
1. Where was the Indomitable en route to at the time of Billy’s impressment?
2. In what year did the Spithead and Nore uprisings occur?
3. Which of the uprisings came to be known as the “Great Mutiny”?
4. Why was the “Great Mutiny” shaded “off into the historical background”?
5. After Spithead, why did the Nore mutiny occur?
6. How did the authorities finally put down the Nore mutiny?
7. Why weren’t the mutinies more widespread among the rest of the British fleet?
8. How did many of the sailors involved in the mutinies absolve themselves of their crimes?
9. What was the cause for the uprisings?
10. How is the battle of Trafalgar remembered?
1. The Indomitable was en route to join the Mediterranean fleet.
2. The Spithead and Nore uprisings occurred in 1797.
3. The Nore uprising came to be known as the “Great Mutiny.”
4. It was given little historical emphasis due to national pride.
5. The sailors’ demands were not met after the Spithead uprising.
6. “Final suppression” was made possible by the loyalty of the marine corps and “voluntary resumption of loyalty” by the more influential leaders among the crew.
7. The mutinies were symptoms of troubles in a fleet that was “constitutionally...
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Chapters 4-5 Questions and Answers
1. Who was Lord Horatio Nelson?
2. Why has Nelson come to be known as “the Great Sailor”?
3. Which grievance of the mutineers was not redressed after the mutinies?
4. Why was impressment still widely practiced after the mutinies?
5. Why was Lord Nelson directed by the admiral to take command of the Theseus?
6. How did Nelson deal with the crew of the Theseus?
7. Which grievances at the Spithead and Nore were redressed after the mutinies?
8. Who referred to Lord Nelson as the “greatest sailor since our world began”?
9. In the aftermath of the mutinies, how did some British officers ensure the loyalty of their men in battle?
10. Why was “precautionary vigilance” practiced at sea?
1. Lord Horatio Nelson was considered the greatest British naval hero.
2. Nelson was known as “the Great Sailor” because of his bravery and moral leadership qualities.
3. Impressment was still widely used as a way to enlist a crew.
4. The naval authorities believed there was no other way to ensure a fully manned crew.
5. The crew of the Theseus exhibited signs of discontent, and it was believed that Nelson had the qualities that could calm the tempers of the men.
6. Nelson won them over by force of his presence.
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Chapters 6-8 Questions and Answers
1. What qualities does Captain Vere share with Lord Horatio Nelson?
2. How did Vere receive his nickname, “Starry Vere”?
3. Of what trait do Vere’s men complain?
4. What is the major duty of the master-at-arms?
5. Describe John Claggart’s physical appearance.
6. How does Claggart’s appearance suggest his character and personality?
7. What is rumored about Claggart’s past?
8. Why did the British navy accept the enlistment of men of disrepute?
9. How did Claggart manage to advance to the rank of master- at-arms?
10. What is the source of John Claggart’s power and authority aboard the Indomitable?
1. They are both patriotic, valiant, noble, and superior moral leaders of men.
2. A relative extracted and applied these lines from a poem by Andrew Marvell:
“This ’tis to have been from the first
In a domestic heaven nursed,
Under the discipline severe
Of Fairfax and the starry Vere.”
3. They complain that Vere is rigid and pedantic.
4. The chief duty of the master-at-arms is to preserve order on the gun decks.
5. Claggart is tall and thin. He is good-looking, but he has a rather heavy chin. He is pallid, and he has black, curly hair.
6. His pallor seems...
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Chapters 9-11 Questions and Answers
1. Why is Billy so meticulous about doing his duty on board ship?
2. How does Billy get into trouble with one of the ship’s corporals?
3. Why does Billy seek out Dansker to ask for advice?
4. How did Dansker get his nickname, “Board-her-in-the- smoke”?
5. What is Dansker’s first impression of Billy Budd?
6. Why does Dansker “take to” Billy?
7. What reason does Billy give Dansker for trusting in Claggart?
8. What is Claggart’s reaction when he realizes Billy spilled the soup?
9. How are Billy Budd and John Claggart completely antithetical?
10. What does Melville mean by “natural depravity”?
1. Billy once observed the beating of a sailor who had been derelict in his duty.
2. Inexplicably, Billy’s gear is in disarray.
3. Billy selected Dansker as a confidant because he was a wise and experienced old veteran.
4. Dansker’s nickname derives from two sources: a scar on his “blue-peppered complexion,” that looked like “a streak of dawn’s light falling athwart the dark visage,” as well as the boarding party incident at which the scar was incurred.
5. Dansker is amused by the incongruity of an innocent among the rough and experienced seamen.
6. Whereas most of the young sailors are repelled by the...
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Chapters 12-14 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Melville suggest that clerics would be good experts in a court of law?
2. According to Melville, how are envy and antipathy related?
3. What quality of Billy’s has served to move Claggart against him?
4. How is Claggart’s envy different from the envy of Saul for David?
5. How is Claggart like the scorpion?
6. What is the reason for Claggart’s reaction to the spilled soup?
7. Why does Squeak make up charges against Billy?
8. Why doesn’t Claggart check on Squeak’s reports?
9. How does Squeak’s name reflect his personality?
10. How does Claggart manage to override his conscience?
1. According to Melville, clerics have better insight into the human heart.
2. Envy and antipathy are like conjoined twins.
3. Billy’s physical beauty has been the initial motive for Claggart’s antipathy.
4. Claggart’s envy is more profound than Saul’s.
5. Like the scorpion, Claggart has been created by God to fulfill a certain destiny.
6. Claggart imagines that Billy has deliberately spilled the soup to express his own dislike of Claggart.
7. Squeak perceives Claggart’s dislike of Billy, and he wishes to ingratiate himself.
8. Claggart prefers to believe ill of Billy, so he takes Squeak’s reports at face...
(The entire section is 233 words.)
Chapters 15-18 Questions and Answers
1. What is Billy’s reaction to being summoned out of his sleep to a secret meeting?
2. What is Billy’s response to the afterguardsman’s offer?
3. What explanation does Billy give to Red Pepper?
4. Why is Billy disturbed by the incident?
5. What is Dansker’s explanation for the strange happenings?
6. How does Billy react to Dansker’s interpretation?
7. Why doesn’t Dansker give Billy more specific advice?
8. Why doesn’t Billy report the afterguardsman to the proper authorities?
9. How does Claggart react to Billy during this period?
10. How does Claggart disguise his “monomania,” that is, his obsession with Billy?
1. Billy does as he is told and goes to meet the stranger.
2. He is resentful and angry, and he threatens to throw the afterguardsman over the rail.
3. He tells Red Pepper that he was angry because the afterguardsman was in the wrong part of the ship.
4. He is bewildered and upset because the intrigue was “disturbingly alien to him.”
5. Dansker’s explanation is that “Jimmy-Legs” is down on Billy Budd.
6. Billy refuses to believe that the master-at-arms could be plotting against him.
7. Dansker has learned from “long experience” that it is unwise to interfere or give...
(The entire section is 235 words.)
Chapter 19 Questions and Answers
1. Why was the Indomitable detached from the rest of the squadron?
2. How does Claggart approach Captain Vere?
3. What is Captain Vere’s opinion of John Claggart?
4. What does Claggart tell Captain Vere about Billy Budd?
5. Why doesn’t Captain Vere trust Claggart?
6. What does Captain Vere do in response to Claggart’s accusation?
7. What character trait does Claggart impute to Billy Budd?
8. Why does Captain Vere proceed with caution?
9. How is Claggart’s evil intent toward Billy revealed?
10. What is Vere’s opinion of Billy Budd?
1. Due to a shortage of frigates in the British fleet, the Indomitable was detached from the squadron and sent on a special mission.
2. Claggart approaches Captain Vere with deference, cap in hand.
3. Although he doesn’t know him well, he takes an inexplicable dislike to Claggart.
4. Claggart tells Captain Vere that Billy Budd is a dangerous man who is plotting something clandestine.
5. Claggart reminds Vere of a perjurer he once knew while participating in a court martial.
6. Captain Vere summons Billy in order to observe his reaction when Claggart accuses him to his face.
7. Claggart imputes to Billy the trait of duplicity.
8. Vere doesn’t want to...
(The entire section is 224 words.)
Chapters 20-21 Questions and Answers
1. What is Billy’s first reaction to Claggart’s accusation?
2. Why does Vere want to observe the confrontation between Claggart and Billy?
3. Why doesn’t Billy Budd answer his accuser?
4. Since he cannot speak, what action does Billy take?
5. Why does Captain Vere send for the surgeon?
6. What does Captain Vere decide to do about the crime?
7. What is the surgeon’s concern about Captain Vere?
8. What does the surgeon do?
9. What were the reactions of the lieutenants and the captain of the marines?
10. What is a “drumhead court”?
1. Billy is surprised but not apprehensive.
2. Vere wants to observe the expressions in each man’s face.
3. In moments of stress Billy develops a speech impediment.
4. In frustration, Billy strikes out at Claggart and inadvertently kills him.
5. He wants to ascertain whether or not Claggart is dead.
6. Captain Vere decides to hold a drumhead court.
7. The surgeon is worried about Vere’s mental health, and he also believes it is impolitic to hold a drumhead court.
8.The surgeon obeys the captain’s orders and relates what has happened to the lieutenants and the captain of the marines.
9. Like the surgeon, they too would have preferred to...
(The entire section is 217 words.)
Chapter 22 Questions and Answers
1. What is significant about the time period when Billy’s fatal action occurs?
2. Why does Captain Vere decide to hold a drumhead court rather than wait and refer the case to the admiral?
3. Why does Vere have doubts about the suitability of the captain of the marines for serving on the drumhead court?
4. What explanation does Billy give for striking the fatal blow?
5. How does Vere behave while the court is deliberating?
6. Why does Vere intercede and declare himself a “coadjutor”?
7. Why are the officers told to act against Nature?
8. Why does Vere refuse to allow a verdict of guilty with a mitigated sentence?
9. Why are the officers persuaded to do as Vere wishes?
10. What is the outcome of the trial?
1. Since it “came on the heels” of the Great Mutinies, the law is very harsh, and the courts inclined to deal severely with infractions.
2. Captain Vere is concerned that a delay will create tension and dissent among the crew and might possibly arouse mutinous activities.
3. The captain of the marines is a soldier rather than a sailor, and he may not understand the traditions and ethos at sea.
4. Billy says that he couldn’t speak so the only way he could respond to Claggart’s false charges was to strike a blow.
5. Vere is visibly...
(The entire section is 294 words.)
Chapters 23-24 Questions and Answers
1. Why can we assume that Captain Vere tells the complete truth to Billy Budd during their private interview?
2. What can we imagine of Billy’s reaction?
3. What can be surmised about Vere’s feelings for Billy?
4. Why does Captain Vere refrain from mentioning the word “mutiny” when he addresses the crew?
5. Why is Captain Vere concerned at this time for strict adherence to custom?
6. Why does Vere discontinue all communication with Billy?
7. Why does Vere prefer that the men not even surmise that something is amiss?
8. How do the officers behave on a military ship when they are concerned that something might be “amiss”?
9. How is Billy safeguarded while waiting for the sentence to be carried out?
10. Who is permitted access to the cabin where Billy is held?
1. That Captain Vere is an honorable and honest man has already been established by Melville’s descriptions.
2. Billy would be joyful at being considered brave enough to hear all of the truth.
3. Vere apparently has fatherly feelings for Billy.
4. Vere doesn’t want to arouse the crew by suggesting that he has concerns about mutiny.
5. By behaving as is customary, the crew will not find anything amiss.
6. It is the appropriate thing to do at this time....
(The entire section is 250 words.)
Chapter 25 Questions and Answers
1. Which deck on a warship is most exposed to the elements?
2. Where is Billy held pursuant to the execution?
3. What is Billy’s demeanor as he awaits his execution?
4. What are the chaplain’s thoughts about Billy as he observes him sleeping?
5. Why does the chaplain return in the early morning?
6. What does Billy think about death?
7. In what way is Billy like a barbarian?
8. What is Billy’s response to the chaplain?
9. Why does the chaplain kiss Billy on the cheek?
10. Why does the chaplain not lift a finger to help Billy?
1. The upper gun deck is the one most exposed to the elements and the weather.
2. Billy is held on the upper gun deck to await execution.
3. Billy is as serene and peaceful as an innocent child.
4. The chaplain realizes that he has nothing to offer Billy that can soothe him, since Billy has already attained inner peace.
5. The chaplain wishes to impart to Billy an understanding of death.
6. Although he understands that he is about to die, Billy has absolutely no fear.
7. Like a barbarian, Billy is closer to unadulterated Nature. Billy also looks like the Angles, barbarian converts to Christianity.
8. Billy is attentive and polite, although he does not fully comprehend what the chaplain is...
(The entire section is 247 words.)
Chapters 26-27 Questions and Answers
1. What are Billy’s last words?
2. What is the effect of these last words upon the crew?
3. What action is taken by the ship’s authorities when the murmur arises among the crew?
4. What is unusual about Billy’s execution?
5. What is the effect of the circling sea fowl upon the sailors?
6. Why do the sailors respond the way they do to authority?
7. What question does the purser later discuss with the surgeon?
8. How does the surgeon know Billy’s body ought to have exhibited a muscular spasm?
9. How does the surgeon account for the absence of such a motion in Billy’s case?
10. What does the surgeon mean by describing Billy’s death as “phenomenal”?
1. Billy’s last words are “God bless Captain Vere.”
2. The crew responds with a “sympathetic echo,” “God bless Captain Vere.”
3. The ship’s authorities issue the command to the boatswain to blow his whistle, drowning out the murmur of the crew.
4. Billy’s dead body doesn’t show the usual muscle spasms, but rather hangs motionless.
5. Being superstitious, the sailors are profoundly affected by the sea fowl.
6. The sailors are trained to be obedient.
7. The purser discusses the reason for the lack of a muscular spasm.
8. The surgeon personally...
(The entire section is 249 words.)
Chapters 28-29 Questions and Answers
1. What sound is heard from the crew at the moment of Billy’s burial?
2. What is the reaction of the authorities to the low murmur?
3. How does the crew respond to the authorities?
4. What serves as Billy’s coffin?
5. How does the crew behave at Billy’s burial?
6. What is the significance of the sea fowl on the crew?
7. What is the outcome of the battle between the Atheiste and the Indomitable?
8. What happens to Captain Vere in that battle?
9. Where does Captain Vere die?
10. What are Captain Vere’s last words?
1. A low murmur is heard from the crew at the moment of Billy’s burial.
2. The boatswain and his mates blow whistles to “pipe down” the men.
3. The crew disperses.
4. Billy’s hammock, weighted down with shot, serves as his canvas coffin.
5. The crew again begins a low murmur.
6. The seamen are superstitious, and they take the sea fowl as some sort of omen.
7. The Indomitable is victorious
8. Captain Vere is seriously wounded.
9. He dies at Gibraltar.
10. His last words are, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.”
(The entire section is 180 words.)
Chapters 30-31 Questions and Answers
1. Where did the written account of the execution appear?
2. What reason does that account give for suggesting that Billy was not an Englishman?
3. How is Billy described in that account?
4. How is Claggart described?
5. What object becomes a relic for the seamen?
6. What image of Billy Budd remains in the hearts and minds of the sailors?
7. Who is the author of the ballad written about Billy’s death?
8. From whose point of view is the story told in the ballad?
9. What is the title of the ballad?
10. How do the official account and the sailors’ memories differ?
1. An account of Billy’s execution appears in an authorized naval publication.
2. In that account it is suggested that Billy was not an Englishman because of the vileness of the murder and the reported murder weapon, a knife.
3. Billy is described as a criminal of extreme depravity.
4. Claggart is described as a respectable and discreet man, who was brave and patriotic.
5. The spar from which Billy was hanged, as well as any chip from that spar, become relics.
6. They remember “the fresh young image of the Handsome Sailor.”
7. One of the other foretopmen from Billy’s watch writes the lines for the ballad.
8. The story the ballad...
(The entire section is 237 words.)
Point of View
The first-person narrator refers to himself as "I" and briefly talks about himself and his past experiences. He does not give his name and is not on board the Bellipotent, yet he speaks authoritatively about the events that take place there. The narrator has a limited omniscient point of view, which means that he is able to see nearly all of the novel's action, including some of the characters' thoughts. His admission of being unable to grasp Claggart's character—"His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it"—is one example of the narrator's limited omniscience, but it also contributes to the novel's overall depiction of Claggart's strangeness and foreignness.
The narrator tells of an experience he had as a young man, when "an honest scholar, my senior" spoke to him about a fine point of human nature, and the narrator says of himself, "At the time, my inexperience was such that I did not quite see the drift of all this. It may be that I see it now." He tells this story about himself to illustrate his similarity to and thus his empathy for Billy Budd. The narrator's empathy helps to shape the story, as it enables him to understand Billy's innocence: his tragic flaw.
The setting of Billy Budd—a British warship in the summer of 1797—is essential to the plot and meaning of the novel. The novel opens with the words, "In the time before steamships," immediately placing the action...
(The entire section is 864 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1790s: Late eighteenth-century warships of the British navy are powered by sails. Seventy-four gun ships—especially fast and easy to handle— are most common. Steam power is being explored as a means of ship propulsion.
1890s: The United States begins building a "new navy" in the 1880s: ironclad steam-powered ships with a variety of weapons on board.
1924: The Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty, signed in 1922, restricts Allied countries from building new battleships until 1931 and orders that most battleships of outdated construction be destroyed. Naval aircraft technology is developed during this period.
Today: Nearly half of the U.S. Navy's warships are propelled by nuclear reactors, which allow the ships to travel at high speeds without the need for fuel oil.
1790s: Duong the American Revolution, capital punishment had come under fire in America as a deplorable institution from the reign of King George. By 1796, Melville's home state of New York has decreased the number of crimes punishable by death from thirteen to two—those being murder and treason.
1890s: In 1890, the New York Assembly passes a bill abolishing capital punishment, but the State Senate votes the bill down. In August of 1890, William Kemmler becomes the first victim of execution by electrocution, hanging having been deemed too barbaric.
1924: The infamous Leopold and Loeb...
(The entire section is 477 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Research the Somers Mutiny Affair of 1842. Compare the events in that historical case to the events of Billy Budd. How did Melville depart from the events of the Somers case in his composition of Billy Budd? What events did he keep, and why?
Watch the video of the 1962 film adaption of Billy Budd. What aspects of Melville's novel do the filmmakers emphasize? What do you think of the way the film was cast—are the characters portrayed as you would have expected? What do you think of the musical score's contribution to the film's mood?
The narrator refers to Claggart's attitude towards Billy as "monomania." What does he mean by this term? Is there an equivalent in modern psychological parlance? Research how a modern psychologist might describe or explain Claggart's feelings towards Billy.
Research the history of impressment into the British Royal Navy. Why do you think Melville made impressment into naval service a part of Billy's character? How might an actual sailor in Billy's time have felt about being impressed into service?
(The entire section is 173 words.)
Billy Budd was adapted as a film in 1962 by Peter Ustinov, who directed, produced, and starred as Captain Vere in this version of Melville's novel. Terence Stamp, as Billy, won an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Other actors who starred in the film include Robert Ryan and David McCallum. The film is in black and white and is available on VHS.
Benjamin Britten adapted Billy Budd as a four-act opera in 1951, with libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier. A production of the opera is available on video, released in 1988, starring Thomas Allen as Billy, and with the English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by David Atherton and directed by Tim Albery.
Billy Budd is available on two audiocassettes, read by Simon Jones. The cassettes were released by Durkin Hayes Audio in 1987.
Louis O. Coxe and Robert Chapman published Billy Budd, A Play in Three Acts in 1951 by Princeton University Press.
A documentary on the historical incident that inspired Billy Budd, The Curse of the Somers: Billy Budd's Ghost Ship (1996) is an award-winning film narrated by Peter Coyote. The film looks at the controversial Somers Mutiny Affair, which Melville mentions in Billy Budd. This case resulted in the hanging of midshipman Philip Spencer and the court-martial of Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie. The film also...
(The entire section is 228 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
"Young Goodman Brown," is a short story published in 1835 by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The character of Young Goodman Brown, an innocent, is tested by evil forces that are mysterious to him. He is nearly incapable of comprehending that the people he respects most might possess a capacity for evil. Melville was friends with Hawthorne and had the utmost respect and admiration for his work.
Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), considered by most critics to be his masterpiece, is, like Billy Budd, a tale of good and evil set against the stark setting of the sea. Captain Ahab, who obsessively seeks the white whale, Moby-Dick, is identified as a "monomaniac"; Claggart in Billy Budd is described as possessing a "monomania."
The Bounty Trilogy, a collection of three books by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, traces the historic mutiny aboard the H.MS. Bounty and its aftermath as experienced by the captain and crew. The first book in the trilogy, Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), is an account of the 1788 voyage of H.M.S. Bounty, during which Fletcher Christian committed mutiny against Captain Bligh. In Men Against the Sea (1934), Captain Bligh, along with the nineteen men who chose to remain loyal to him during the mutiny, travel 3,600 miles in an open boat that they had been set out in by the mutineers. Pitcairn's Island (1934) tells of how Christian, his fellow mutineers, and a few Tahitians end up...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Allen, Gay Wilson. Melville and His World. New York: Viking Press, 1971.
Anderson, Charles. Melville in the South Seas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.
Bercaw, Mary Kay. Melville’s Sources. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987.
“Billy Budd.” In The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 5th ed. Edited by Margaret Drabble. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Herman Melville. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Dillingham, William B. Melville’s Later Novels. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1986.
Franklin, H. Bruce. The Wake of the Gods: Melville’s Mythology. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963.
Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr, eds., preface by Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor. An Inside Narrative, University of Chicago, 1962, pp.v-vii
Hillway, Tyrus. Herman Melville. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1963
Susan Howe, The Birthmark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
F. O Matthiessen, "Billy Budd, Foretopman," in his American Renaissance Art and Experience in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, Oxford University Press, 1941.
Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, edited by Harrison Hayford and Merton S. Sealts, Jr,...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Browne, Ray B. Melville’s Drive to Humanism. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1971. The last chapter examines Billy Budd, Foretopman as a “provocative” and “disturbing” book that grew out of a ballad-like story. Sees the novel as an assertion of a democratic “gospel” and of a humanistic perspective.
Bryant, John, ed. A Companion to Melville Studies. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Includes an important essay by Merton Sealts, Jr., “Innocence and Infamy: Billy Budd, Sailor,” and a general article by Rowland Sherrill called “Melville’s Religion.” Bibliography and index.
Chase, Richard. Herman Melville: A Critical Study. New York: Hafner Press, 1971. The last chapter, devoted to Billy Budd, Foretopman, calls Melville’s final acceptance of life as tragic. Excellent analysis of the book’s balance between action and philosophisizing.
Duban, James. Melville’s Major Fiction: Politics, Theology, and Imagination. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1983. The last chapter, “The Cross of Consciousness: Billy Budd,” treats among other subjects Melville’s relationship to his narrator. Index.
Marvel, Laura, ed. Readings on “Billy Budd.” New...
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