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.)
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?...
(The entire section is 278 words.)
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?
(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...
(The entire section is 241 words.)
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 entire section is 266 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 262 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 270 words.)
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...
(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...
(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?
(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”?
(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?...
(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...
(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...
(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 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...
(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?
(The entire section is 237 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
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...
(The entire section is 430 words.)