Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589
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, Captain Vere, is a thoughtful, well-read man who takes an immediate liking to his new recruit, but the Indomitable’s master-at-arms, Claggart, is a different case. From the start, Claggart, an embodiment of satanic malice toward virtue, shows an unreasoning dislike for the new recruit, whom he mockingly calls Baby Budd. Unable to conceive of innocence such as Budd’s, Claggart assumes that Budd returns his hatred, and he plots the young sailor’s downfall. Unable to taunt or tempt Budd into actual crime, Claggart baldly accuses him of mutinous activities. Budd, who is unable to speak in response to the accusation, strikes Claggart in the temple and kills him.
Captain Vere is left with a terrible decision. It is a time of war, and Vere accepts the importance of maintaining authority. Recent mutinies aboard other British warships make his decision more critical. Vere can see no way to avoid hanging Budd, and he makes it clear to the officers who convene to decide Budd’s fate that they cannot respond to human sympathies but that they must perform their duty to preserve order and the rule of law. If Budd can be seen as an image of Adam before the Fall, and Claggart can be seen as an image of Satan, Vere can be seen as a model of God, a stern but righteous father. He orders the execution, but the story portrays Vere as a sensitive man who sentences Budd to die despite his deep sympathy for the boy. Before being executed, Billy cries out “God bless Captain Vere!” and his final act of forgiveness is echoed by the crew assembled to witness the execution.
Soon after Budd’s execution, the Indomitable engages another ship in battle, and Vere receives a fatal wound. As he dies, he murmurs the name Billy Budd, but his final words are affectionate and sad rather than remorseful, for he knows that he has played his tragic part faithfully. Billy Budd is Melville’s final examination of authority, and in the story he resigns himself to the tragic necessity for authority to preserve the greater good, even at the expense of individual rights.