Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Billy Budd

Billy Budd, a youthful member of the crew of the merchantman Rights-of-Man, who is impressed into service aboard H.M.S. Indomitable during the last decade of the eighteenth century. Billy is twenty-one, “welkin-eyed,” and possessed of great masculine beauty; he has no idea who his father and mother were, having been left a foundling in a basket on the doorstep of a “good man” in Bristol, England. Billy was a cheerful, stabilizing influence on the rough crew of the merchantman; when he is taken aboard the “Indomitable,” he is popular with all the officers and crew except John Claggart, the master-at-arms, who is envious of Billy’s almost perfect physique and personality. Claggart falsely accuses Billy of fomenting a mutiny aboard the ship. When he repeats the charges in the Captain’s quarters while Billy is present, the young man (who stutters under stress and sometimes suffers a total speech block) can say nothing in his own defense and hits Claggart on the forehead with his fist. Claggart falls and dies. In the subsequent trial, at which the Captain is the sole witness, there can be no leniency because of the recent Great Mutiny in the fleet. Billy is sentenced to hang. At the execution his last words are, “God bless Captain Vere!” Honest, refreshing, ingenuous, uncomplaining—these adjectives may be applied to Billy Budd, who represents an innocent youth trapped by the brutality of fleet regulations or, perhaps,...

(The entire section is 608 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 430 words.)