Billy Budd, Foretopman Summary
by Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Foretopman Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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In Billy Budd, Foretopman (also known as Billy Budd, Sailor), the HMS Bellipotent, a seventy-four-gun ship of the line, intercepts the British merchantman Rights of Man and impresses seaman Billy Budd. Billy is the handsome sailor—extraordinarily attractive, able, well-intentioned, and amiable. He is flawed only by a sometimes severe speech impediment and—if flaws they be—by illiteracy and a total ignorance of human malice. When Billy is mustered into the king’s service, he reveals that he is a foundling, discovered in a silk-lined basket at the door of a good man of Bristol.

Soon after arriving on the man-of-war, Billy witnesses a flogging and resolves never to deserve such punishment. His good looks, his manifest good intentions, and his ability as a seaman win him ready acceptance among his shipmates but also the enmity of John Claggart, a petty officer charged with disciplining the crew. Claggart is as intelligent as Billy is innocent, and as pale as Billy is tanned. Claggart is also handsome but innately evil. Like Billy, he has obscure origins but possibly culpable ones, and like Billy, he is new to the Bellipotent, having been transferred from another ship. Claggart recognizes Billy’s virtues and resents them because he cannot duplicate them. His envy manifests itself first in trivial ways and then in an abortive attempt to entrap Billy in a bogus mutiny plot. Billy is too innocent to understand the proposal at first, too loyal to acquiesce, and too honorable to report the ambiguous solicitation. Mutiny has particular significance in the summer of 1797, a few months after the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, when all London had feared that rebellious crews would bring the fleet up the Thames. The mutinies had been put down and some of the sailors’ grievances addressed, but discipline in the fleet still seems tenuous in the midst of Britain’s war against revolutionary France.

Commanding the Bellipotent, Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, widely known as “Starry” Vere, is an accomplished officer—brave, modest, conscientious, and unusually intellectual for a naval officer. As the ship’s captain, he is remote from his crew—and even, to an extent, from his officers—and his habits of mind make him more abstracted still.

While the Bellipotent is on detached duty, far from the fleet, Claggart approaches Captain Vere and accuses Billy of fomenting mutiny. Vere instinctively distrusts Claggart and trusts Billy, but such a charge demands attention. Vere arranges that Billy confront his accuser privately, in the captain’s cabin. Shocked by the accusation, Billy is absolutely tongue-tied and finally can respond only with a powerful blow. Claggart drops to the deck, dead.

Vere tells the ship’s surgeon that Claggart’s death is “the divine judgment on Ananias,” adding “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” He directs the surgeon to inform the ship’s officers of the event and of his intent to empanel a drumhead court. The surgeon privately questions the wisdom and propriety of such haste and indeed doubts Vere’s sanity but accepts perforce his commander’s decision. In the trial, all the participants including the captain recognize Billy’s essential moral innocence but also the legal fact of his striking a superior. However, Vere, while nominally only a witness in the case, uses his status as captain to force the officers of the court not to delay the case until it can be regularly considered in the fleet but instead to affirm Billy’s guilt and to pronounce a sentence of death, all in the overriding interest of naval discipline. In his arguments, Vere is intensely regretful but decisive.

After the trial, Vere visits Billy for a long, private interview, not described in detail. During the night, Billy is also visited by the chaplain, a sensitive and compassionate man who withdraws when he sees that Billy’s simple purity of soul is a better guarantee of heaven than any doctrinal sophistication. At dawn, Billy is hung from the cruciform main yard. His last words, spoken without impediment, are “God bless Captain Vere!” The crew, called up to witness punishment, echo him. At the moment Billy is suspended, “the vapory fleece hanging low in the East . . . [is] shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision,” and Billy “takes the full rose of the dawn.”

In the aftermath, the Bellipotent engages a French ship of the line, the Athee (the Atheist), and takes her. Captain Vere receives a wound that proves mortal. He dies with Billy Budd’s name on his lips. A distorted account of Claggart’s death and Billy’s execution appears in “a naval chronicle of the time,” vilifying Billy and eulogizing Claggart. However, the sailors of the fleet believe something else. An anonymous sailor memorializes Billy in a ballad, “Billy in the Darbies,” and the sailors of the fleet keep track of the yardarm from which Billy was hung, following it from ship to ship and finally to a dockyard hoist. They venerate pieces of it as devout Christians venerate relics of the cross.