Chapter 1 Summary

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Last Updated April 25, 2023.

Melville portrays the Handsome Sailor as an exceptional character possessing both physical attractiveness and moral fortitude. These men could be found on boats and harbors in the time before steamships. While discussing this character, Melville diverges to recount an interaction with a sailor who embodies the traits of the Handsome Sailor. This seaman is of African descent and commands attention and admiration from his fellow sailors as he walks alongside them.

Billy Budd, a foretopman in the British navy during the final years of the 1700s, is a notable figure in his own right, and an example of the handsome sailor. He becomes a part of the King's Service after being taken from his job on a merchant ship, the Rights-of-Man, and conscripted aboard the HMS Indomitable against his will by Lieutenant Radcliffe. Despite the circumstances, Billy shows a positive attitude and accepts the situation without complaint.

Captain Graveling, Captain of Billy's previous ship, the Rights-of-Man, is very upset about the possibility of losing Billy. He confides in Radcliffe about how Billy has managed to improve the mood and relationships among the crew, even with those who were previously difficult to deal with. Graveling is concerned about losing someone who has been such an effective mediator and peacekeeper on the ship.

Graveling describes how one of the crew members, Red Whiskers, appeared to be jealous of Billy and as a result, constantly bothered him. However, Billy didn't retaliate and instead tried to reason with him. One day, Red Whiskers poked Billy in the ribs, which caused Billy to react and hit him unexpectedly. This surprised Red Whiskers, but afterward, he grew to like and respect Billy just like the rest of the crew.

Graveling tried to convince Radcliffe, but he didn't listen, and instead, Radcliffe acknowledged Billy's unique abilities that will likely benefit the Indomitable. Billy says goodbye to his old crewmates as he boards the dinghy to the Indomitable, waving his hat. Lieutenant Radcliffe finds it amusing that Billy breaks the naval protocol by saluting the ship as he bids farewell.

Billy is embracing and accommodating to the changes in his life, and he may even be excited about the new experiences he will encounter aboard the Indomitable. He is designated as the foretopman for the starboard watch, and he quickly settles into his new role, feeling comfortable and familiar with his duties. Once again, his attractive appearance and friendly personality earn him the admiration and fondness of his fellow crew members.

While some of the other sailors tend to feel gloomy at the end of their workday, Billy consistently maintains a cheerful disposition. While the other sailors may have worries and preoccupations regarding their spouses, children, and other relatives, Billy, on the other hand, has no family to concern himself with as he considers himself as his own family.

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Chapter 2 Summary