Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407
In spite of the innocence and simplicity that characterize Billy Budd, he is a complex character in terms of what he represents. His name suggests an almost childlike youthfulness: Although he is an adult, his name, William, is shortened into the child's nickname, Billy, and the Dansker refers to him as "Baby Budd" because he seems so young. His last name, Budd, suggests the immaturity of a flower that has not yet bloomed. And yet it is Billy's very immaturity that brings about his end.
Billy's innocence is the dominant aspect of his character. He is unable to distinguish between his friends and his enemies, or even to comprehend that he might have an enemy. Happy-go-lucky and popular with his fellow sailors, the handsome Billy is scrupulous about following orders and performing his duties correctly. Knowing nothing of his own heritage except that he was a foundling, Billy recalls "young Adam before the Fall": unburdened by a past, uncomplicated by civilization, meeting the world on his own terms, innocent of evil.
And yet this seemingly perfect human being is indeed flawed: Billy stutters when he becomes agitated. The narrator says that Billy's stutter is Satan's reminder that "I too have a hand here"; no one can escape his power. His innocence ironically comes to function as another flaw because he lacks "that intuitive knowledge of the bad which in natures not good or incompletely so foreruns experience." In Billy's encounter with the afterguardsman and his experience with Claggart—his first, puzzling brushes with corruption—"his innocence [is] his blinder," and he is unable to protect himself.
As he faces his execution, Billy exemplifies the Christlike nature which critics often note when discussing him. When Billy learns of Claggart's accusation, his face holds "an expression which was a crucifixion to behold." In spite of Captain Vere's decision to go through with Billy's execution, Billy's last words, illustrating his generous and forgiving nature, are "God bless Captain Vere." At the moment of execution, the fleecy clouds in the eastern sky are "shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision." Then, recalling Christ's ascension into heaven following his resurrection, "Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn." The spar from which Billy is hanged takes on an almost religious significance for the sailors: "To them, a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347
John Claggart, the master-at-arms on the Bellipotent, is a difficult character to grasp, even for the narrator: "His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it." Claggart's essential nature eludes not only the narrator and Billy Budd but also the perceptive Captain Vere; in fact, the only character who seems to understand Claggart and his motives is the wise yet taciturn Dansker. Claggart in turn is "perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd," and ironically, Billy's goodness is what drives Claggart to destroy him.
Claggart is portrayed as being different from the other men on the Bellipotent. His physical description emphasizes his pallor, unusual among sailors and hinting of "something defective or abnormal." His background is mysterious, and he seems somehow foreign: "It might be that he was an Englishman; and yet there lurked a bit of accent in his speech suggesting that possibly he was not such by birth " He is not popular among the ship's crew, but "no man holding his office in a man-of-war can ever hope to be popular with the crew."
Having set Claggart up as an outsider on board the Bellipotent, the narrator goes on to establish Claggart's evil nature, which the narrator says is innate in him. Essentially envious of Billy's "significant personal beauty," Claggart is disdainful of Billy's simple innocence, and goaded by it: "to be nothing more than innocent!" Claggart's deep envy of Billy grows out of his sense that Claggart possesses "no power to annul the elemental evil in him[self], though readily enough he could hide it, apprehending the good but powerless to be it." The narrator refers to Claggart's "monomania," or obsession, which is "covered over by his self-contained and rational demeanor"; this controlled surface is what Billy sees and perceives to be friendliness towards him. Billy is incapable of comprehending how and why Claggart is against him, and when Claggart moves in for the kill, accusing Billy of mutiny, Billy is unable to defend himself, helpless in the face of Claggart's depravity.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305
Noble, intellectual Captain Vere commands the Bellipotent and is an "austere devotee of military duty." He is, ultimately, responsible for Billy Budd's execution, as he instructs the drumhead court trying Billy's case in their responsibility to "adhere to...and administer" the law, whether they agree with it or not. Respected by his crew, although seen by some as a martinet, Captain Vere is "an officer mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline"; he believes that duty to the King comes before all else.
Captain Vere is an aristocrat, both by birth and in temperament, and his finely tuned "moral quality" enables him to be, "in earnest encounter with a fellow man, a veritable touchstone of that man's essential nature." The fact that Vere is puzzled by John Claggart and doubts his charges against Billy suggests that the events that follow Claggart's accusation will not be ordinary. Upon perceiving that Claggart is dead at Billy's hand, Captain Vere is transformed: "The father in him, manifested toward Billy thus far in the scene, was replaced by the military disciplinarian." The military relation overrides the emotional relation between Billy and Vere. When Vere speaks to the members of the drumhead court about the decision they must make regarding Billy's punishment, he tells them they are not "natural free agents" but officers of the King. Setting up the tension between emotion and intellect, Vere tells the officers, "let not warm hearts betray heads that should be cool"; in other words, they should not be swayed by emotion in Billy's case, hard as that may be. In spite of Captain Vere's words about military duty, his dying words, not long after Billy's execution, are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd," so it seems clear that Billy's fate has left its impression on the captain's heart.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933
The afterguardsman first appears as a mysterious whispering figure that awakens Billy as he sleeps on deck one warm night. He tries to draw Billy into a shady plot, which angers Billy. Billy sends the man away, raising a commotion, and when the others on board ask what is going on, Billy deliberates whether he should reveal what the afterguardsman has said to him. He decides not to be "a telltale" and keeps the incident to himself, although he is deeply puzzled by it. It is "the first time in his life that he had ever been personally approached in underhand intriguing fashion." When, during the next few days, the afterguardsman nods knowingly at Billy or speaks to him, Billy is "more at a loss than before." Billy's friend the Dansker connects the afterguardsman's act to Claggart's being "down on" Billy.
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Meeting Billy as Billy prepares to die, the Bellipotent's chaplain is amazed by Billy's peacefulness and realizes that he has little to give Billy. He finds Billy's ideas of death to be like those of a child; Billy is "wholly without irrational fear of [death]." And as the chaplain feels that "innocence [is] even a better thing than religion wherewith to go to Judgment," he does not impose himself on Billy. The narrator cautions the reader not to expect the chaplain to speak out on Billy's behalf, having seen his essential innocence. Such an attempt to save Billy's life would be, the narrator points out, "an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function, one as exactly prescribed to him by military law as that of a boatswain or any other naval officer." The chaplain knows he must not step outside his realm of duties.
Billy's confidant, the Dansker, is a man of few words, a navy veteran with a "wizened face" to whom Billy goes "for wise counsel." The Dansker, who dubs Billy "Baby Budd," tells Billy that Claggart is "down on" him. Billy cannot understand what the Dansker means; his innocence contrasts with his old friend's "pithy guarded cynicism." In spite of his wisdom, the Dansker chooses neither to interfere in Billy's business nor to give advice to the young sailor. The narrator attributes the Dansker's refusal to get involved to his experience with the world.
The Drumhead Court
Comprised of the Bellipotent's first lieutenant, captain of marines, and sailing master, the reluctant drumhead court has no real choice but to convict Billy Budd and sentence him to death. In spite of their sympathy for Billy and their disbelief that he could be capable of mutinous plotting, as Claggart had insisted, the members of the court are obligated to support the King's law. Captain Vere senses the court's hesitancy to convict Billy and reminds them of their military obligation and corresponding lack of free will, and they decide Billy's fate accordingly.
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Commander of the merchant ship Rights-of-Man, Captain Graveling tells Lieutenant Ratcliffe about Billy's calming influence on the men on board his ship and laments, "you are going to take away the jewel of 'em, you are going to take away my peacemaker!" The captain is "a respectable man" who takes "to heart those serious responsibilities not so heavily borne by some shipmasters." He is disheartened to think of how his ship had been "a rat-pit of quarrels" before Billy came aboard, as he expects it to return to that state after Billy leaves.
The Handsome Sailor
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The Old Merlin
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The purser confronts the surgeon several days after Billy's execution, asking the doctor why Billy had been so still during his hanging. The surgeon admits that "the absence of spasmodic movement" in Billy during the hanging "was phenomenal" in the sense that such spasms are normal and the absence of them in Billy is inexplicable. The purser wants the surgeon to concede that Billy was able, through his own will power, to remain still at the moment of hanging, but the surgeon refuses to agree. The conversation between the purser and the surgeon suggests that there was something superhuman about Billy.
Ratcliffe is the "burly and bluff' lieutenant of the H.M.S. Bellipotent, the British warship whose crew Billy is compelled to join. Lieutenant Ratcliffe, looking for men to join his ship's crew, quickly chooses Billy when he sees him aboard the Rights-of-Man and then goes to help himself to Captain Graveling's spirit locker without an invitation from the captain. Ratcliffe is unsympathetic to Captain Graveling's dejection over losing Billy.
The Red Whiskers
When Billy is a newcomer on the Rights-of-Man, the fellow known as the Red Whiskers picks a fight with Billy, perhaps out of envy over Billy's popularity, and Billy gives "the burly fool a terrible drubbing." The incident serves as foreshadowing to Billy's later striking of Claggart.
The surgeon is the Bellipotent's doctor, "a self-poised character of that grave sense and experience that hardly anything could take him aback," and yet, when he examines Claggart and finds him dead, the surgeon is shocked. When Captain Vere immediately declares that Billy Budd must hang for killing Claggart, the surgeon thinks Vere is not in his right mind, and yet, he knows that to resist his captain "would be mutiny." So, out of duty, the surgeon carries out Captain Vere's orders.
Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere
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