Suggested Essay Topics

Chapter 1
1. Discuss the ethics of impressment during wartime. Consider the conflicting rights of the nation and the individual. Compare this issue with dilemmas of Melville’s own era—for example, the problem of slavery with respect to the commercial interests of the southern farmers vs. the individual human rights of the slaves.

2. Compare and contrast the characterizations of Captain Graveling and Lieutenant Ratcliffe. Which of the two would you prefer to have as your superior officer? Why?

Chapter 2
1. Billy is likened to Adam before the Fall. What do you know of the Bible story of the Fall of Adam? Do you agree or disagree with Melville’s assessment?

2. Billy is a foundling—from the clues in the story, imagine who his parents might have been. What is Billy’s ethnic heritage? His religious heritage? The socioeconomic class of his forebears?

Chapter 3
1. Discuss the events of 1797 and try to understand what the mood may have been among the British naval authorities in the aftermath of the mutinies.

2. Discuss Melville’s analogy: “To some extent the Nore Mutiny may be regarded as analogous to the distempering irruption of contagious fever in a frame constitutionally sound, and which anon throws it off.” Explain what Melville means. Discuss whether or not the analogy helps you to understand the Nore Mutiny.

Chapters 4-5
1. Billy is the “Handsome Sailor” and Lord Nelson is the “Great Sailor.” Explain the distinction between a “Handsome Sailor” and a “Great Sailor.”

2. Imagine that you are a young officer on board a British maritime ship in the aftermath of the Spithead and Nore uprisings. Can you trust the crew? How do you feel if you have to “stand with drawn sword” to make sure the crew will fight in battle?

Chapters 6-8
1. Compare and contrast Billy Budd’s background and situation with John Claggart’s.

2. Defend or critique the policy of emptying prisons in order to man the British naval ships.

Chapters 9-11
1. Read these lines written by Thomas Brown in the seventeenth century:

I do not love thee Doctor Fell
The reason why I cannot tell
But this I know and know full well
I do not love thee Doctor Fell

Explain how the sentiment in this poem relates to John Claggart’s feelings toward Billy Budd, as well as to Melville’s depiction of Claggart.


(The entire section is 1078 words.)