Billy Budd Analysis
by Herman Melville

Billy Budd book cover
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Billy Budd, Foretopman

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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Billy Budd, called the Handsome Sailor, displays near physical perfection and possesses a purity of innocence alien to the world he inhabits; but a single flaw leads to his destruction as this symbolic tale unfolds in its leisurely paced, digressive, yet powerful manner.

A British navy ship, short of hand, borrows Billy from a homeward bound merchant vessel. Unfazed by his impressment, Billy boards the Indomitable and soon earns the crew’s admiration for his good nature. Even the strong-willed Captain Vere takes special note of him.

Like an Adam aboard a floating Garden of Eden, Billy has no grasp of wrongdoing. So when the master-at-arms, John Claggart, makes his hatred and envy known, Billy fails to guard against the evil that Claggart manifests. Eventually Billy’s flaw--his stutter--causes him to murder Claggart. The circumstances surrounding Billy’s punishment provide a dramatic and significant climax to this sad account of the Handsome Sailor.

The novel gives yet another version of the Fall of Man, so apparent are the symbolic roles of the major characters: Billy as Adam; Claggart as Satan; Captain Vere as the Almighty Judge. It takes up, as well, the eternal opposites embedded in love and hate. For the innocent Billy, love is spontaneous and natural; yet such love is his undoing. For the depraved Claggart, hatred becomes the twisted response to a love so pure. And for Captain Vere, whose name means truth, love must be tempered and tested with intellect.

This dark vision of man’s spiritual state offers neither set answers nor a solution to the riddle of existence. Rather it shows how perilous and contradictory is man’s place in the universe.


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.

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.

Parker, Hershel. Reading Billy Budd. Evanstan, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1991. A Melville scholar calls attention to, and demonstrates the largely unrealized potentialities of, the definitive edition of the novelist’s celebrated last novel.

Scorza, Thomas J. In the Time Before Steamships: “Billy Budd,” the Limits of Politics, and Modernity. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1979. Approaches the “political dimension” of the novel. Argues that modern people find tragedy rather than glory in the limits of politics. Argues that Melville’s analysis led him to see modern tragedy as the result of prideful rational philosophy.

Stafford, William T., ed. Melville’s “Billy Budd” and the Critics. 2d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1968. Discussion of the text and early critical views. Treats acceptance and resistance themes, spiritual autobiography, myth, art, social commentary, and Christian and classical parallels. Recent criticism focuses on the limits of human perception.

Vincent, Howard P., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Billy Budd: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Varied and excellent essays on innocence, irony, justice, tragedy, and acceptance in Billy Budd, Foretopman. Part 2 gives the viewpoints of major critics.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

HMS Bellipotent

HMS Bellipotent. Seventy-four-gun warship onto which seaman Billy Budd is impressed to serve in the British Navy. In earlier versions of the story, this ship is called the Indomitable. Both names suggest power as a means of preserving order. The ship, one of many in Britain’s Mediterranean fleet, represents the authority of the state and also serves as the guardian of the state’s...

(The entire section is 5,510 words.)