Billy Budd, Foretopman

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

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 citizens’ welfare. At the same time it is a microcosm of the society it is designed to protect. It consists of a variety of social types and a range of social classes all governed by the ultimate authority, Captain Vere. Class stratification and character type are reflected in the various deck levels and compartments of the ship, where the men live and work. Billy, for example, works on the foretop while Claggart works on the lower gun decks. A particularly important location on the ship is Vere’s cabin, the scene of Claggart’s death and Billy’s trial. It represents Vere’s irreproachable authority and is the place where he makes his decision about Billy’s fate and society’s welfare. While the mission of the Bellipotent is to protect the British from the French, British society is also threatened by anarchy, a threat stemming from rights-of-man theories and preceded by actual mutinies in the British fleet, namely that of April, 1797, at Spithead in the English Channel, and May, 1797, at the Nore in the Thames Estuary. To protect...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Royal Navy in the Late Eighteenth Century
Between 1794 and 1797, the number of seamen and marines serving in the British...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
The first-person narrator refers to himself as "I" and briefly talks about himself and his past experiences. He...

(The entire section is 864 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1790s: Late eighteenth-century warships of the British navy are powered by sails. Seventy-four gun ships—especially fast and easy to...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research the Somers Mutiny Affair of 1842. Compare the events in that historical case to the events of Billy Budd. How did...

(The entire section is 173 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Billy Budd was adapted as a film in 1962 by Peter Ustinov, who directed, produced, and starred as Captain Vere in this...

(The entire section is 228 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

"Young Goodman Brown," is a short story published in 1835 by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The character of Young Goodman Brown, an innocent, is...

(The entire section is 282 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Allen, Gay Wilson. Melville and His World. New York: Viking Press, 1971.

Anderson, Charles. Melville in the South...

(The entire section is 1391 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

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.

Bryant, John, ed. A Companion to Melville Studies. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Includes an important essay by Merton Sealts, Jr., “Innocence and Infamy: Billy Budd, Sailor,” and a general article by Rowland Sherrill called...

(The entire section is 430 words.)