Suggested Essay Topics
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
2. Could Dansker have done more to warn Billy Budd? Does he have a moral responsibility to protect Billy? State your position and provide three reasons for that position, based upon the text.
1. Can Squeak’s actions be defended or are they indefensible? Take a position and argue for that position based upon what you know about the characters from the text.
2. Do you agree or disagree that, like the scorpion, Claggart cannot help but be what he is. Consider the following—are our personalities inborn, or can we change them? Can upbringing and education affect our personalities? What about destiny—does God make us the way we are for some inexplicable reason? What is Melville’s position? What was the popular notion about predestination in Melville’s own time?
1. Is innocence of character necessarily a virtue? How might Billy handle the afterguardsman’s proposition if he were more worldly or sophisticated?
2. Describe the complexity of Claggart’s feelings toward Billy. How might their relationship be different if Claggart were to follow his inclination to love instead of hate Billy?
1. Captain Vere is skeptical about Claggart’s accusation. What is Vere’s opinion of Claggart? Substantiate your answer by citing the text.
2. What is the significance of Claggart’s accusation coming while the Indomitable is detached from the rest of the fleet?
1. From the text, what do we know of Captain Vere’s personality, and how can we expect him to handle Billy’s trial?
2. How might the outcome have been different if Billy had been able to speak? Write a response that Billy might have made to Claggart’s accusations.
(The entire section is 1,078 words.)