Billy Budd Summary
by Herman Melville

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Summary of the Novella
Billy Budd typifies the Handsome Sailor in his demeanor of moral goodness and grace. A merchant seaman on the vessel the Rights-of-Man, he is removed from his ship by Lieutenant Ratcliffe and pressed into service on board a British naval ship, the Indomitable. (Several versions, including the Penguin Classics series, name the ship the Bellipotent instead of the Indomitable.)

There he becomes a popular hero among his new shipmates, universally well-liked and respected by all with the exception of the sinister master-at-arms, John Claggart. Billy even becomes a favorite of Captain Vere, the commander of the Indomitable.

Claggart wrongfully accuses Billy Budd of participating in a mutiny plot and demands that Billy answer to the charge. Billy is unable to defend himself verbally because of a stammer. In angry frustration Billy suddenly strikes out at Claggart, stabbing him to death.

It is Captain Vere’s sad duty to try Billy on the charges of murder and mutiny. Despite his love for Billy, Vere’s first obligation is to the preservation of law and order.

Billy Budd is convicted by a drumhead court and sentenced to death. All hands on board are summoned to watch the sentence carried out. As Billy is hanged, his last words are “God Bless Captain Vere.”

Despite the fact that officially Billy is found to be guilty, his shipmates remember him as a perfect example of moral goodness and innocence. His story becomes legend among sailors, even being immortalized in a ballad, “Billy in the Darbies.”

The Life and Work of Herman Melville
Herman Melville was born in New York in 1819. His forebears were well-to-do and socially prominent, but his immediate family suffered from financial instability. His once prosperous household fell upon hard times. In 1832 his father’s bankruptcy and death cut short his formal education and forced him to give up hopes for a suitable career. He tried several jobs to help out his family, including teaching school and clerking in a bank. In 1839, when all his attempts to restore his family’s fortune had failed, Melville went to sea on a British ship, the St. Lawrence, bound for Liverpool.

In 1841 he signed aboard the Achushnet, which was headed for the South Seas. The brutal conditions aboard that ship led Melville and a companion to desert in the Marquesas Islands, where, in 1842, he became the well-treated captive of the cannibalistic Typees. Later he was rescued, only to become involved in a mutiny before finally returning home to the United States on a naval vessel in 1844.

Although he had never before considered a career as a writer, his friends urged him to publish memoirs of his adventures. His early works were quite successful, but his later writings were neither commercial successes nor critically appreciated. His successful sea novels included Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Redburn (1848), and White Jacket (1850). In 1851, he wrote Moby-Dick, which most reviewers at the time criticized as incomprehensible.

After his story Pierre (1852) was similarly attacked, he began writing for magazines, and tried farming to make ends meet. He had married Elizabeth Shaw of Massachusetts in 1847, and he had a family to support. He tried his hand unsuccessfully at lecturing before finally taking a job as a customs inspector, a position he held for 20 years. He died on September 28, 1891, and lies buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York.

Estimated Reading Time

Billy Budd is a novella (a short novel). Reading time is approximately 20 pages an hour. The novella has 105 pages, so it can be finished within four to five hours.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Billy Budd, Foretopman was written during Melville’s final years. He may have begun it after reading “The Mutiny on the Somers” in The American Magazine in June, 1888. Melville’s cousin Guert Gansevoort had been a lieutenant on the U.S. brig-of-war Somers in 1842 and had been a member of the military court that condemned a young seaman accused of mutiny. Melville may have wanted an...

(The entire section is 2,213 words.)