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Billy Budd

Billy Budd (1924) is a novella by American author Herman Melville (1819-1891). Set onboard a Royal Navy ship during the Napoleonic Wars, the story focuses on a handsome, naive young sailor who falls foul of a bitter and malicious commander on board a vessel named the Bellipotent. Melville uses Billy's story to examine themes of individuality and morality.


Billy Budd Plaque StudySmarterThe original manuscript of Billy Budd was incomplete when Melville died in 1891. Twenty years later, a biographer discovered the manuscript and quickly published a preliminary edition of the book in 1924.

Billy Budd: Summary

Billy Budd begins with an unnamed narrator describing the story's historical context. England was engaged in a bloody war with Napoleonic France at the end of the eighteenth century. The English Navy, stretched to the breaking point, often "impressed" or forced civilians into service. In combination with harsh conditions and cruel leadership, this practice led many disgruntled crews to rise and revolt against their commanders. Throughout the period, the threat of mutiny was prevalent on many ships and resulted in harsh punishments for those suspected of arranging any protest.


Billy Budd naval battle StudySmarterThe novel is set during a period of increasing tension and conflict between the naval powers of England and France. Wikicommons

In 1797, a handsome young sailor named Billy Budd is forced to leave his crew on the Rights-of-Man ship to go into service on the HMS Bellipotent. Billy is assigned a watchman on the mast and soon establishes himself as a popular and charismatic crew member. The ship's captain, "Starry" Vere, is a peaceful and intelligent man who immediately likes Billy. The ship's master-of-arms, Claggart, is a brooding and violent presence who often veils his true intentions.

How does the narrator first present Claggart to the reader? Does he attempt to remain fair and objective?

Claggart grows jealous of Billy's natural good looks and popularity, admonishing him for minor errors. Billy accepts his punishment and shows no sign of spite in return but is confused when Claggart contradicts his brutal behavior with playful advances. Claggart tells his assistant to monitor Billy's movements. During the night, another sailor invites Billy to a secluded part of the ship, where he is offered a bribe to join a mutiny against the ship's command. Disgusted by the idea, Billy stutters his refusal and threatens to throw the man overboard. The mutineer leaves, but two other sailors confront Billy about his movements.

After the Bellipotent engages with a French vessel, Claggart informs Captain Vere he suspects Billy is about to lead a mutiny to take over the ship. The pair confront Billy, who begins to stutter so badly he cannot defend himself against the charge. He begins to panic and is so distraught at Claggart's groundless accusation that he lashes out and punches the master-of-arms.

Was Billy justified in punching Claggart? Why or why not?

Claggart falls to the ground and begins bleeding from his ears. Soon after, the ship's surgeon declares him dead. Vere gathers the ship's highest-ranking officers to form a court. After Vere lays out the sequence of events to the jury, Billy cannot answer most of the accusations levied at him. He can only stutter that he had no intention to kill Claggart and is not involved in any mutiny.

Billy Budd Spar StudySmarterThe ship's spar used in Billy's execution becomes a hallowed site for the rest of the crew.

With the jury deadlocked, many among the crew sympathize with Billy's position. Vere is torn between his feelings for Billy and his duty to maintain order on board. He finally steps in and argues that as England is at war and its naval supremacy is threatened by mutiny, their personal feelings must come second to securing victory. The jury is forced to find Billy guilty of murder and rebellion and sentence him to be executed the following day.

That night, the ship's chaplain attempts to offer the condemned man spiritual guidance but finds Billy already at peace. The entire crew gathers around to witness the hanging, and as the rope is placed around Billy's neck, he utters his last words: "God bless Captain Vere!" 1

How does the crew react to Billy's death? What is the commander's response to their reaction?

As the Bellipotent returns to join the Royal fleet, the ship engages with a French vessel. During the encounter, Captain Vere is fatally wounded and eventually dies in a Gilbatar hospital; his last words are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd."1

After Billy's death, his legend begins to grow. Although newspapers depict him as a mutinous traitor, ordinary sailors remember him as a noble figure who was unfairly killed by his commander. The spar used to hang Billy becomes a venerated and holy object to the crew. The man who fills Billy's post at the mast writes a simple ballad in memory of the mythical sailor.

In the end, Melville contrasts the version of events depicted by newspapers with the sailor's view of Billy's life. Which is more accurate?

Billy Budd: Main Characters

Here is a look at the most important characters in Herman Melville's Billy Budd.

Billy Budd

The novel's protagonist is an extraordinarily handsome and naive young man who enjoys immense popularity amongst his crewmates. The narrator describes Billy's beauty in great detail and links this physical beauty to a more profound sense of purity and innocence. Billy is unaware of the malice in people like Claggart; since Billy is straightforward and honest in his interactions, he assumes others are too and takes everything at face value.

Billy's only imperfection is a stutter which only appears when he is faced with lies or spite. Unable to function in the face of such evil, he is left speechless. Melville's characterization of Billy has drawn comparisons to Biblical figures like Adam and Christ and claims that his innocence makes him animal-like. However, Billy's fallible humanity is shown when he strikes Claggart, making him far more sympathetic than either of the two Biblical figures.

Claggart

Though Claggart presents himself as even-tempered and fair, he is highly jealous and unstable. He grows increasingly bitter about Billy's beauty and popularity. While Billy is innocent and naive, Claggart is a deeply manipulative figure who often masks his true intentions under a veiled smile. He is usually kind toward Billy to lull him into a false sense of security. Since Claggart is motivated by nefarious goals, he believes others have similar inspirations and assumes the worst in others.

Melville never reveals why Claggart develops such a deep hatred for Billy. The narrator often describes Claggart as inherently evil, the opposing force to Billy's innate goodness. If Billy is presented as the innocent Adam enjoying life in the Garden of Eden, then Claggart is the serpent or Satan, there to destroy his innocence and cause him to fall.

Captain Vere

Captain Vere is the level-headed and intellectual leader of the Bellipotent. A fan of philosophy, the narrator tells us that Vere never goes to sea without a new library of reading material. While he enjoys learning, he is also presented as a practical man of the world, beloved by his men and able to captain the ship through rough waters and encounters with the enemy. Vere takes a liking to Billy, which makes his moral dilemma at the end of the story so difficult. Forced to choose between his heart and his head, Vere must make a controversial and cruel decision.

Billy Budd: Themes

In Billy Budd, Herman Melville uses Billy's specialness to highlight the tension between the concerns of an individual and sacrifices that sometimes must be made in large organizations.

Individual vs. Society

From the beginning, the novel's narrator presents Billy as an individual who stands out from the crowd. His beauty and naivete make him an object of desire and admiration amongst the crew. However, this strength becomes a liability as Billy becomes a target of jealousy and is persecuted. Billy faces a difficult choice after being offered the chance to join the mutiny; inform on the mutineers or maintain a sense of loyalty to the other men. Ultimately, he decides not to inform and chooses his moral code over duty to the Navy.


Billy Budd England Expects StudySmarterThis famous phrase from the Napoleonic Wars emphasizes the importance of duty over individual concerns. Wikicommons

Captain Vere faces the challenge of individual belief versus duty. He knows that Billy is a good person and loyal sailor, yet he must enforce the Navy's rule to squash any potential mutiny. This more considerable social pressure of loyalty to the country and service forces Vere to put his personal feelings aside to maintain order and stability on the ship. By fulfilling his duty, Vere disregards a sense of justice and his moral code to uphold naval law.

Melville presents this moral conundrum as a complex issue without clear answers. While Billy's death as an individual is tragic and unfair, Melville also shows that for larger organizations like the ship or the Navy to function successfully, there must be a sacrifice on the part of the individual. Melville suggests this may be particularly true during times of war or crisis.

Billy Budd: Analysis

Billy's story is told from the third-person point of view. The unnamed narrator attempts to remain objective and impartial while telling the story but admits that there are many details he does not know. He is happy to fill in these gaps with theories and rumors. The narrator is open about his subjectivity and often reminds the reader that he was not present during the events. In the last three chapters, the narrator attempts to find a moral in the story of Billy Budd to present to the reader. He contrasts the differing versions of events and finds himself siding with the crew's side of the story. By relaying the story of Billy Budd, the narrator contributes to the growing legend of the handsome sailor.

Billy Budd contains many standard characteristics of Herman Melville's writing style. The prose has long, windy sentences rich in imagery and Biblical references. The narrator often wrestles with significant philosophical problems. Like Melville's most famous work, Moby-Dick (1851), Billy Budd belongs in the sea story or nautical fiction genre. The narrator employs nautical jargon and often strays from the action to discuss history, politics, and morality.

Since the book's publication in 1924, generations of literary scholars have analyzed and critiqued Billy Budd. One of the most interesting contemporary analytical views proposes that the novel contains a great deal of homoerotic subtext.

While the subject of homosexuality remained taboo even during the period Melville wrote Billy Budd, it is important to contextualize the book's time and setting. In the Navy, crew members often faced prolonged periods at sea away from their spouses. In this setting, same-sex relationships were common, and although homosexual acts were prohibited by naval law, there was a general atmosphere of acceptance.

In her 2006 essay, "Exploring Homoeroticism in Herman Melville's Novella Billy Budd, Sailor,"2 Dana Silver argues the narrator repeatedly refers to Billy's immense beauty to subtly hint that Billy was an object of desire amongst the crew. She also proposes that Claggart's unexplained animosity towards Billy may stem from unrequited sexual desire.

When Billy accidentally spills the soup on Claggart's foot, instead of scolding him, Claggart playfully says, "Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it, too!" (Ch. 10). In several other encounters, Claggart is playful and almost openly flirting with Billy, who remains utterly oblivious to the advances. Silver suggests that Claggart's inability to recognize or cope with these feelings leads him to plan Billy's downfall.

In 1951, British composer Benjamin Britten staged an operatic version of Billy Budd, which embraced the novel's homoerotic subtext. The opera and subsequent 1962 film adaption are viewed as important representations of gay identity in mainstream British culture.

Symbolism

Melville employs symbolism in the characters' names to suggest traits and attributes. Billy's surname, Budd, suggests an unopened flower yet to reach its beautiful potential because he is cut short before he can bloom. Claggart's name is similar to the German word "Klaeger," which translates to accuser or complainer.

At the novel's beginning, Billy is forced to leave a merchant ship called the Rights-of-Man. Named for the influential pamphlet by political thinker Thomas Paine (1736-1809), the boat represents the drive for individual rights and democracy that dominated politics in the late 18th century. Paine's political pamphlets and essays were a significant inspiration for the revolutions in France and America.

Billy Budd Adam StudySmarterBilly's innocence is comparable to Adam before the fall.

Billy is taken from this setting of individual freedom and forced onto the Bellipotent, which means "the power of war." In this setting, Billy's individualism becomes a threat and is suppressed by the command. On the Bellipotent, Billy's rights and desires must be sacrificed for the war effort and the good of the Navy.

In addition, the book contains many allusions to the Bible and Christian imagery. In the beginning, Billy is presented as entirely innocent of the world's ways and the dark side of human nature. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Billy faces the evil force of the serpent embodied by Claggart, which leads to Billy's fall from grace. At the end of the book, Billy can be viewed as a Christ-like figure. Christ is martyred for man's sins, just as Billy's individuality is sacrificed for the sake of the Navy. After his death, Billy's legend takes on an almost holy light which is presented in how the narrator talks about the legendary figure. The site of his death also takes on a sacred meaning for the crew of the Bellipotent.

Billy Budd: Quotes

In Billy Budd, Herman Melville uses his knowledge of naval language and cadence to deal with issues of morality and duty. Here is a look at some important quotes from the novel.

Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company." (Ch. 2)

Billy's naive innocence and unassuming nature often draw comparisons to unenlightened or unexposed beings. The word "barbarian" suggests he is like a pre-modern man, unaware of the complex nature of modern life. The comparison to Adam suggests a beautiful innocent state.

Every sailor, too, is accustomed to obey orders without debating them; his life afloat is externally ruled for him." Ch. 17)

Billy and Captain Vere face dilemmas where they are faced with choosing between duty and personal beliefs. The narrator illustrates that life on the open sea must be governed by strict, unbreakable rules that often clash with a sailor's thoughts or feelings.

Billy Budd - Key takeaways

  • Billy Budd (1924) is a novella by American author Herman Melville.
  • The book tells the story of a handsome and naive young sailor named Billy Budd who falls afoul of a scornful commanding officer.
  • The text deals with the tensions between individualism and the constraints of society.
  • Melville employs vivid imagery and allusions to Biblical figures to tell Billy's story.
  • Many contemporary scholars have contested that the book contains homoerotic undertones.

1 Herman Melville, Billy Budd, 1924.

2Dana Silver, "Exploring Homoeroticism in Herman Melville's Novella Billy Budd, Sailor," 2006.

Frequently Asked Questions about Billy Budd

Billy Budd explores the tension between individuality and society.  

Billy Budd follows a handsome young sailor who becomes the target of a jealous and spiteful commanding officer. When the officer falsely accuses Billy of mutiny, the sailor lashes out and kills his accuser. 

Although it is set during a genuine naval conflict and references historical events, the story of Billy Budd is fictional. 

Billy Budd was first published in 1924. 

Billy Budd is an example of nautical fiction work. 

Final Billy Budd Quiz

Question

Which narrative view does Herman Melville use in Billy Budd?

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Answer

First-person 

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Question

Which character accuses Billy of mutiny? 

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Answer

Claggart

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Question

Herman Melville describes Billy's physical and personal beauty, however, he has one flaw. What is that flaw?

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Answer

Stutter

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Question

Billy is able to coherently defend himself during his trial. 

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Answer

False

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Question

Because of his beauty and innocence, Billy is often compared to which Biblical figure? 

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Answer

Adam

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Question

At the beginning of the novel, Billy is happily stationed on a ship called the ____________. 

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Answer

Rights-of-Man

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Question

What are Billy Budd's last words?

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Answer

"God bless Captain Vere!" 


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Question

Which Biblical figure is Claggart most associated with? 

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Answer

Satan

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Question

The novel is set during a period when England was at war with ________. 

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Answer

France

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Question

Where does Captain Vere die? 

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Answer

Gibraltar 

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