Author Background

He was born in New York as the third among eight children to a prosperous trading family. Unfortunately, they fell upon bad times forcing young Melville to stop schooling and start working. As he had no qualifications, he worked at odd jobs. Some years later, he joined a ship as a sailor. Many of books have to do with sailing where he drew upon his own experience.  His most famous book is Moby Dick which deals with the captain’s obsession with the whale that had left him a cripple.

Relevance of the Title

Billy Budd is the name of the main character. Most characters see him in different ways. While John Claggart sees him as the leader of the mutiny, the Chaplain sees him as a fearless man, calm in the face of his impending death. Captain Vere who was ambiguous when it came to Billy Budd, dies with his name on his lips. Later sailors thought of him as a myth. The naval newspaper castigated him a treacherous man who was capable of treason.

Main Themes

Individual Versus Society

Melville was of the impression that society curtailed an individual’s freedom forcing him to conform to approved behavior. Billy Budd was a sailor happy in the ship named Rights of Man. But without enquiring of his rights or desire he is transferred to Bellipotent.  The same dilemma is seen in Captain Vere’s treatment of Billy Budd. Though he is inclined to believe that Billy Budd is innocent, he goes by the letter of law.

Duty

It Billy Budd doing one’s duty brought people into conflict with their conscience and moral obligations. Duty could also be a screen behind which it was possible to act thoughtlessly or carelessly.

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Innocence Versus Evil

Billy Budd is characterized by his innocence rather than by goodness. His open face and his handsome countenance were not his only defining features; it was his naiveté which could not see the evil which existed around him. This is why Claggart is able to provoke him into violence.  He is not able to see through Claggart’s malice and duplicity.

Characters

Billy Budd is an orphan who was found abandoned at a door step. Now aged twenty one, he is handsome young man with a very pleasing nature. While working in Rights of Man, a merchant ship, he is drafted into service on board the warship, Bellipotent. He becomes everyone’s favourite there. It is only the John Claggart who is charge of security who seems to dislike him. Billy Budd is innocent by nature and when spoken to roughly, he stammers and sometimes cannot speak at all.  When he is sentenced to death for a mutiny for which by all accounts, he was not responsible, he shows a strength of mind and resolve becoming a legend among sailors.

Captain Vere

He is only forty years old but bears the mien of a much older man. He is grave and unsmiling. He caught between doing the right thing that law demands and his conscience demands in the case of Billy Budd. Finally, he chooses what he feels is right by law. It would appear that he is not convinced of Billy Budd’s crime when he sentences him to death.

Claggart

There are many good qualities in Claggart but he does not win our sympathy due to the mean and vicious way in which he treats Billy Budd. There is little to implicate Billy Budd in the mutiny  but Claggart is convinced that he is the leader of the uprising. Was he jealous of Billy’s popularity? It would appear so.

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Summary

Billy Budd is a popular and well liked sailor on board the merchant ship, Rights of Man when he is requisitioned by the warship Bellipotent. When he moves to Bellipotent, Billy realizes that punishment is harsh in warships even for minor misdemeanors. Not wanting to do anything wrong, he works hard. In spite of that, he finds that he is under constant scrutiny by John Claggart, the master-at-arms. Billy speaks to Dansker, an experienced sailor about this. Dansker tells him that it would appear that Claggart has some irrational dislike for Billy. Billy cannot believe that as by nature he is innocent. He merely tries harder to win everyone’s approval. All but Claggart seem to like him well.

Some days later, Billy spills soup as the ship lurches suddenly. The soup flows towards Claggart who makes some comment that is outwardly humorous. The sailors present, obligingly laugh at the comment. Billy feels that the comment indicates Claggart’s approval. But later, Billy comes under increased scrutiny as though Claggart and his assistant are bent on catching Billy doing something wrong.

One night, Billy is woken by an unknown person who leads him to a deserted part of the ship. There, he is offered money for co-operation. Billy is taken aback and in raised voice, threatens the man with violence. Later when he is questioned by the other men on the ship, Billy, out of diffidence, does not reveal exactly what happened. Some days later, there is an encounter with an enemy frigate. Claggart approaches Captain Vere with an astounding revelation that there is a mutiny on board the ship and Billy is its ring leader. Billy is questioned by the Captain in Claggart’s presence. Billy, who upset by the charge, can barely talk. When Claggart repeats his charge using inflammatory words, Billy loses control and punches Claggart hard on his forehead.

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Claggart falls, knocked unconscious by the blow. He bleeds from his nose and mouth. The ship’s doctor is summoned who pronounces Claggart dead. Billy is arrested and charged with murder. The jury who meets is not able to come to a conclusion. Captain Vere is perturbed by the uncertainty that prevails. He orders the jury to confer again and come to a decisive conclusion in accordance with military law. The jury now returns a verdict of guilt. Billy is to be hanged to death. The sailors of the ship are very uneasy at this as they feel that Billy was provoked by Claggart’s intemperate words.

At night, the chaplain visits Billy to offer him spiritual solace. He finds Billy very calm and composed. The chaplain cannot but be impressed by Billy’s demeanor. In the morning, Billy is hung to death with the crew as witness. His last words are “God bless Captain Vere”. The men are inflamed at what they feel was injustice. Soon after, there is an encounter with a French warship in which captain Vere is wounded. He is off loaded at Gibraltor. A few days later he dies in hospital, muttering the words, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd”. This is taken as indication that he regrets the injustice done to Billy. For sailors, Billy becomes a mythical figure.