Billy Budd, Sailor: An Inside Narrative

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Billy Budd, Sailor: An Inside Narrative
Herman Melville

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


When Herman Melville began working on what was to be his final novel, Billy Budd, Sailor: An Inside Narrative, his years of renown as a celebrated American author were well behind him. He had worked in the New York Customhouse for nearly two decades, until 1885, when he retired from his job and returned to his writing. Sometime between 1885 and 1891, Melville wrote a poem, "Billy in the Darbies," about a young sailor who had been executed for his involvement in a mutinous plot. In 1888, Melville read an article called "The Mutiny on the Somers," which related the story of three sailors who in 1842 had been convicted of mutiny on board the U.S. brig Somers. Melville's older cousin had been one of the officers involved in the sailors' conviction, and his family knew details of the case that the public did not know. A split between what Melville biographer Leon Howard calls "the inside story and the historical record"—what really happened and what was reported—inspired Melville to expand his poem about Billy into a longer prose work with the subtitle "An Inside Narrative." However, Melville died in September 1891, six months after apparently finishing work on the book, and Billy Budd was left unpublished until 1924, when it was discovered among Melville's papers.

Raymond Weaver's 1921 publication of his Melville biography, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, sparked a revival of interest in the works of the largely forgotten writer. In 1924, Weaver brought out The Collected Works of Melville, which includes the first edition of Billy Budd, and critics greeted the short novel enthusiastically, admiring its perceptiveness and its moral and symbolic complexity. Treating such weighty themes as duty and conscience, good and evil, justice, and guilt and innocence, Melville's final novel is considered one of his masterpieces.

Author Biography

Herman Melville's reputation seesawed from popularity to obscurity and back again over much of his lifetime and beyond, but now his position is secure as one of America's greatest authors. Best known now for his masterpiece novel Moby-Dick (1851), Melville first became popular as a writer in the 1840s for his novels of adventure in the South Seas: Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). Born in New York City in 1819, Melville had been attracted to the sea and ships at a young age, and his first two novels, fictional romances inspired by his own seagoing adventures, were warmly received by readers.

After his early success with Typee and Omoo, Melville disappointed his audience with his third novel, Mardi (1849), which took a philosophical and metaphysical turn away from his previous narratives. More conventional sea novels Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850)—his attempts to win his audience back—briefly appeased his readers, but then with the publication of Moby-Dick in 1851, followed by Pierre in 1852, Melville had lost his audience altogether. Moby-Dick, a novel ostensibly about whaling but actually about the human condition, had found a small but appreciative critical audience, but Pierre, a dark, somewhat autobiographical novel, was a critical as well as popular failure. The public who had loved his South Seas novels thought that Melville had gone mad.

After the dismal failure of Pierre, Melville decided to produce shorter prose pieces for publication in magazines. For a few years he honed his skill at writing these short works, producing such tales as "Benito Cereno" and "The Encantadas", before coming out with another full-length novel. The Confidence-Man, published in 1857, was the last prose piece that Melville would publish in his lifetime. This final novel, a satire which deals with confidence men on board a riverboat on April Fool's Day, was a failure.

Disappointed, Melville turned to writing poetry and eventually obtained a position as an inspector in the New York Customhouse, which he held for nearly 20 years. After his retirement, Melville continued to write poems, and sometime after 1888 he began work on a short novel—Billy Budd, Sailor: An Inside Narrative—which had grown out of his poem, "Billy in the Darbies". Melville's expansion upon the poem about the young sailor who had been implicated in a mutiny conspiracy was probably spurred by his having read an article about an 1842 mutiny plot on the U.S. brig Somers. Melville stopped work on Billy Budd in April, 1891, but then he died five months later, leaving the work unfinished and unpublished.

The manuscript of Billy Budd was not published until 1924, when it was discovered among Melville's papers. Modern, 1920s America was ready for Melville in a way that his own late nineteenth century had not been. With the 1921 publication of Raymond Weaver's biography Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic and then the 1924 publication of The Collected Works of Melville, which contained the first published edition of Billy Budd, Melville's critical reputation soared, and the author who was virtually unknown at his death was essentially rediscovered and venerated.

Plot Summary

In Billy Budd, a navy sailor is accused of fomenting (or plotting) mutiny by an officer during wartime, at which point the sailor strikes the officer dead. To settle the issue quickly, the sailor is summarily tried and convicted by the captain for murder, and is hung at sunrise the following day. The novel presents different versions of the events themselves.

Arranged in thirty chapters, it is not until chapter 29 that the narrator quotes the official naval report on the murder. In no time at all, the events are summarized: "On the tenth of the last month a deplorable occurrence took place on board H.M.S. Bellipotent. John Claggart, the ship's master-at-arms, discovering that some sort of plot was incipient among an inferior section of ship's company, and that the ringleader was one William Budd; he, Claggart, in the act arraigning the man before the captain, was vindictively stabbed to the heart by the suddenly drawn sheath knife of Budd." In the end, this stands as one version of the novel's plot, but the other twenty-nine chapters tell a different story.

Chapters 1-8

In the first eight chapters, the narrator attempts to sketch the histories of these men—first Billy Budd, then Captain Vere, then John Claggart. Billy is "impressed" (forced) into the British navy, then (1797) at war with the French. A lieutenant boards the merchant ship, the Rights-of-Man, that Billy has worked on for some time, and selects only him to bolster the crew of the Bellipotent, without any consideration of Billy's or the merchant captain's desires. Apparently Billy was selected because he has the charismatic qualities of what the narrator calls the "Handsome Sailor," a leader both physically and morally. Billy appears to be exceedingly simple, an "upright barbarian," but factual knowledge of him is limited to his status as an orphan. Of his family history only speculation is possible. Captain Vere, on the other hand, traces his ancestors well back into the seventeenth century; he is well read, respected for his intelligence and open heart; he is a dedicated seaman and an efficient disciplinarian. About as much of Claggart's life before service on the Bellipotent is known "as an astronomer knows about a comet's travels prior to its first observable appearance in the sky."

Chapters 9-19

Chapters 9 through 17 develop the antagonism between Claggart and Budd—though "antagonism" must be used in a qualified manner since Budd holds no grudge against Claggart, and simply cannot understand why Claggart would dislike him. The reasons for this antagonism are unknown. The narrator suggests that perhaps the older man envied Billy's personal beauty, or saw in Billy the innocence he had lost. Because Claggart could "really form no conception of an unreciprocated malice," he contrives traps for Billy. Three incidents occur that test Billy's goodwill. Claggart has an underling disturb Billy's possessions so that he would fail inspection. Then Billy accidentally spills his soup in front of Claggart, who reads the mess as intentional. Finally, another stooge of Claggart's fails to tempt Billy into mutinous plots, even though Billy could justly resent having been impressed on board.

Since none of these incidents produce Billy's downfall, Claggart escalates his attack by taking advantage of a failed chase of a French warship, in chapter 18, to corner the captain and claim (falsely) that Billy had just revealed mutinous intentions. Vere is skeptical but arranges to question the two men privately in his cabin. In chapter 19, Claggart calmly accuses Billy, and instead of answering Claggart and clearing himself in front of the captain, Billy stutters and strikes Claggart directly on the forehead, killing him instantly.

Chapters 20-27

In chapters 20 and 21 Billy is tried before the captain and three officers. He says to the court, could "I have used my tongue I would not have struck [Claggart]." All four judges appear to believe in Billy's good intentions, but Vere ultimately convinces them all that their duty is to hang Billy. They must send a clear message to the sailors that even the taint of "mutiny" on your name will result in severe punishment. "For that law [the Mutiny Act] and the rigor of it," Vere says, "we are not responsible."

Chapters 22 to 27 describe the last few hours of Billy's short life. Vere tells Billy of his sentence, in such a way that added to the feeling he already had for the good captain, and Billy seems to respect Vere all the more. Billy has one more night and spends the time peacefully and alone. At sunrise, the "Handsome Sailor" is hung. There is some grumbling of discontent among the sailors at this seemingly unwarranted event, but naval discipline represses any actual signs of protest. The body is wrapped in what was once his hammock, and, like Claggart's body a few hours earlier, tossed into the ocean.

Chapters 28-30

In the final three chapters, the narrator follows the fate of Captain Vere, includes the naval report on the incident, tells how the spar from which Billy was hung was "converted into a monument," and includes a poem by one of the sailors who knew Billy. Vere dies soon after in a fight with a French ship, and the men on board the Bellipotent who were present when Billy died all take a shard of the beam from which Billy was hung, since to "them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross." With these shards, the men remember Billy. The poem "Billy in the Darbies," which speculates on how Billy might have spoken in his last hours, closes the novel: "I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist."


The Afterguardsman

The afterguardsman first appears as a mysterious whispering figure that awakens Billy as he sleeps on deck one warm night. He tries to draw Billy into a shady plot, which angers Billy. Billy sends the man away, raising a commotion, and when the others on board ask what is going on, Billy deliberates whether he should reveal what the afterguardsman has said to him. He decides not to be "a telltale" and keeps the incident to himself, although he is deeply puzzled by it. It is "the first time in his life that he had ever been personally approached in underhand intriguing fashion." When, during the next few days, the afterguardsman nods knowingly at Billy or speaks to him, Billy is "more at a loss than before." Billy's friend the Dansker connects the afterguardsman's act to Claggart's being "down on" Billy.


See Billy Budd


See The Dansker

Baby Budd

See Billy Budd

Billy Budd

In spite of the innocence and simplicity that characterize Billy Budd, he is a complex character in terms of what he represents. His name suggests an almost childlike youthfulness: Although he is an adult, his name, William, is shortened into the child's nickname, Billy, and the Dansker refers to him as "Baby Budd" because he seems so young. His last name, Budd, suggests the immaturity of a flower that has not yet bloomed. And yet it is Billy's very immaturity that brings about his end.

Billy's innocence is the dominant aspect of his character. He is unable to distinguish between his friends and his enemies, or even to comprehend that he might have an enemy. Happy-go-lucky and popular with his fellow sailors, the handsome Billy is scrupulous about following orders and performing his duties correctly. Knowing nothing of his own heritage except that he was a foundling, Billy recalls "young Adam before the Fall": unburdened by a past, uncomplicated by civilization, meeting the world on his own terms, innocent of evil.

And yet this seemingly perfect human being is indeed flawed: Billy stutters when he becomes agitated. The narrator says that Billy's stutter is Satan's reminder that "I too have a hand here"; no one can escape his power. His innocence ironically comes to function as another flaw because he lacks "that intuitive knowledge of the bad which in natures not good or incompletely so foreruns experience." In Billy's encounter with the afterguardsman and his experience with Claggart—his first, puzzling brushes with corruption—"his innocence [is] his blinder," and he is unable to protect himself.

As he faces his execution, Billy exemplifies the Christlike nature which critics often note when discussing him. When Billy learns of Claggart's accusation, his face holds "an expression which was a crucifixion to behold." In spite of Captain Vere's decision to go through with Billy's execution, Billy's last words, illustrating his generous and forgiving nature, are "God bless Captain Vere!" At the moment of execution, the fleecy clouds in the eastern sky are "shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision." Then, recalling Christ's ascension into heaven following his resurrection, "Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn." The spar from which Billy is hanged takes on an almost religious significance for the sailors: "To them, a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross."

William Budd

See Billy Budd

Media Adaptations

  • Billy Budd was adapted as a film in 1962 by Peter Ustinov, who directed, produced, and starred as Captain Vere in this version of Melville's novel. Terence Stamp, as Billy, won an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Other actors who starred in the film include Robert Ryan and David McCallum. The film is in black and white and is available on VHS.
  • Benjamin Britten adapted Billy Budd as a four-act opera in 1951, with libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier. A production of the opera is available on video, released in 1988, starring Thomas Allen as Billy, and with the English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by David Atherton and directed by Tim Albery.
  • Billy Budd is available on two audiocassettes, read by Simon Jones. The cassettes were released by Durkin Hayes Audio in 1987.
  • Louis O. Coxe and Robert Chapman published Billy Budd, A Play in Three Acts in 1951 by Princeton University Press.
  • A documentary on the historical incident that inspired Billy Budd, The Curse of the Somers: Billy Budd's Ghost Ship (1996) is an award-winning film narrated by Peter Coyote. The film looks at the controversial Somers Mutiny Affair, which Melville mentions in Billy Budd. This case resulted in the hanging of midshipman Philip Spencer and the court-martial of Captain Alexan der Slidell Mackenzie. The film also includes underwater footage of an exploration of the Somers wreck. Information on the Somers Documentary Film Project can be found on the Web site:

The Chaplain

Meeting Billy as Billy prepares to die, the Bellipotent's chaplain is amazed by Billy's peacefulness and realizes that he has little to give Billy. He finds Billy's ideas of death to be like those of a child; Billy is "wholly without irrational fear of [death]." And as the chaplain feels that "innocence [is] even a better thing than religion wherewith to go to Judgment," he does not impose himself on Billy. The narrator cautions the reader not to expect the chaplain to speak out on Billy's behalf, having seen his essential innocence. Such an attempt to save Billy's life would be, the narrator points out, "an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function, one as exactly prescribed to him by military law as that of a boatswain or any other naval officer." The chaplain knows he must not step outside his realm of duties.

John Claggart

John Claggart, the master-at-arms on the Bellipotent, is a difficult character to grasp, even for the narrator: "His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it." Claggart's essential nature eludes not only the narrator and Billy Budd but also the perceptive Captain Vere; in fact, the only character who seems to understand Claggart and his motives is the wise yet taciturn Dansker. Claggart in turn is "perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd," and ironically, Billy's goodness is what drives Claggart to destroy him.

Claggart is portrayed as being different from the other men on the Bellipotent. His physical description emphasizes his pallor, unusual among sailors and hinting of "something defective or abnormal." His background is mysterious, and he seems somehow foreign: "It might be that he was an Englishman; and yet there lurked a bit of accent in his speech suggesting that possibly he was not such by birth." He is not popular among the ship's crew, but "no man holding his office in a man-of-war can ever hope to be popular with the crew."

Having set Claggart up as an outsider on board the Bellipotent, the narrator goes on to establish Claggart's evil nature, which the narrator says is innate in him. Essentially envious of Billy's "significant personal beauty," Claggart is disdainful of Billy's simple innocence, and goaded by it: "to be nothing more than innocent!" Claggart's deep envy of Billy grows out of his sense that Claggart possesses "no power to annul the elemental evil in him[self], though readily enough he could hide it; apprehending the good but powerless to be it." The narrator refers to Claggart's "monomania," or obsession, which is "covered over by his self-contained and rational demeanor"; this controlled surface is what Billy sees and perceives to be friendliness towards him. Billy is incapable of comprehending how and why Claggart is against him, and when Claggart moves in for the kill, accusing Billy of mutiny, Billy is unable to defend himself, helpless in the face of Claggart's depravity.

The Dansker

Billy's confidant, the Dansker, is a man of few words, a navy veteran with a "wizened face" to whom Billy goes "for wise counsel." The Dansker, who dubs Billy "Baby Budd," tells Billy that Claggart is "down on" him. Billy cannot understand what the Dansker means; his innocence contrasts with his old friend's "pithy guarded cynicism." In spite of his wisdom, the Dansker chooses neither to interfere in Billy's business nor to give advice to the young sailor. The narrator attributes the Dansker's refusal to get involved to his experience with the world.

The Drumhead Court

Comprised of the Bellipotent's first lieutenant, captain of marines, and sailing master, the reluctant drumhead court has no real choice but to convict Billy Budd and sentence him to death. In spite of their sympathy for Billy and their disbelief that he could be capable of mutinous plotting, as Claggart had insisted, the members of the court are obligated to support the King's law. Captain Vere senses the court's hesitancy to convict Billy and reminds them of their military obligation and corresponding lack of free will, and they decide Billy's fate accordingly.

The Foretopman

See Billy Budd

Captain Graveling

Commander of the merchant ship Rights-of-Man, Captain Graveling tells Lieutenant Ratcliffe about Billy's calming influence on the men on board his ship and laments, "you are going to take away the jewel of 'em, you are going to take away my peacemaker!" The captain is "a respectable man" who takes "to heart those serious responsibilities not so heavily borne by some shipmasters." He is disheartened to think of how his ship had been "a rat-pit of quarrels" before Billy came aboard, as he expects it to return to that state after Billy leaves.

The Handsome Sailor

See Billy Budd

Jemmy Legs

See John Claggart

The Master-at-Arms

See John Claggart

The Old Merlin

See The Dansker

The Purser

The purser confronts the surgeon several days after Billy's execution, asking the doctor why Billy had been so still during his hanging. The surgeon admits that "the absence of spasmodic movement" in Billy during the hanging "was phenomenal" in the sense that such spasms are normal and the absence of them in Billy is inexplicable. The purser wants the surgeon to concede that Billy was able, through his own will power, to remain still at the moment of hanging, but the surgeon refuses to agree. The conversation between the purser and the surgeon suggests that there was something superhuman about Billy.

Lieutenant Ratcliffe

Ratcliffe is the "burly and bluff" lieutenant of the H.M.S. Bellipotent, the British warship whose crew Billy is compelled to join. Lieutenant Ratcliffe, looking for men to join his ship's crew, quickly chooses Billy when he sees him aboard the Rights-of-Man and then goes to help himself to Captain Graveling's spirit locker without an invitation from the captain. Ratcliffe is unsympathetic to Captain Graveling's dejection over losing Billy.

The Red Whiskers

When Billy is a newcomer on the Rights-of-Man, the fellow known as the Red Whiskers picks a fight with Billy, perhaps out of envy over Billy's popularity, and Billy gives "the burly fool a terrible drubbing." The incident serves as foreshadowing to Billy's later striking of Claggart.

The Surgeon

The surgeon is the Bellipotent's doctor, "a self-poised character of that grave sense and experience that hardly anything could take him aback," and yet, when he examines Claggart and finds him dead, the surgeon is shocked. When Captain Vere immediately declares that Billy Budd must hang for killing Claggart, the surgeon thinks Vere is not in his right mind, and yet, he knows that to resist his captain "would be mutiny." So, out of duty, the surgeon carries out Captain Vere's orders.

Captain Vere

Noble, intellectual Captain Vere commands the Bellipotent and is an "austere devotee of military duty." He is, ultimately, responsible for Billy Budd's execution, as he instructs the drumhead court trying Billy's case in their responsibility to "adhere to … and administer" the law, whether they agree with it or not. Respected by his crew, although seen by some as a martinet, Captain Vere is "an officer mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline"; he believes that duty to the King comes before all else.

Captain Vere is an aristocrat, both by birth and in temperament, and his finely tuned "moral quality" enables him to be, "in earnest encounter with a fellow man, a veritable touchstone of that man's essential nature." The fact that Vere is puzzled by John Claggart and doubts his charges against Billy suggests that the events that follow Claggart's accusation will not be ordinary. Upon perceiving that Claggart is dead at Billy's hand, Captain Vere is transformed: "The father in him, manifested toward Billy thus far in the scene, was replaced by the military disciplinarian." The military relation overrides the emotional relation between Billy and Vere. When Vere speaks to the members of the drumhead court about the decision they must make regarding Billy's punishment, he tells them they are not "natural free agents" but officers of the King. Setting up the tension between emotion and intellect, Vere tells the officers, "let not warm hearts betray heads that should be cool"; in other words, they should not be swayed by emotion in Billy's case, hard as that may be. In spite of Captain Vere's words about military duty, his dying words, not long after Billy's execution, are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd," so it seems clear that Billy's fate has left its impression on the captain's heart.

Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere

See Captain Vere

Starry Vere

See Captain Vere


Duty and Conscience

Captain Vere's dilemma—whether to convict Billy and hang him in spite of his sense that the young sailor is innocent—arises from Vere's very nature. Captain Vere is characterized throughout Billy Budd as a man who heeds his duty. Even before Captain Vere appears, a description of the captain by minor character Captain Graveling of the Rights-of-Man anticipates the more central cap-tain's problem: "His duty he always faithfully did; but duty is sometimes a dry obligation." The "dryness" of duty is in its disconnection from feeling or intuition: duty is intellectual rather than emotional. And Captain Vere is described as possessing "a marked leaning toward everything intellectual," and "never tolerating an infraction of discipline." He adheres to the law and expects his men to do so as well.

Captain Vere's nickname, "Starry Vere," comes from a poem by Andrew Marvell, in which allusion is made to the "discipline severe" of a figure called "starry Vere," actually an ancestor of the captain. These early references to Captain Vere's rigidness concerning law and duty create a character who later in the novel must face a moral dilemma and choose between his duty and his conscience. When Claggart comes to Vere with his accusation against Billy, Vere is wary of the strange officer's manner and doubts that Billy Budd could be involved in such a plot as Claggart implies. Yet Vere knows he must question Billy; this is the proper way to handle such an allegation. When Billy strikes Claggart, killing him, Vere reacts in "an excited manner [such as the surgeon] had never before observed in the Bellipotent's captain." In this situation, Vere's duty is made unclear by his emotional response to "so strange and extraordinary a tragedy." Yet he immediately calls the drumhead court, leaving the surgeon to think that the captain has perhaps come "unhinged."

The members of the drumhead court, believing in Billy's innocence, are pulled by their conscience to vote to "convict and yet mitigate the penalty," but Captain Vere stands fast by his duty and reminds the court that they should not "Let warm hearts betray heads that should be cool." Billy's execution goes forward because of Captain Vere's intense focus on duty. As naval officers, he tells the court, "in receiving our commissions we in the most important regards ceased to be natural free agents." He goes on to ask them to "tell me whether or not, occupying the position we do, private conscience should not yield to that imperial one formulated in the code under which alone we officially proceed?" Essentially, the captain and his officers face a problem of whether to ignore their consciences, which speak strongly to them of Billy's innocence, or to follow their duty as officers in the King's navy and order Billy's death. The accusation of mutiny aside, the simple fact is that Billy, a foretopman, has struck and killed his superior, the master-at-arms. This fact, viewed objectively and according to the law, must result in execution of the sailor, regardless of his innocent nature. Captain Vere, at his own death, appears still to be haunted by his decision in favor of duty: his last words are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd."

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the Somers Mutiny Affair of 1842. Compare the events in that historical case to the events of Billy Budd. How did Melville depart from the events of the Somers case in his composition of Billy Budd? What events did he keep, and why?
  • Watch the video of the 1962 film adaption of Billy Budd. What aspects of Melville's novel do the filmmakers emphasize? What do you think of the way the film was cast—are the characters portrayed as you would have expected? What do you think of the musical score's contribution to the film's mood?
  • The narrator refers to Claggart's attitude towards Billy as "monomania." What does he mean by this term? Is there an equivalent in modern psychological parlance? Research how a modern psychologist might describe or explain Claggart's feelings towards Billy.
  • Research the history of impressment into the British Royal Navy. Why do you think Melville made impressment into naval service a part of Billy's character? How might an actual sailor in Billy's time have felt about being impressed into service?


Billy Budd's innocence—"his blinder," according to the narrator—is his tragic flaw. His innocence is what makes him the Handsome Sailor—it radiates from his laughing "welkin eyes" and makes him a peacemaker and a friend to all, drawing others to him. Yet aboard the Bellipotent, one of the men who is drawn to him is motivated by envy and malice: Claggart. Here, in his encounters with the scheming master-at-arms, is where Billy's innocence is his weakness. He cannot comprehend the evil in Claggart, nor can he grasp that it is directed at him.

A foundling with no knowledge of his parents, Billy is illiterate and has had little experience with the world, having spent much of his life on board ship. Billy is "little more than an upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company." Adamic innocence is the purest kind of innocence, and a comparison with Adam before the Fall implies a closeness to nature and an innocence that is untouched by even a suggestion of evil.

When Billy takes great care to keep his possessions in order and perform his duties correctly, he is puzzled when he finds "something amiss." When he consults the wise Dansker, Billy is even more perplexed when the latter implies that Claggart has had something to do with Billy's troubles. The Dansker's insistence that "Jemmy Legs is down on you" proves "incomprehensible to a novice, [and] disturbed Billy almost as much as the mystery for which he had sought explanation." Billy is fundamentally incapable of comprehending how or why someone could be out to get him. Not only is he young and inexperienced; Billy "had none of that intuitive knowledge of the bad," which others with less innocent natures may possess, enabling them to understand evil without having to experience it.

Law and Nature

Captain Vere defines the theme of law vs. nature when he admonishes the drumhead court to follow their duty to the King rather than listening to their hearts. He asks the members of the court how they can sentence to death "a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?" When the court appears sympathetic to his question, he goes on, "I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval, though this be the element where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King's officers lies our duty in a sphere correspondingly natural? So little is that true, that in receiving our commissions we in the most important regards ceased to be natural free agents." Captain Vere's statement to the court highlights an opposition in the novel between human-made law and nature. Billy represents nature. The narrator calls him "a barbarian"; he "stands nearer to unadulterated Nature" than the other characters by virtue of his innocence. The manner in which Billy's case is handled represents the force of law upon nature: men who feel that Billy is innocent know that they must follow the King's laws against their better judgment. This problem is at the heart of the novel.


John Claggart personifies evil in Billy Budd. The narrator, who admits to his own tendencies toward innocence, claims not to be able to grasp Claggart's character in full: "His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it." Claggart is portrayed as mysterious and foreign. Little is known about him or his past. His complexion hints at "something defective or abnormal in the constitution or blood," and although he seems to have had an education, "Nothing is known of his former life." Claggart's characterization as dark and unknowable establishes a feeling of dread about him. Regarding the source of Claggart's evil, the narrator touches upon the question of whether one is born evil or learns to be so. In Claggart, he says, "the mania of an evil nature [was] not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books … but born with him and innate, in short 'a depravity according to nature.'" Linked with such a nature is "an uncommon prudence … for it has everything to hide." Claggart behaves courteously toward Billy, covering up his hatred and envy of the young sailor: his "monomania … [was] covered over by his self-contained and rational demeanor." If Billy Budd is Adam before the Fall, Claggart represents the serpent who introduces the innocent man to pure evil.


Point of View

The first-person narrator refers to himself as "I" and briefly talks about himself and his past experiences. He does not give his name and is not on board the Bellipotent, yet he speaks authoritatively about the events that take place there. The narrator has a limited omniscient point of view, which means that he is able to see nearly all of the novel's action, including some of the characters' thoughts. His admission of being unable to grasp Claggart's character—"His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it"—is one example of the narrator's limited omniscience, but it also contributes to the novel's overall depiction of Claggart's strangeness and foreignness.

The narrator tells of an experience he had as a young man, when "an honest scholar, my senior" spoke to him about a fine point of human nature, and the narrator says of himself, "At the time, my inexperience was such that I did not quite see the drift of all this. It may be that I see it now." He tells this story about himself to illustrate his similarity to and thus his empathy for Billy Budd. The narrator's empathy helps to shape the story, as it enables him to understand Billy's innocence: his tragic flaw.


The setting of Billy Budd—a British warship in the summer of 1797—is essential to the plot and meaning of the novel. The novel opens with the words, "In the time before steamships," immediately placing the action in a time relative to the development of naval technology: the reader envisions a ship with tall masts and huge sails, which is precisely where the novel's action is to occur. A few paragraphs later, the narrator introduces Billy Budd as a character and specifically identifies him as "a foretopman of the British fleet toward the close of the last decade of the eighteenth century."

The narrator's specificity about time and place sets the stage for what is to come. In chapter 3, the historic context for the novel's action is introduced: just prior to the novel's fictional events, which are set in "the summer of 1797," actual mutinies had taken place in the British navy in April and May of that same year. The mutinies at Spithead and the Nore still resonate on board the fictional Bellipotent, whose name means "strong in war." The Bellipotent's sailors and officers continue to feel the tension from the two great mutinies: "Discontent foreran the Two Mutinies, and more or less it lurkingly survived them. Hence it was not unreasonable to apprehend some return of trouble." Melville uses this atmosphere of tension as background for his novel in order to create a sense of mutiny in the air, a weakening of trust between sailors and their commanders. He points out that "for a time [following the Two Mutinies], on more than one quarter-deck, anxiety did exist. At sea, precautionary vigilance was strained against relapse. At short notice an engagement might come on." An accusation against the innocent Billy Budd set at a different time, when the possibility of mutiny does not seem so palpable, might not end in tragedy. The narrator declares that "the unhappy event which has been narrated could not have happened at a worse juncture."

The shipboard setting, common among many of Melville's writings, presents a kind of microcosm of society, complete with hierarchies, laws and a wide variety of personalities and backgrounds. Women are missing from this floating society, but in fact women would not have been part of the British navy at the time during which this novel is set. The narrator remarks that "the people of a great warship are … like villagers, taking microscopic note of every outward movement or non-movement going on." Such seemingly small incidents as Billy spilling his soup in the mess or the afterguardsman coming to speak to Billy at night take on a larger significance because everyone notices these moments and speculates about them, perhaps allowing them to mean more than they do.


Throughout Billy Budd, Melville makes use of foreshadowing—suggesting events that are to come—which gives the novel's events a kind of doomed, fated quality. Billy's initial description as "welkin-eyed"—his eyes are the color of the skies—identifies him with the heavens, suggesting his goodness but also suggesting that he will soon become a part of the celestial sphere. When, at the beginning of the novel, Captain Graveling relates the story of Billy striking the Red Whiskers out of anger, the incident sounds out of character for Billy. However, later on, when Billy strikes Claggart, killing him, the earlier incident reverberates. When Billy witnesses a fellow sailor being whipped as punishment for failing to do his duty, he is "horrified [and] resolved that never through remissness would he make himself liable to such a visitation or do or omit aught that might merit verbal reproof." Yet later, he himself is subjected to a punishment worse than whipping, and ironically his punishment comes about due to circumstances almost beyond his control. Melville's use of foreshadowing is effective in Billy Budd because it heightens the novel's irony and contributes to its tale of the ill-fated innocent.

Historical Context

The Royal Navy in the Late Eighteenth Century

Between 1794 and 1797, the number of seamen and marines serving in the British navy jumped from 85,000 to 120,000. England was at war with France at this time, and the navy's need for manpower was immense. Most of the men in the British naval service had not chosen to be there. While some men did join the navy, sailors could

Compare & Contrast

  • 1790s: Late eighteenth-century warships of the British navy are powered by sails. Seventy-four-gun ships—especially fast and easy to handle—are most common. Steam power is being explored as a means of ship propulsion.
  • 1890s: The United States begins building a "new navy" in the 1880s: ironclad steam-powered ships with a variety of weapons on board.
  • 1924: The Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty, signed in 1922, restricts Allied countries from building new battleships until 1931 and orders that most battleships of outdated construction be destroyed. Naval aircraft technology is developed during this period.
  • Today: Nearly half of the U.S. Navy's warships are propelled by nuclear reactors, which allow the ships to travel at high speeds without the need for fuel oil.
  • 1790s: During the American Revolution, capital punishment had come under fire in America as a deplorable institution from the reign of King George. By 1796, Melville's home state of New York has decreased the number of crimes punishable by death from thirteen to two—those being murder and treason.
  • 1890s: In 1890, the New York Assembly passes a bill abolishing capital punishment, but the State Senate votes the bill down. In August of 1890, William Kemmler becomes the first victim of execution by electrocution, hanging having been deemed too barbaric.
  • 1924: The infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case, in which teenagers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb are tried for brutally murdering fourteen-year-old Richard Franks, has many Americans demanding the death penalty for the defendants, who are found guilty of kidnapping and murder. The judge accepts renowned attorney Clarence Darrow's argument that Leopold and Loeb are insane and rejects the death penalty, instead sentencing them to life imprisonment at hard labor.
  • Today: The U.S. Supreme Court abolished capital punishment in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia, but since that decision, rulings in other cases have chipped away at various aspects of the death penalty ruling, and executions continue to occur. In 1991, about 2,500 inmates were on death row. At the turn of the century, one debate over the death penalty focuses on whether lethal injection is more humane than the electric chair.
  • 1790s: In a nation of immigrants, white European settlers view Native Americans as "the other," and as impediments to their possession of the vast American land. In the South, African slaves are treated as property by their white slaveholders.
  • 1890s: American nativists grow uneasy about the enormous influx of immigrants into the country. In 1880, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting for ten years the entrance of Chinese laborers into the United States. In 1892, Congress renews the act for another decade.
  • 1924: Reflecting a national mood of anti-foreigner sentiment following World War I, the Immigration Act of 1924 establishes an annual quota for immigration into the United States.
  • Today: "Multiculturalism," a movement aimed at engendering respect for other cultures, is taught in American schools and is a force in the popular culture.

also simply be taken off merchant ships by a warship's officer, as happens to Billy Budd. The sailors from merchant ships were valued for their sailing experience, and "topmen" such as Billy—those who could work up in the riggings—were especially useful.

Some men were "impressed" into naval service: these were the able-bodied men who could not be convinced to join the navy, so they had to be "pressed," or forced, to join, often through brutal means. Impressed men often resented their circumstances, but they had no choice but to stay aboard the warships, facing punishment if they shirked their imposed duty. When the afterguardsman comes to Billy to try to draw Billy into his mysterious plot, he first attempts to establish a bond with Billy regarding the way they were each brought onto the ship: "You were impressed, weren't you? … Well, so was I … We are not the only impressed ones, Billy. There's a gang of us." The context of this encounter is the tradition of impressment into the British navy and the resulting resentment, which has the potential to flower into mutiny.

Once on board the warships, sailors did not enjoy particularly healthful living conditions. A 74—gun ship, such as the Bellipotent, would have carried over 700 men, so quarters were crowded. Scurvy, a disease brought on by a lack of vitamin C, struck many sailors. In 1797, a British sailor could expect to eat salt beef and pork, oatmeal, cheese, bread, occasional fresh vegetables and assorted other foodstuffs. While a ship was at sea, the food often went bad: meat would decay, water would spoil, and the bread and flour would be invaded by mice, rats, weevils and other vermin. Officers and captains enjoyed a higher quality of food and food preparation than the sailors did, often supplementing their allotments of food with food they purchased themselves.

Mutinies at Spithead and the Nore

Chapter 3 of Billy Budd introduces the facts of the 1797 mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, two crucial events that occurred in the British navy during the Napoleonic wars. Spithead is a strait of the English Channel, located in the south of England between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight; the Nore is a sandbank at the mouth of the Thames River in England, where the Thames enters the North Sea.

In 1797, Britain was at war with France, and the British navy had had to expand rapidly to fill the need for manpower on warships. However, many of the men who entered the navy at this time did not do so voluntarily, and conditions on board the naval ships left much to be desired. The food was poor, the pay was paltry, medical treatment was substandard, and sailors were flogged for misconduct. Such circumstances contributed to a buildup of sailors' resentments. In April, when the commander of the Channel fleet's flagship, the Queen Charlotte, rejected the crew's demands to move the ship out to sea, the Queen Charlotte's crew spurred other ships in the fleet to join them in protest. The mutineers presented a petition to the House of Commons, who in turn met some of the demands of the petitioners. The promises made to the mutineers included better pay, removal of some of the harshest officers in the fleet, and pardons for those involved in the mutiny. The mutineers had succeeded in securing some improvements in their lot.

The April mutiny at Spithead soon extended to include the North Sea fleet, which was anchored at the Nore. The mutineers at the Nore were not as readily satisfied as their counterparts at Spithead: when the government offered concessions to the protesters at the Nore, they were reluctant to ac-cept. An ex-midshipman, Richard Parker, convinced his fellow mutineers that they should not accept the government's terms immediately but should hold out for more. The mutiny put Britain into danger for a time, as the Dutch—allies of France—nearly were able to invade England while the mutineers remained inactive.

In speaking to the members of the drumhead court, Captain Vere connects the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore to the events of Billy Budd: "You know what sailors are. Will they not revert to the recent outbreak at the Nore? They know the well-founded alarm—the panic it struck throughout England. Your clement sentence they would account pusillanimous. They would think that we flinch, that we are afraid of them." In this atmosphere of tension over the potential power struggle between captains and their crews, Captain Vere must decide how to handle Billy's impulsive killing of his superior.

Mutiny on Board the Somers, 1842

Melville's narrator relates at the end of chapter 21 a connection between Billy's case and an incident aboard the U.S. brig Somers in 1842. This historic incident aboard the Somers, reports the narrator, culminated in "the execution at sea of a midshipman and two sailors as mutineers designing the seizure of the brig." The events on board the Somers and those on the Bellipotent are, he admits, "different from" each other, and yet "the urgency felt [by the officers deciding each case], well-warranted or otherwise, was much the same."

Melville's favorite older cousin when he was a child was Guert Gansevoort, who happened to be the first lieutenant of the Somers. When the three young sailors on board the Somers were suspected of planning a mutiny, Gansevoort had been among those officers called to advise the ship's captain, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, as Mackenzie tried to decide the young men's fate. With no trial and no chance to defend themselves, the three sailors—one of whom, Philip Spencer, was the son of the U.S. secretary of war—were pronounced guilty and hanged from the ship's yardarm. Mackenzie was later tried for murder.

Critical Overview

Critical treatments of Billy Budd and of Melville abound, which is an irony given the origins of the novel. When Melville died in 1891, he left behind the manuscript for Billy Budd, which would not be discovered among his papers for another thirty years. At the time of Melville's death, his reputation as a literary talent had faded, but a few obituary notices did take note of Melville's earlier success and fame. Some of what was written about Melville immediately following his death had a regretful tone, as if his slip into obscurity had constituted a loss for American letters. An obituary in the New York Times, alluding to Melville's past fame, remarked that "this speedy oblivion by which a once famous man so long survived his fame is almost unique, and it is not easily explicable." The obituary went on to wonder at "why [Melville's books] are read and talked about no longer. The total eclipse now of what was then a literary luminary seems like a wanton caprice of fame." However, in North American Review in 1892, W. Clark Russell wrote, somewhat prophetically, that "Famous he was; now he is neglected; yet his name and works will not die. He is a great figure in shadow; but the shadow is not that of oblivion."

Russell's words truly were prophetic, as around the centennial anniversary of Melville's birthday in 1919 a movement known as the "Melville revival" began to develop. In The Gazette of the Grolier Club, William S. Reese, a collector of Melville's works, attributed the emergence of the revival to both Melville's centenary and also to "the beginning of a more disillusioned, deterministic, post-war age," whose readers would be more receptive to Melville's works than his own contemporaries had been. Reese noted that "Melville's centenary in 1919 had brought numerous literary notices, and … In 1921 Raymond Weaver's biography, Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic, came out, sparking further interest." Billy Budd was published for the first time in 1924 in a volume of Melville's work edited by Weaver, and thus, said Reese, "Melville was made generally accessible to readers."

In his 1921 biography of Melville, Weaver said that Billy Budd and other works in manuscript found after Melville's death were "not distinguished." Weaver added that Billy Budd "would seem to teach that though the wages of sin is death, that sinners and saints alike toil for a common hire." In the biography, Weaver also wrote that in Billy Budd Melville had lost "the brisk lucidity, the sparkle, the verve" of his earlier works and that "Only the disillusion abided with him to the last." Weaver seemed to contradict his 1921 statement in his introduction to 1928 Shorter Novels of Herman Melville, where he said that Billy Budd is "unmatched among Melville's works in lucidity and inward peace."

Weaver referred in his introduction to Shorter Novels of Herman Melville to the "state of the Billy Budd manuscript," proclaiming that "there can never appear a reprint that will be adequate to every ideal." The difficulty of assembling a definitive text plagued Melville critics for decades. Weaver, the first critic to lay eyes on the manuscript, said that it is "in certain parts a miracle of crabbedness: misspellings in the grand manner; scraps of paragraphs cut out and pasted over disembowelled sentences; words ambiguously begun … variant readings, with no choice indicated among them. More disheartening than this even, is one floating chapter … with no numbering beyond the vague direction 'To be inserted.'" F. O. Matthiessen lauded Weaver's accomplishment in a footnote to his 1941 essay, "Billy Budd, Foretopman", because "The problem of editing Melville's one extant major manuscript was an exacting one" and thus critics should be "indebted to [Weaver's] enthusiastic and devoted pioneering for the first full-length study of Melville."

Another critic, Lewis Mumford, also found flaws in Billy Budd; he wrote in 1929 that what is missing in Billy Budd is "an independent and living creation." Mumford felt that while the story takes place on the sea, "the sea itself is missing, and even the principal characters are not primarily men: they are actors and symbols."

During the 1950s and 1960s, the body of Melville scholarship grew rapidly. Particularly after the 1962 publication of what was considered a definitive text of Billy Budd—edited by Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr.—scholars approached Melville's final novel with renewed interest. Hayford and Sealts wrote in their preface to this definitive edition that in "the first quarter century of criticism (1921–46) [there] seemed to be virtually a consensus, that the work constituted Melville's 'testament of acceptance.'" The editors added that in the 1950s this earlier consensus had been "flatly contradicted … by those reading the novel as an ironic reiteration of all his lifelong quarrels and denials."

Peter Shaw, looking back in 1993 at the development of Billy Budd scholarship, noticed that "resistance readings eventually began to take on the coloration of 1960s radicalism. Stimulated by the concept of innocent youth punished by paternal authority, critics in the 1960s imagined Melville to be finding fault with 'the system,' by which they sometimes meant the law and sometimes 'the tragic guilt' of society itself…. It followed that the story meant not only radically to champion 'the people,' but also amounted to 'a call for rebellion.'" Shaw maintained that the "resistance/ironist reading continued to hold sway in the 1970s." In the 1980s, Shaw said, critics began to "routinely [argue] that Vere's application of the law is arbitrary and unnecessary, that it springs from twisted psychological motives, and that it reflects the inherent cruelty of his privileged class."


Logan Esdale

Esdale is a doctoral candidate in the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo. In the following essay, he analyzes the self-conscious narration that exists in contrast to the apparent lack of self-consciousness in Billy Budd.

Herman Melville's Billy Budd has produced an astonishing diversity of equally plausible interpretations. Most critics consider finally whether they approve or condemn Captain Vere's decision to try and execute the sailor Billy Budd for the murder of the officer John Claggart. Invariably critics include in their analysis a statement made by the novel's narrator near the end that ostensibly apologizes for the meandering style and the unresolved questions: "Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges." Following this proposition, the narrator concludes the history of Billy with three sequels—on the further adventures of the ship, the doomed captain, and the venerated spar from which Billy was hung—and a poem describing Billy's final moments in between life and death. The narrator includes as well a naval report that contradicts the version of events just given. This naval report is anything but ragged. It justifies the execution of Billy in the strongest terms, claiming that he "vindictively stabbed" the honorable John Claggart.

Judging by this report alone, there is no doubt that Billy's death answers for the life he took. For the good of the English nation Billy is hung. But there is no judging anything alone; everything has a context that, if explored, will lead to the digressions and ragged edges that the narrator understands both as a burden on the mind that desires order, and as a liberation from closure. With the narrator, the reader will feel both disoriented and empowered—like the vertigo a person feels close to the edge of an abyss. Attention to all the facts puts the narrator in the impossible position of offering an endless series of contradictions, leaving readers uncertain about the intentions of the characters, and about the events themselves. Finally, the inclusion of other perspectives, like the naval report's, not only throws the truth of each account into doubt, but truth itself seems unreachable, a vanishing point on the horizon.

The novel—and language in general—structures itself through the use of binaries, such as child and adult, innocence and guilt, inner being and appearance, compassion and military or legal duty, the individual and the nation, sea and land. Looking carefully at all the facts tends to blur the difference between these "opposites." In a digression on the line between sanity and insanity, for instance, the narrator asks, "Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other?" A question central to Melville's novel is where does the character "Billy Budd" end, and the character "John Clag-gart" begin? The two men appear to be utterly distinct, the one intent on doing good and the other intent on doing evil, but also, at times, the one seems to have merged with the other.

What Do I Read Next?

  • "Young Goodman Brown," is a short story published in 1835 by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The character of Young Goodman Brown, an innocent, is tested by evil forces that are mysterious to him. He is nearly incapable of comprehending that the people he respects most might possess a capacity for evil. Melville was friends with Hawthorne and had the utmost respect and admiration for his work.
  • Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), considered by most critics to be his masterpiece, is, like Billy Budd, a tale of good and evil set against the stark setting of the sea. Captain Ahab, who obsessively seeks the white whale, Moby-Dick, is identified as a "monomaniac"; Claggart in Billy Budd is described as possessing a "monomania."
  • The Bounty Trilogy, a collection of three books by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, traces the historic mutiny aboard the H.M.S.Bounty and its aftermath as experienced by the captain and crew. The first book in the trilogy, Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), is an account of the 1788 voyage of H.M.S. Bounty, during which Fletcher Christian committed mutiny against Captain Bligh In Men Against the Sea (1934), Captain Bligh, along with the nineteen men who chose to remain loyal to him during the mutiny, travel 3,600 miles in an open boat that they had been set out in by the mutineers. Pitcairn's Island (1934) tells of how Christian, his fellow mutineers, and a few Tahitians end up on a forsaken island in the Pacific following the mutiny.
  • Melville's Redburn (1849) tells the story of an inexperienced yet proud young man who goes to sea and learns about the world through his difficulties with life at sea. While the innocent Redburn anticipates Billy Budd, the evil Jackson foretokens Claggart.

When does the past end, and the present begin? When does the future begin? These questions haunt the narrator, and the history of Billy Budd becomes itself a questioning of how history is written: the narration is self-conscious, which means that every general statement is qualified by a particular and contradictory statement, and that the lines among a character, the narrator, and the reader are blurred. The ragged edges of the story refer also to the rags or fragments of history the narrator finds and picks up as the story is written. An infinite number of sequels will still leave the story unfinished (as Melville left the manuscript unfinished at his death in 1891), and the narrator will consciously draw attention to this incompleteness. Critics have since 1924, when Billy Budd was first published, chosen either to write about the ragged edges, or write something like a naval report. Usually the critical imperative is to produce the latter; the chaos of events as they happen (in language) may be revealed, but everything will finally be put in order.

Is it possible to reach truth, or is truth only that which those with authority agree to call "truth"? The latter happens in the case of Billy Budd: the officers sentence him, not according to his innocence of fomenting mutiny and committing murder, which they believe, but according to military law. History records that Billy is "guilty." The narrator claims to be telling the truth about events that happened in 1797, decades earlier than "now" (for the narrator). In so doing, the narrator questions the truth of the naval report made at the time, and suggests that only at an objective distance from the events, something Captain Vere and the officers judging Billy lacked, can history be accurately written. In other words, the truth about the past can only be told once the past has ended. But is this possible? As readers (including the narrator) evaluate and judge the case, they realize that achieving objective distance is next to impossible. Perhaps the narrator tells us only what he wants to be true, slanting the facts to suit his purposes. And what is the reader's purpose?

This process of ordering chaos is habitual in us. Sailors live according to this habit. They need to trust in each other to survive. Any given ship was marked by diversity, "an assortment of tribes and complexions," so that the sailors, officers, and warship all appear together symbolically as a miniature nation. Some sailors chose to be on board, and some were forced (like Billy). Especially during war, when all differences among the enemy are ignored, any given nation glosses difference by transforming the characteristic habits of the people into instincts. "True" instinct, or that which defines the individual, are repressed. Common to all sailors was the "mechanism of discipline": "True martial discipline long continued," the narrator notes, "superinduces in average man a sort of impulse whose operation at the official word of command much resembles in its promptitude the effect of an instinct." In other words, what may appear natural or inherent in our behavior may be in fact merely habitual, in work on ship or on land. For writers this means that the discipline of writing creates the illusion of order; and critics are false witnesses (like Claggart) to readers and to themselves if they attempt to propose a single, totalizing account.

The lack of a stable ground upon which to build an orderly interpretation of events is an effect of the story's setting—the ocean. The ocean is "inviolate Nature primeval," or chaos, and resistant to mapping. The ocean and its effects on the story must have been implicit all along, but are not explicitly felt until well into the story, when Captain Vere meditates on the consequences of the two choices (between instinct and discipline) facing himself and the three officers of the drumhead court: Vere "to-and-fro paced the cabin athwart; in the returning ascent to windward climbing the slant deck in the ship's lee roll, without knowing it symbolizing thus in his action a mind resolute to surmount difficulties even if against primitive instincts strong as the wind and the sea."

Just as throughout the story the ship has been teetering back-and-forth, so too does the decision on Billy's fate move between innocent and guilty. This teetering might have continued indefinitely had Captain Vere not decided to prosecute Billy according to his deed (murder) and not his intention (defend himself). Vere eliminates ambiguity by executing Billy. Ultimately, the rights of the individual must be upheld in favor of the general "good." At the time, England was at war with France, and the navy had recently experienced two serious mutinies. "War looks but to the frontage, the appearance," Vere says, himself at war with indecision. Vere argues that the judgement must be made as if they were on (stable) land. He puts the ship back on even keel.

Naval battles are more explicitly described once we "sail away" from Billy's body on the surface of the ocean. Most striking in the sequels is the return to land—a return also to the beginning of the story, which opens on the border between land and ocean: "In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a stroller along the docks of any considerable seaport would occasionally have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war's men or merchant sailors in holiday attire, ashore on liberty." There are at least four liminal spaces—or, as in the story, those "deadly spaces between" two opposites—that affect the mood of indecisiveness, two of which are in this first sentence: the time or history that has passed between 1797 and "now"; and the dock or shore. The other two are the ocean surface, and the forehead of the human body.

Steamships are less determined by the arbitrary forces of nature than those powered by wind and sail, which implies that as time has proceeded, the forces (or instincts) themselves have not changed, but we have become further civilized or buffered from their strength and effects. Civilization, the narrator says, "folds itself in the mantle of respectability." Notice also that sailors ashore or along a dock are in the space between water and land, and are at "liberty." This particular reference to liberty or freedom suggests that on either side of a "dock space" people are subject to the "mechanisms of discipline." In a dock space or in the ocean, however, the diversity of forces is at play. An ocean surface can appear calm and serene, yet the struggle for life continues underneath between, simply enough, big and small fish.

Finally, in this short list of liminal spaces, the forehead marks the point between inside and outside, between body and mind. The forehead is the particular place Billy strikes on Claggart's body. Before this scene occurs, the narrator makes an odd comparison which helps explain the surprising effectiveness of the blow: "consciences are as unlike as foreheads." Why does Billy strike Claggart's forehead? Perhaps he did so because Claggart's "brow was of the sort phrenologically associated with more than average intellect." Phrenology claims that much about a person's character is revealed in the shape of the head. Billy was fooled by the humane aspect of Claggart's face (an ocean surface), never believing that Claggart harbored malicious intentions; but Billy seems also to know, unconsciously perhaps, that striking Claggart's (guilty) "conscience" would kill him. Billy strikes what was individual to Claggart. Had Billy struck elsewhere, Claggart probably would have lived. How did he locate Claggart's weak spot? What does Billy know about himself and Claggart?

Whether Billy lacks self-consciousness or comprehends the destructiveness in others and in himself is finally the question on which the novel turns. Billy Budd may well represent the complex tensions in American literature as a whole. Under pressure, Billy stutters: with "sudden provocation of strong heart-feeling his voice, otherwise singularly musical, as if expressive of the harmony within, was apt to develop an organic hesitancy, in fact more or less of a stutter or even worse"—silence. Poet and critic Susan Howe has said in The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, that it is "the stutter in American literature that interests me. I hear the stutter as a sounding of uncertainty. What is silenced or not quite silenced. All the broken dreams."

Set in the Mediterranean Ocean on an English boat during a war with France, Billy is yet distinctly American. Given the chance to formulate dreams and ideals, America and "Billy Budd, the Handsome Sailor" (both are born in 1776) fail to realize them. Speculations on malice or difference "into which [Billy] was led were so disturbingly alien to him that he did his best to smother them," and so does America (consider in its history up to 1891 the silence on the slaughter of the natives as well as slavery, and that the majority of the population—including all women—do not have the right to vote, and are, in other words, unable to speak). Billy says at his trial, "Could I have used my tongue I would not have struck him" (consider the violence used in the making of history).

Melville stopped writing fiction for almost thirty years because his books received an almost uniformly hostile response. Out of this silence, Billy Budd surfaced and critiques an American reading public understood to be functionally illiterate. Billy is a big dumb kid, who certainly does not deserve to die, as the story is told, but who is—Claggart was right—dangerous. Claggart accuses Billy of harboring plots that would disrupt civil order. This accusation brings Billy's unconscious anger and fear to light and results in the deadly blow. The anxiousness on board about mutiny was caused by the sailor revolts just a few months earlier at British naval bases. But older captains in the British navy would have remembered the American Revolution, a mutiny on a national scale, in which the sailors (the colonies) overthrew the captain (the King). Melville wonders how an illiterate nation, one unable to speak for itself without using violence, is to survive.

There exists in Billy a refusal to be self-conscious, just as there exists in him an inability to speak during crisis moments, when ambiguity surfaces. Billy cannot and will not speak. The narrator attempts to repair this defect by writing a self-conscious history. Billy Budd represents the wildness of reading, and what is repressed during reading and interpreting. From the start, and at the end, both narrator and reader rock between writing an orderly report, or a self-conscious essay that tests the ragged edges, the gaps, or stutters in fiction and in history—a "sounding of uncertainty."

Source: Logan Esdale, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.

Tom Goldstein

In the following essay, Goldstein delves into the legal profession's view of Billy Budd.

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Source: Tom Goldstein, "Once Again, Billy Budd Stands Trial," in The New York Times, June 10, 1988, p. 15, p. B9.

Charles A. Reich

In the essay below, Reich provides a detailed look at justice as portrayed in Billy Budd, arguing that human law must address a man's actions as seen objectively within his situation.

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Source: Charles A. Reich, "The Tragedy of Justice in Billy Budd," Yale Review, Vol. 56, 1967, pp. 368-89.


Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., eds., preface by Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor: An Inside Narrative, University of Chicago, 1962, pp.v-vii.

Susan Howe, The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, Wesleyan University Press, 1993.

F. O. Matthiessen, "Billy Budd, Foretopman," in his American Renaissance: Art and Experience in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, Oxford University Press, 1941.

Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, edited by Harrison Hayford and Merton S. Sealts, Jr., University of Chicago, 1962.

Herman Melville's obituary, New York Times, October 2, 1891.

Lewis Mumford, "Melville's Final Affirmation," in his Herman Melville, Harcourt, Brace, 1929, pp. 353-54.

William S. Reese, "Collecting Herman Melville," The Gazette of the Grolier Club,

W. Clark Russell, "A Claim for American Literature," in North American Review, February, 1892.

Peter Shaw, "The Fate of A Story," American Scholar, Vol. 62, No. 4, p. 591.

Raymond M. Weaver, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, George H. Doran, 1921.

Raymond Weaver, editor, Shorter Novels of Herman Melville, Horace Liveright, 1928.

For Further Study

Gail Coffler, "Classical Iconography in the Aesthetics of Billy Budd, Sailor," in Savage Eye: Melville and the Visual Arts, edited by Christopher Sten, Kent State University Press, 1991, pp. 257-76.

Coffler analyzes Melville's abiding interest in ancient Greek and Roman myth, law, and art. Billy Budd, the character, is a combination of Greek beauty and Roman strength.

Mervyn Cook and Philip Reed, editors, Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd, Cambridge Opera Handbooks, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

A synopsis of Britten's opera, which is based on Melville's novel. In addition to the synopsis, the book includes an explanation of the opera's literary roots, a discussion of the librettist's and composer's work, and an interpretation of the music's tonal symbolism.

Clark Davis, After the Whale: Melville in the Wake of Moby-Dick, University of Alabama Press, 1995.

A book-length assessment of Melville's lesserknown writings that came after the publication of Moby-Dick. This book won the 1993 Elizabeth Agee Prize in American Literature.

Kieran Dolin, "Power, Chance and the Rule of Law—Billy Budd, Sailor," in Fiction and the Law: Legal Discourse in Victorian and Modernist Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 121-44.

Discusses Billy Budd as one of the first explorations of the connection between law and literature. Dolin analyzes how "natural law," which involves ambiguities, was being increasingly replaced by "legal positivism," or a belief that law might be a precise science. Dolin argues that this shift in thinking is portrayed negatively in Melville's novel.

Lawrence Douglas, "Discursive Limits: Narrative and Judgement in Billy Budd," Mosaic, Vol. 27, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 141-160.

According to Douglas, Melville's novel is one of the earliest dialogues between law and literature, which is useful to students of both disciplines since it explores crisis in the act of and the art of judgement.

James Dugan, The Great Mutiny, Putnam's, 1965.

This book discusses in detail the 1797 mutinies in the British Royal Navy at Spithead and the Nore, and the events leading up to these uprisings.

H. Bruce Franklin, "Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Three Centuries," American Literature, June, 1997, pp. 337-59.

Franklin examines the novel in the context of the contemporary (1880s) debate on capital punishment, a controversy particular to New York, where Melville lived at the time. The debate considered which offenses, if any, should carry the death penalty, and the exceptions that should occur during war.

Leonard F. Guttridge, Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection, United States Naval Institute, 1992.

Beginning with the infamous mutiny on the Bounty in 1787, this book traces the history of mutiny in the U.S. Navy as well as in other navies around the world. Guttridge dispels some of the myths of mutiny and shows how instances of mutiny have often grown out of individuals' reactions to specific historic circumstances.

Myra Jehlen, editor, Herman Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, 1994.

This excellent critical anthology collects essays written in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, on all of Melville's work.

Barbara Johnson, "Melville's Fist: The Execution of 'Billy Budd,'" Studies in Romanticism, Winter, 1979, pp. 567-99.

Perhaps the most comprehensive analysis both of the criticism prior to 1979 and the novel's ambiguities.

Charles Larson, "Melville's Marvell and Vere's Fairfax," ESQ, Vol. 38, No. 1, 1992, pp. 59-70.

Criticism of the novel has often considered the impact of the American and French Revolutions. Larson suggests that the English Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century should also be noted because of the novel's reference to Andrew Marvell's Civil War poem "Upon Appleton House," which was dedicated to a Puritan army commander, Lord Thomas Fair-fax—an "ancestor" of Melville's Captain Vere.

Robert Milder, Critical Essays on Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor, G.K. Hall, 1989.

A selection of critical essays on Melville's works, ranging over the course of his career, with an introduction by editor Milder.

Susan Mizruchi, "Cataloging the Creatures of the Deep: 'Billy Budd, Sailor' and the Rise of Sociology," Boundary 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 272-304.

Mizruchi sees Billy Budd as a critique of the emerging discipline of sociology, which claims to be written by expert observers, and which homogenizes differences between people.

Kathy J. Phillips, "Billy Budd as Anti-Homophobic Text," College English, December, 1994, pp. 896-910.

Phillips discusses her experience teaching Billy Budd in the college classroom. With the impeded or prohibited speech of Billy in mind, the class thinks about homosexuality in the novel, and how, in general, violence instead of dialogue has typified America's relationship with "other" sexualities.

Laurie Robertson-Lorant, Melville: A Biography, University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

A biography of Melville that draws upon research into Melville family letters, looks at the Melville-Hawthorne friendship, considers Melville's sexuality, and attends closely to Melville's writings as well as to the critical responses to his works.

Nancy Ruttenburg, "Melville's Anxiety of Innocence: The Handsome Sailor," in Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship, Stanford University Press, 1998, pp. 344-78.

In the context of American literature and history before 1891, Billy Budd, Ruttenburg argues, represents in its title character a paramount instance of the desire for an ideal figure, both innocent and beautiful. Emerson and Whitman had suggested and valorized this figure. Melville rejects it as an embodiment of an idealized American.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Billy Budd: After the Homosexual," in Epistemology of the Closet, University of California Press, 1990, pp. 92-130.

This essay describes John Claggart as a homosexual, and considers the meaning of that man's death. Moreover, the entire cast of characters relate to one another according to male desire and intimacy. Like Johnson, Sedgwick undoes binary structure—this time between gay and straight. Sedgwick asks, Does male desire stabilize order, or disrupt it?

William T. Stafford, editor, Melville's Billy Budd and the Critics, second edition, Wadsworth, 1968.

This comprehensive collection of essays is helpfully arranged by themes and critical debates.

Christopher Sten, "Vere's Use of the 'Forms': Means and Ends in Billy Budd," American Literature, March, 1975, pp. 37-51.

Sten compares Vere's authorship of Billy's trial and execution to Melville's authorship of Vere, and analyzes the motivations of each man.

Brook Thomas, "Billy Budd and the Judgement of Silence," Bucknell Review, Vol. 27, 1983, pp. 51-78.

Thomas examines Barbara Johnson's assessment of Billy Budd, and questions the political implications of her deconstruction of the text.

Howard P. Vincent, editor, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Billy Budd, Prentice-Hall, 1971.

Not as useful as Milder, Stafford, or Jehlen's compilations, Vincent's collection is divided into two sections, "Interpretations" and "View Points," indicating a loose gathering of responses to Melville and his final novel.