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Billy, Budd, Sailor is a novel written by Herman Melville.

Characters

  • Billy Budd - Discovered on a doorstep as an infant, Billy Budd is a fine physical specimen at age twenty-one, renowned for his good looks and gentle, innocent ways. Upon taking up as a young seaman in the service of His Majesty the King of England, Billy grows into the near-perfect image of what Melville calls the “Handsome Sailor,” an ideal specimen who inspires love and admiration in all his fellows. While working on board the merchant ship Rights-of-Man, Billy is impressed into naval duty as a foretopman (a sailor who sits atop the foremast or above) on board the warship H.M.S. Bellipotent. Although much younger than most of the Bellipotent's crewmen, the cheerful, innocent young man quickly gains back the popularity he had previously enjoyed, earning the nickname “Baby Budd” in the process. He has several shortcomings, however, including an inability to perceive ill will in other people. He also has an unpredictable tendency to stutter, and at certain crucial moments he is rendered completely speechless.
  • Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere - Captain of the H.M.S. Bellipotent. A bachelor of aristocratic lineage, the forty-year-old Vere has made his mark as a distinguished sailor. His nickname, “Starry Vere,” seems fitting for this abstracted, intellectual figure who often shuts himself up at sea with his books. Vere remains somewhat aloof and diffident among his peers, though he is not haughty.
  • John Claggart - The master-at-arms of the Bellipotent, an office equivalent to chief of police on board the ship. Behind his back, the crew refers to Claggart with the derogatory nickname “Jemmy Legs.” At age thirty-five, Claggart is lean and tall, with a protruding chin and an authoritative gaze. His brow bespeaks cleverness, and his black hair contrasts starkly with his pallid complexion. Because of his pale face, he stays out of the sun as much as possible. The narrator gives few details about Claggart's past, although speculation runs rampant among the crewmembers. It is known that after entering the navy unusually late in life, Claggart rose through the ranks to attain his present position on the strength of his sobriety, deference to authority, and patriotism. However, his compliant exterior disguises a cruel and sinister streak, which the narrator explains is actually a natural tendency toward evil and depravity.
  • The Dansker - Billy's acquaintance and confidante aboard the Bellipotent. A wizened old sailor with beady eyes, the Dansker listens and occasionally issues inscrutable, oracular responses when Billy seeks out his confidence. At other times, however, the Dansker is decidedly reticent and unhelpful.
  • Ship's Surgeon - Pronounces Claggart dead upon arriving in the captain's cabin. The surgeon considers Vere's decision to call a drumhead court somewhat abrupt and hasty. Though unable to account for Billy's unusually peaceful death in the gallows, he refuses to believe that the event is attended by supernatural circumstances.
  • Ship's Purser - Ruddy and rotund, the purser speculates that Billy's unusually peaceful death in the gallows shows a phenomenal degree of will on Billy's behalf, perhaps revealing a superhuman power.
  • Ship's Chaplain - Reluctantly and unsuccessfully attempts to console Billy with words from the Bible on the eve of Billy's execution. When the chaplain realizes that Billy is already peacefully resigned to his death, and that his spiritual direction cannot do anything more for Billy, he leaves, kissing Billy gently on the cheek as he goes.
  • Squeak - Claggart's most cunning corporal. Squeak supports and fuels Claggart's contempt for Billy, and tries by various maneuvers to make Billy's life miserable.
  • Albert - Captain Vere's hammock boy. Trusted by the captain, Albert is sent to summon Billy to the cabin on the day Claggart accuses him.
  • Lieutenant Ratcliffe - The brusque boarding officer of the Bellipotent. Lieutenant Ratcliffe selects only Billy from the company of the Rights-of-Man for impressment, or involuntary recruitment into naval service.
  • Captain Graveling - Captain of the Rights-of-Man. At fifty, the slightly overweight Captain Graveling is a benign, conscientious shipmaster who is sorry to lose Billy Budd to the Bellipotent.
  • The Red Whiskers - Billy's adversary aboard the Rights-of-Man. When Billy strikes him, his hatred of Billy turns to love, which both parallels and contrasts with Billy's disastrous striking of Claggart.
  • Red Pepper - The forecastleman who reproves Billy for not taking greater disciplinary action against the stranger who tries to corrupt him.

Plot

The setting is the last decade of the eighteenth century. The British naval warship H.M.S. Bellipotent impresses, or involuntarily recruits, the young sailor Billy Budd, extracting him from duty aboard the Rights-of-Man, a merchant ship. Billy's commanding officer, Captain Graveling, though reluctant to let one of his best men go, has little choice in the face of the superior ship's demands. Billy packs up his gear without so much as a protest and follows the boarding officer of the Bellipotent, Lieutenant Ratcliffe, across the gangway to his new assignment. After a cheery good-bye to his old mates, Billy settles in quickly among the company of the Bellipotent. He proves most industrious and eager in his role as foretopman and soon earns the affection of his more experienced fellow sailors.

Billy is deeply affected by the sight of a violent lashing given to one of the ship's crew. Hoping to avoid a similar punishment, Billy attempts to fulfill his duties in model fashion, but finds himself under constant scrutiny due to various minor infractions. Puzzled by this persecution, Billy seeks out the advice of the Dansker, an aged, experienced sailor. After explaining the situation to him, the Dansker concludes that Claggart, the master-at-arms, holds a grudge against Billy. Refusing to accept this theory, Billy dismisses the Dansker's opinion but continues to wonder pensively about his situation.

Shortly thereafter, at a lunchtime meal, Billy accidentally spills his soup pan in the ship's dining room after a sudden lurch. The contents of the pan trickle to the feet of the passing Claggart, who makes an offhand, seemingly lighthearted remark in recognition of the spill. His comment elicits a stream of obligatory laughter from the ship's company, and Billy interprets the event as proof of Claggart's approval. But Claggart is offended by the accident, and finds it indicative of Billy's contempt for him. He fixates on the accident as proof of Billy's hostility, and his assistant Squeak resolves to increase his surreptitious persecutions of Billy in recompense.

One night, an anonymous figure rouses Billy from his sleep on the upper deck and asks him to meet in a remote quarter of the ship. Confused, Billy mechanically obeys. At the mysterious rendezvous, Billy is puzzled when, after some vague discourse, the unidentified man flashes two guineas in exchange for a promise of cooperation. Without comprehending the exact details of this solicitation, Billy recognizes that something is amiss, and he raises his stuttering voice and threatens the man with uncharacteristic violence. The conspirator quickly slinks into the darkness, and Billy finds himself confronted with the curious inquiries of two fellow sailors. Unsure of how to explain the situation, Billy explains that he simply happened upon a fellow sailor who was in the wrong part of the ship, and chased the man back to his proper station with a gruff rebuke.

Somewhat later, after a brief skirmish with an enemy frigate, Claggart approaches Captain Vere with news of a rumored mutiny and names Billy Budd as the ringleader of the rebellion. Vere summons Billy to his cabin and instructs Claggart to repeat his accusation. Upon hearing of this unexpected blot on his character, Billy is rendered speechless. Vere commands Billy to defend himself, but then, noticing Billy's tendency to stutter, softens his approach. Left with no other means of defense, and twisted into a rage at Claggart's outrageous words against him, Billy strikes out in a fury, giving Claggart a swift punch to the forehead.

The blow proves forceful enough to knock Claggart unconscious, and he lies bleeding from the nose and ears as Billy and Vere attempt to revive him. Abandoning this effort, Vere dismisses Billy to a neighboring stateroom until further notice. The ship's surgeon pronounces Claggart dead after a brief examination, and Captain Vere summons a group of his senior officers to the cabin.

In a decisive move, Vere calls a drumhead court consisting of the captain of the marines, the first lieutenant, and the sailing master. Vere, functioning as the main witness, gives a testimony of the relevant events to the jury. Billy remains rather silent during his period of questioning, admitting to the blow but maintaining his innocence of intention and declaring his lack of affiliation with any potential mutiny. The court dismisses Billy again to the stateroom.

During a tense period of deliberation, Vere hovers over the jury. When they seem to be deadlocked, unable to make a decision, Vere steps forward to declare his conviction that the rule of law must supersede the reservations of conscience. He concludes his speech to the jury by insisting that they decide to acquit or condemn in strict accordance with the letter of military law. After a period of further deliberation, the jury finds Billy Budd guilty as charged and sentences him to death by hanging on the following morning.

Captain Vere communicates to Billy the news of his fate and, after a discussion with him that we do not learn about directly, he withdraws to leave the prisoner by himself. Later that evening, Vere calls a general meeting of the ship's crew and explains the events of the day. Claggart receives an official burial at sea, and all hands prepare to bear witness to Billy's hanging at dawn.

Billy spends his final hours in chains on board an upper gun deck, guarded by a sentry. The ship's chaplain attempts to spiritually prepare Billy for his death, but Billy already seems to be in a state of perfect peace and resignation. As the chaplain withdraws from Billy's company, he kisses him gently on the cheek as a token of good will.

That morning, shortly after four A.M., Billy is hanged in the mainyard of the ship. As the crew watches him being strung up, preparing to die, they hear him utter his last words: “God bless Captain Vere!” The assembled company automatically echoes this unexpected sentiment, and Billy expires with surprising calm as dawn breaks over the horizon.

After Billy's death, the crew begins to murmur, but the officers quickly disperse them to various tasks. Whistles blow and the ship returns to regular business. In the ensuing days, sailors engage in various discussions concerning Billy's fate and the mysterious circumstances of his expiration. On its return voyage, the Bellipotent falls in with a French warship, the Athée, or Atheist. Captain Vere, wounded in the skirmish, eventually dies in a Gibraltar hospital, uttering as his last words, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.”

Finally, the legend of Billy Budd becomes recorded and institutionalized in naval circles. A newspaper reports the incident from afar, implicating Billy Budd as the villainous assailant of an innocent Claggart. The sailors themselves, however, begin to revere Billy's growing legend, treating the spar from his gallows as a holy object, and composing laudatory verse in his memory.

Symbolism

The Ships

Broadly speaking, the H.M.S. Bellipotent symbolizes society, with the actions of a few characters standing for the state of human society in general. In a sense, the various ships in the novel represent different types of societies: the Rights-of-Man symbolizes a place where individuals maintain their individuality, while the Bellipotent represents a military world in which, under the threat of violence—and therefore in the presence of evil—the rules of society impinge upon the individual rights of men. The Athée, whose name means “the atheist” in French, symbolizes the anti-religious aspects of a powerful, war-driven society.

The Purser and the Surgeon

The purser and the surgeon who debate Billy's story after his death represent faith and skepticism, the two fundamentally opposed attitudes toward religious mysteries. The purser believes that Billy's death indicates some special quality in Billy, possibly supernatural. The surgeon, on the other hand, maintaining a scientific viewpoint, refuses to acknowledge Billy's unusually peaceful death as more than a quirk of matter. Besides dramatizing two long-standing attitudes toward religion, these two characters and their conversation are important because they initiate the narrator's exploration of Billy's posthumous legend. The narrator ultimately calls into question the novel's larger Christian allegory as he investigates how people transform events into legendary narratives.

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