Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.©
Melville's Billy Budd is a short novel (novella) presenting the
tragic story of a young sailor falsely accused of attempting to organize
a mutiny aboard a warship. As in Melville's masterpiece, Moby Dick,
the action in Billy Budd takes place at sea.
Publication, and Editions
Melville completed a rough draft of Billy Budd several months before
his death in 1891. About three decades later, Melville's granddaughter
gave the manuscript to a writer, Raymond Weaver, while he was conducting
research for a biography of Melville. After editing it, he included it
in a collection, Billy Budd and Other Prose Pieces, which was published
in London in 1924 by Constable and Company.
scholars who later examined the original Melville manuscript maintained
that Weaver misinterpreted, misread, and omitted certain passages in the
handwritten manuscript. Consequently, they re-edited the manuscript and
published their own editions of the novel. Cummings Study Guides
based its summary and analysis of Billy Budd on the Weaver edition.
narration begins in the nineteenth century, then flashes back to 1797 to
present the story of a sailor named Billy Budd. The action takes place
at sea between England and Gibraltar on a British merchant ship called
the Rights-of-Man and on a British warship called the Indomitable,
a vessel with seventy-four cannons on two decks.
Weaver's 1924 edition of Billy Budd refers to Captain Vere's warship
as the Indomitable, as Melville did in his manuscript. However,
evidence exists that Melville may have intended to change the name to Bellipotent.
Melville died before he had an opportunity to do so. Most of the later
editions of Billy Budd identify the ship as the Bellipotent.
Study Guides uses Indomitable.
Billy Budd: Hard-working,
honest, benevolent, and strikingly handsome twenty-one-year-old seaman
who serves as a foretopman on the starboard side of the British warship
As his surname suggests, he is a bud~ez_mdash~that is, a callow, innocent youth.
The British Royal Navy impressed him into military service when he was
serving on a merchant ship, the Rights-of-Man. Billy is popular
with all the seamen with whom he works except John Claggart, the master-at-arms
on the Indomitable.
John Claggart: Villainous
master-at-arms on the Indomitable. He despises Billy Budd and schemes
against him. The narrator says Claggart's evil nature was inborn. It is
ironic that this satanic figure has the same initials as Jesus Christ.
the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere: Master of the Indomitable.
He is well educated and fair-minded, but he rigidly enforces the British
naval laws. When Claggart accuses Billy Budd of planning mutiny, Captain
Vere doubts Claggart's veracity. Nevertheless, he summons both men to his
cabin to allow Claggart to level his charge and Budd to respond to it.
The first three letters of his surname are also the first three letters
of verus, the Latin word for truth. But Vere is afraid to tell the
truth to his crewmen and the world after Billy Budd hangs.
Master of the merchant ship Rights-of-Man. When the British navy
needs seamen for military duty, a representative of the navy boards the
and immediately chooses Billy Budd. Graveling protests, noting that Billy
is an outstanding sailor who promotes harmony among the crewmen. His plea
notwithstanding, he loses Billy to the navy.
The Dansker: Aging
crewman in whom Billy Budd confides.
Jimmy Legs: The Dansker's
name for John Claggart.
whom Claggart uses to attempt to cause problems for Billy Budd.
Squeak: Crewman who
serves as Claggart's informer.
Red Pepper: Forcastleman
who questions Billy Budd about the afterguardsman.
Sentry: Crewman assigned
to watch Budd after the latter's arrest.
Surgeon: Ship doctor
who confirms the death of Claggart.
Red Whiskers: Crewman
of the Rights-of-Man who harasses Billy Budd. After Budd thrashes
him, Red Whiskers becomes Billy's friend.
(Ratcliffe in some editions of the novel): Officer who boards the
and impresses Billy.
Messmates of Claggart:
Armorer, captain of the hold, ship's yeoman, apothecary.
Coxswain : Sailor
who pilots a boat that carries Billy Budd from the Rights-of-Man
to the Indomitable.
pronounced BOH zun): Officer in charge of the Indomitable's deck
who attends to Budd's spiritual needs before his hanging.
of Marines, Sailing Master: Members of the court-martial panel
sitting in judgment of Billy Budd.
Officer who takes command of the Indomitable after Captain Vere
suffers a musket-ball wound in an engagement with a French ship.
Lord Denton: A favorite
relative of Captain Vere.
Jack Denton: Cousin
of Captain Vere.
Mr. Wilkes: Midshipman.
unidentified nineteenth-century narrator who is probably in his sixties
or seventies tells the story in third-person point of view, basing it on
accounts he heard or read about concerning events aboard the two ships
on which Billy Budd served. However, he occasionally comments in first-person
point of view, using I, me, we, or our. For
example, in the first paragraph of Chapter 4, he uses first person to alert
the reader to a digression from the main plot:
In this matter of
writing, resolve as one may to keep to the main road, some by-paths have
an enticement not readily to be withstood. I am going to err into such
a by-path. If the reader will keep me company I shall be glad. At the least
we can promise ourselves that pleasure which is wickedly said to be in
sinning, for a literary sin the divergence will be........The
narrator does not reveal how he obtained information about Billy Budd and
other seamen in the story. It is possible that he was an acquaintance of
crewmen serving with Budd. Plot Summary
on the 1924 Edition, Entitled Billy Budd, Foretopman
Michael J. Cummings.©
1797, twenty-one-year-old Billy Budd is serving on a homeward-bound English
merchant ship, the Rights-of-Man, when the British navy impresses
him into service aboard an outward-bound warship, the H.M.S Indomitable.
He is a splendid young man~ez_mdash~handsome, strong, popular with his fellow crewmen.
Captain Graveling, master of the merchant vessel, complains to the impressing
officer, Lieutenant Ratcliff, that he is taking his best sailor. He also
notes that good-natured Budd had promoted harmony among the rowdy men of
the Rights. Without him, the crewmen will once again take to fighting
Ratcliff takes Billy anyway. The navy desperately needs good men, especially
now that Napoleon's forces are on the prowl and mutinies at Spithead (a
strait in the English Channel) and Nore (a Thames estuary off southeastern
England) depleted the number of available men. Budd himself does not protest
his impressment, perhaps out of a thirst for new adventure in foreign climes.
Budd is mustered into service aboard the Indomitable to man the
foretop (a platform at the top of a mast nearest the bow of the ship).
When an officer inquires about his family background, Budd says he does
not know where he was born or who his parents were.
I have heard that I was found in a pretty silklined basket hanging one
morning from the knocker of a good man's door in Bristol" (Chapter 2),
is unsophisticated, innocent in the ways of the world. Because he was never
formally educated, he cannot read or write. But his other qualities make
him an asset aboard a ship. He has only one noticeable debility in his
dealings with others: He tends to stutter when experiencing strong emotions.
commander of the Indomitable is Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, a fortyish
veteran of sea warfare in which he distinguished himself for bravery. Vere
is a lover of books, especially biographies, histories, and works that
honestly comment or philosophize on the realities of life. In conversations,
he sometimes alludes to literature with which his less educated listeners
are unfamiliar, not realizing that his allusions fly over their heads.
Though he attends to the welfare of his men, he frowns on even the tiniest
breech of the disciplinary code. When out of uniform and on land, he does
not use a seaman's jargon or boast of his accomplishments. One would think
him an ordinary civilian.
his petty officers is a somewhat mysterious man, John Claggart, master-at-arms,
who is about thirty-five. Though his title suggests that he schools crewmen
in the use of weaponry used in hand-to-hand combat, he is actually ~ez_ldquo~sort
of Chief of Police,~ez_rdquo~ the narrator says, ~ez_ldquo~charged among other matters with
the duty of preserving order on the populous lower gun decks~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter
8). No one knows what he did before he went to sea. His demeanor hints
that he is a well-educated gentleman, one more likely to be found in high
society than aboard a warship. His nationality is uncertain. The narrator
says, ~ez_ldquo~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,
but through naturalization in early childhood~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter 8).
rumor among crewmen suggested that he had voluntarily enlisted in the navy
to avoid a court penalty in a swindling case. No one aboard could cite
evidence to prove the charge. There is no doubt, though, that he is a man
of considerable ability, for he had swiftly advanced from a lowly position
to that of master-at-arms.
Budd gets along well with his shipmates and does a good job as foretopman.
He is careful about arriving for duty on time, especially after witnessing
the flogging of a young seaman who was absent from his post during a change
in the ship's course. The sight of the red welts on the fellow's back made
him resolve never to commit an infraction warranting such a punishment.
However, while trying hard to stay out of trouble, he finds himself the
object of a ~ez_ldquo~vague threat~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter 9) from one of the ship's corporals
over trivial matters such as ~ez_ldquo~the stowage of his bag or something amiss
in his hammock~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter 9). The threat vexes him, for he really does not
understand what, if anything, he did wrong.
decides to seek the counsel of the Dansker (the Dane), a veteran seaman
assigned to deck duty at the main mast. Billy had struck up a friendship
with this old salt, who had served aboard the Agamemnon under its
great captain, Lord Nelson, and bears a scar on his cheek as a memento
of sea combat. They talk when the Dansker is off duty. After describing
his problem, the old man tells him that the cause of his problem is Jimmy
Legs (his name for Claggart). Puzzled, Budd notes that Claggart always
speaks to him cordially. The old fellow says Claggart's manner is simply
his way of hiding his true intentions.
as previously mentioned, is an innocent, benevolent young man. Claggart
is his opposite. He was born with ~ez_ldquo~the mania of an evil nature~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter
11), the narrator says Apparently, when he sees goodness, he wants to destroy
it. He abhors innocence.
it possible, though, that Claggart envies Billy for his good looks and
charisma? The narrator answer this question: ~ez_ldquo~If askance he eyed the good
looks, cheery health and frank enjoyment of young life in Billy Budd, it
was because these went along with a nature that, as Claggart magnetically
felt, had in its simplicity never willed malice~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter 13).
day, an afterguardsman tells Billy that ~ez_ldquo~something is in the wind~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter
15). He then asks the foretopman to meet him in a secluded spot on the
lee side of the ship. Out of courtesy and perhaps a little curiosity, Billy
does as requested. There, the afterguardsman says that he, like Billy,
was impressed into service. He then says, ~ez_ldquo~We are not the only impressed
ones, Billy. There's a gang of us.~ez_mdash~Couldn't you~ez_mdash~help~ez_mdash~at a pinch?" (Chapter
15). He shows Billy two gold coins and says they are his if he agrees to
help. Sensing something nefarious is afoot, Billy immediately breaks off
the conversation, saying, ~ez_ldquo~I don't know what you are d-d-driving at, or
what you mean, but you had better g-g-go where you belong!" (Chapter 15)
what the sailor was proposing, Billy again consults with the Dansker. The
old man tells Budd that the afterguardsman is Claggart's errand boy but
says little more. It is clear by now to the reader that Claggart was trying
to get Billy to agree to participate in a mutiny in order to entrap him.
But Billy remains confused about the intentions of the afterguardsman.
the men of the Indomitable sight an enemy frigate and pursue it.
But the fast warship escapes. While Captain Vere is still on deck, Claggart
decides to do his own dirty work and tells Vere that Budd appears to be
plotting an uprising with other impressed seamen. Budd's benevolence is
a ruse, he maintains.
for nothing does he insinuate himself into the good will of his shipmates,~ez_rdquo~
Claggart says, ~ez_ldquo~since at the least all hands will at a pinch say a good
word for him at all hazards~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter 19).
accusation astonishes Vere, who believes Billy is an asset to the ship.
Vere orders a crewman, Mr. Wilkes, to summon, Albert, the captain's hammock
boy. When Albert appears, Vere tells him to fetch Billy and escort him
directly to the captain's cabin. Claggart is also to go to the cabin.
Billy arrives, Vere says, ~ez_ldquo~Now, Master-at-arms, tell this man to his face
what you told of him to me~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter 20).
then repeats his accusation. The lie so overcomes Billy emotionally that
he ~ez_ldquo~stood like one impaled and gagged,~ez_rdquo~ and he temporarily loses his ability
to speak. He cannot even stutter a reply. Desperate to save his reputation,
he responds with a fist that strikes the master-at-arms squarely in the
forehead. Claggart falls ~ez_ldquo~like a heavy plank, lets out a gasp or two, and
lies still~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter 20)
says, ~ez_ldquo~Fated boy, what have you done?~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter 20)
orders Billy to go to a state room and await orders, then sends for the
ship's surgeon. When the latter examines Claggart, blood is oozing from
an ear and a nostril. He confirms what Vere suspects: Claggart is dead.
dead by an angel of God!~ez_rdquo~ Vere says. ~ez_ldquo~Yet the angel must hang!" (Chapter
Vere sympathizes with Billy, he orders a trial in his cabin. The surgeon
and other officers believe that the captain should wait until the matter
can be brought to the attention of the admiral of the British fleet, from
which the Indomitable became separated while chasing the frigate.
But Vere prefers to go ahead with the trial in as much secrecy as possible
in order to avoid stirring ideas of mutiny among malcontents. Later, in
private conversations here and there, some of the officers criticize the
captain's decision; others~ez_mdash~including his cousin, Jack Denton~ez_mdash~defend his
court-martial is quickly convened. Sitting in judgment are three men selected
by Vere: the first lieutenant, the captain of marines, and the sailing
master. First, Vere presents his testimony, repeating Claggart's accusation
and Budd's reaction to it. When Budd testifies, he says, ~ez_ldquo~It is just as
Captain Vere says, but it is not as the Master-at-arms said. I have eaten
the King's bread and I am true to the King" (Chapter 22)
says he believes him. Budd then adds, ~ez_ldquo~I never bore malice against the
Master-at-arms. I am sorry that he is dead. I did not mean to kill him.
Could I have used my tongue I would not have struck him. But he foully
lied to my face and in presence of my Captain. . .~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter 22)
the trial, a sentinel escorts Billy back to the compartment where he had
earlier been held. When Vere confers with the panel of three men, he says
that reason must prevail over ~ez_ldquo~warm hearts" (Chapter 22). In other words,
they must abide by imperial laws.
junior lieutenant asks, "Can we not convict and yet mitigate the penalty?"
captain replies that showing leniency would send the wrong message to the
would think that we flinch, that we are afraid of them~ez_mdash~afraid of practising
a lawful rigour singularly demanded at this juncture lest it should provoke
new troubles. What shame to us such a conjecture on their part, and how
deadly to discipline~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter 22).
is convicted and sentenced to hang in the morning. After Vere tells Budd
of the verdict and sentence, he informs the crew of the death of Claggart
and of the court-martial, the verdict, and the sentence. He does not mention
the charge of mutiny.
a funeral service, Claggart's body is committed to sea. Early the next
day, Billy goes to his death peacefully.
bless Captain Vere,~ez_rdquo~ he says before the noose wrenches the life from him
is wrapped in his hammock and placed on a plank that tilts forward and
drops him into the depths.
returning to the British fleet, the Indomitable encounters and fights
an enemy ship. A musket ball strikes Captain Vere, knocking him off his
feet. The Indomitable triumphs, and the crewmen seize and take the
enemy ship to the English port of Gibraltar. There, after repeating Billy
Budd's name, Vere dies several days later. The following month, a weekly
naval publication prints an account saying that William Budd ~ez_ldquo~vindictively
stabbed~ez_rdquo~ (Chapter 30) John Claggart when the latter was attempting to take
Budd before the captain for plotting against the ship. The account says
Budd was an impressed foreigner who used an English name. The publication
describes him as a man of ~ez_ldquo~extreme depravity~ez_rdquo~ but depicts Claggart as a
heroic patriot (Chapter 30).
the years pass, Budd's old shipmates regard the spar from which Billy was
hanged as a cross of crucifixion. They follow the history of its movements
from ship to dockyard and from dockyard to ship until it is finally removed
from the ship. A foretopman of the Indomitable writes a poem, ~ez_ldquo~Billy
in the Darbies~ez_rdquo~ (Billy in handcuffs), in which he presents what Billy may
have been thinking in his final moments before the hanging. The poem is
later printed at Portsmouth as a ballad (Chapter 31).
Adam and Evil
Budd has his flaws, including his stammer and lack of education. Morally,
however, he is almost irreproachable. It is as if he stepped out of Eden~ez_mdash~an
Adam who never ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
Claggart is his opposite. In him, the narrator says, ~ez_ldquo~was the mania of
an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books
or licentious living, but born with him and innate. . . . "
Melville presents an original Biblical matchup. Whether good defeats evil,
or vice versa, is a matter of interpretation. What seems clear, though,
is this theme: The struggle between the forces of light and darkness is
never-ending, acted out again and again everywhere~ez_mdash~even in the middle of
Budd is an innocent man who is pronounced guilty in a court-martial. John
Claggart is a guilty man who is pronounced innocent in a naval chronicle.
his childlike naiveté, Billy fails to perceive the danger Claggart
poses to him even when the Dansker warns him about it. Because the master-at-arms
addresses him cordially, Billy cannot think ill of him. In Shakespeare's
Lady Macbeth tells her husband, ~ez_ldquo~Look like the innocent flower, but be
the serpent under it.~ez_rdquo~ To Billy, Claggart looks like the flower, but he
is really the serpent under it.
narrator describes Captain Vere as fair-minded and courageous. But he betrays
himself, Billy, and the truth when he persuades the court-martial panel
to find Billy guilty in order to forestall any thoughts of mutiny among
Red Whiskers harasses Billy Budd on the Rights-of-Man, "Quick as
lightning Billy let fly his arm [against Red Whiskers]," the narrator says.
"I dare say he never meant to do quite as much as he did, but anyhow he
gave the burly fool a terrible drubbing." Billy reacts in the same way
when Claggart accuses him of organizing a mutiny. His rash action costs
him his life.
little is known about the background of Billy Budd and John Claggart. What
events in their past motivate them? Why do they act as they do? The narrator
does not provide the answers. The air of mystery about them helps to shape
them as personifications of good and evil.
was the practice of seizing men against their will for service in a navy
or an army. This practice becomes an important issue in the novel after
an officer of the
Indomitable impresses Billy Budd when he is serving
aboard the Rights-of-Man, a merchant ship. Although Billy assumes
his new duties in the navy without protest, Claggart later accuses him
of organizing a mutiny among impressed seamen, maintaining that Budd "at
heart . . .resents his impressment." Mutiny was headline news in England
in 1797, the year that the action in the fictional Billy Budd takes
place. In real life, two major mutinies occurred in the spring of that
year, one at the Spithead anchorage near Portsmouth in April and May and
the other at the Nore anchorage at London in May and June.
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encounter on the Rights-of-Man between Billy Budd and Red Whiskers
foreshadows the encounter between Billy and John Claggart in Captain Vere's
cabin on the Indomitable. Billy's violent retaliation against Red
Whiskers helps to make his violent retaliation against Claggart seem consistent
with his character and, therefore, believable to the reader.
Claggart Really Evil?
Claggart encounters Billy Budd, the master-at-arms determines to bring
the youth to ruin. Billy is like a perfectly constructed house of cards.
The temptation to cause its collapse is too great to pass up. And so Claggart
schemes to destroy Billy.
they confront each other in front of Captain Vere, Claggart says Billy
has been organizing a mutiny. Billy, unable to defend himself verbally
because of his stammer, answers with a fist to Claggart's forehead. The
blow kills him.
reader is likely to conclude that Claggart got what he deserved. But was
Claggart really guilty of wrongdoing? The last paragraph of Chapter 11
casts the answer to this question in doubt. It says, in part: In him ~ez_ldquo~was
the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting
books or licentious living, but born with him and innate. . . .~ez_rdquo~ And then
there is this paragraph at the end of Chapter 13:
With no power to
annul the elemental evil in him, tho' readily enough he could hide it .
. . a nature like Claggart's surcharged with energy as such natures almost
invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and
like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible, act out to
the end the part allotted it........If
Claggart was born evil but could not ~ez_ldquo~annul~ez_rdquo~ this evil, he had no free
will. He was like a predatory animal that follows its instincts.
Budd and Adam
present Billy Budd as a symbol of primal goodness, Melville compares him
to an uncorrupted Adam. In Chapter 2, the narration says, "By his original
constitution . . . Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of
upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been
ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company. In Chapter 19,
the narration says,
Now the Handsome
Sailor, as a signal figure among the crew, had naturally enough attracted
the Captain's attention from the first. Tho' in general not very demonstrative
to his officers, he had congratulated Lieutenant Ratcliff upon his good
fortune in lighting on such a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the
nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.Billy
Budd and Christ
present Billy as an innocent victim of wrongdoing, Melville has his narrator
suggest that Billy's life parallels that of Christ in several ways, including
Billy leaves an ideal world
(the Rights-of-Man) and enters a corrupt world (the Indomitable).
Christ left heaven to live among men.
Billy's life before he went
to sea is a question mark. Christ's life from adolescence to the time of
his adult ministry is also a question mark.
Claggart, whom the narrator
compares to the devil, uses the afterguardsman to tempt Billy to commit
evil. While Christ was fasting in the desert, the devil tempted him.
Billy kills Claggart. Christ
"killed" the burden of sin.
Billy is falsely accused of
organizing a mutiny. Christ was falsely accused of blasphemy and various
Billy undergoes a trial at which
Captain Vere presides and sentences Billy to death. Christ undergoes a
trial at which Pontius Pilate resides and sentences Christ to death.
Billy hangs from a spar resembling
the arm of a cross. Christ hangs from a cross.
climax occurs when Billy Budd, unable to defend himself verbally because
of his stammer, kills Claggart (unintentionally) with a blow to his forehead.
denouement, or conclusion, of a story presents events set in motion by
the climax. In Billy Budd, these events include the court-martial,
sentencing, and hanging of Billy Budd; the account of the hanging in a
navy news publication; and the spread of a ballad about Billy.
Melville himself served aboard several ships, working as a cabin boy, a
sailor, and a harpooner. His extensive experience provided him the knowledge
to write with authenticity about ships, their officers and crews, and the
vocabulary of seagoing men. Following are nautical terms, gleaned from
his years sailing the oceans, that he uses in Billy Budd.
aft: At or near the
rear of a ship.
pronounced BOH zun): Officer in charge of a ship's deck crew.
bow: Front part of
deck: Floor on a
pronounced COX un): Sailor who pilots a ship's oar-powered boat.
of duty lasting two hours, either from 4 to 6 p.m. or 6 to 8 p.m.
drumhead court: Court-martial
held at sea.
fore: At or near
the front of ship.
pronounced FOHK sl): Upper deck in the front of a ship.
hull: Body of a ship.
foremast: Mast near
the front of the ship.
who works on a platform on the foremast.
frigate: Fast warship
of medium size of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It had square
sails and could carry up to sixty cannons.
halyard: Rope with
which to lower or raise a sail or flag.
of His Majesty's Ship (or Her Majesty's Ship). It is used
as part of a ship's name, as the H.M.S. Indomitable.
helm: Wheel that
steers a ship.
who mans the helm.
hold: Interior part
of a ship where cargo is stored.
lanyards: Short ropes
used on a ship to fasten something; cord pulled to fire a cannon; short
rope that a sailor wears around his neck to attach tools.
lee: Side of a ship
that is away from the wind.
linstock: Stick with
a forked end that holds a burning match. It is used to fire a cannon.
mast: Vertical pole
(spar) that supports the sails and ropes on a ship.
officer who once instructed crewmen in the use of weapons. By 1797, when
Billy Budd enters service on the Indomitable, the master-at-arms
on a British ship was used as the chief enforcer of the law.
officer aspiring to qualify as a lieutenant.
mizzenmast: In ships
with at least three masts, the mast third from the front of a ship
port: Left side of
a ship as one faces forward.
of the upper deck, where officers convene or special ceremonies are held.
reef: Part of a sail
that can be rolled up and secured to reduce the effect of high winds on
piece of flat wood or metal attached to the rear of a boat, below water
level, that is controlled by a tiller to steer the boat.
sailing master: Ship's
with seventy-four cannons. Some warships had more than one hundred cannons;
others had as few as twenty.
shrouds: Ropes running
from the side of a ship to the top of a mast to keep the mast steady.
spirit locker: Place
for the storage of liquor.
side of the ship as one faces forward.
stern: Rear part
of a ship.
taffrail: Rail around
the stern of a ship.
tiller: Handle for
turning the rudder of a boat.
pole, tapering at the ends, that supports the sails of a ship.
yardarm: Half of
and Direct References
Achilles: In Greek
mythology, the greatest warrior on earth. He spearheaded the Greek forces
in the Trojan War. (Chapter 9)
Gigantic star in the Taurus constellation. (Chapter 1)
BC): Alexander the Great, the Macedonian general who conquered many lands
and spread Greek culture to Africa and Asia. (Chapter 1)
Ananias: In the New
Testament, a man who fell dead after Peter rebuked him for lying. (Chapter
of prophecy, music, poetry, and medicine. His alternate name, Phoebus,
means brightness, and he was thus also considered the god of the sun, a
distinction also ascribed to Hyperion. (Chapter 1)
of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), an English philosopher, economist, and author.
coat of young Joseph: In the Old Testament of the Bible, a colorful
coat that the patriarch Jacob gave to his favorite son, Joseph. Jacob's
other sons, envious of Joseph, spitefully sold him to several Ishmaelites,
who took him to Egypt. (Chapter 19)
Cain: Elder son of
Adam and Eve. Cain killed his brother, Abel. (Chapter 2)
the Great's horse. (Chapter 1)
Chang and Eng: Famous
twins from Siam who were joined at the waist. The term Siamese twins originated
with Chang and Eng (1811-1874). (Chapter 13)
(1630-1685): King of England Britain and Ireland from 1660 to 1685.
Chiron: In Greek
mythology, the centaur (creature with the head and trunk of a man and the
body of a horse) who taught Hercules and Achilles, as well as the god of
medicine, Asclepius. (Chapter 9)
(1755-1794): Prussian participant in the French Revolution. He advocated
French expansionism. (Chapter 1)
Cook, Captain (1728-1779):
James Cook, British navy captain and explorer of the vast reaches of the
David: Second king
of Israel, reigning until about 962 BC. (Chapter 13)
Diderot: See Girard,
Stephen. (Chapter 1)
Fawkes, Guy (1570-1606):
Englishman accused of conspiring against the royal family and the government.
In November 1605, he and other Roman Catholics who refused to accept the
state religion plotted to kill King James I, the queen, their oldest son,
and members of Parliament by exploding barrels of gunpowder beneath the
House of Lords and the adjacent royal palace. However, before the conspirators
could execute their plan~ez_mdash~scheduled for Nov. 5~ez_mdash~government authorities arrested
Fawkes after receiving a tip. They tortured him until he confessed to a
conspiracy, which became known in English history as the Gunpowder Plot.
Fra Angelico (1400-1455):
Great Italian painter of the fifteenth century. His birth name was Guido
di Petro. When he became a Dominican monk of the Roman Catholic Church,
he was known as Fra (Italian, Brother) Angelico. (Chapter 25)
Germanicus (15 BC-AD
19): Germanicus Caesar, a Roman general who won victories in Britain. He
was the adopted son of Tiberius Caesar. (Chapter 25)
Stephen (1750-1831): French-born American philanthropist and financier
who helped bankroll the U.S. cause in the War of 1812. An admirer of French
thinkers, he named ships that he owned after Voltaire and Denis Diderot
(1713-1784), a French philosopher and encyclopedist. (Chapter 1)
Ham: Son of Noah.
harpies: In Greek
mythology, monstrous birds with clawed hands and the faces of young women.
They emit foul excrement from their bellies. (Chapter 8)
Hyperion: See Apollo.
Jacob: In the Old
Testament, the son of Isaac and father of Joseph
and the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. (Chapter 19)
Jove (Jupiter): King
of the gods in Roman mythology. His Greek name was Zeus. (Chapter 1)
William Murray Mansfield, chief justice in Britain from 1756 to 1788. (Chapter
Mars: Roman name
for Ares, the Greek god of war. (Chapter 25)
Marvell, Andrew (1621-1678):
English lyric poet. (Chapter 6)
warship used in the American Civil War. (Chapter 4)
de Montaigne (1533-1592), famous French writer who pioneered the essay
as a literary form. (Chapter 7)
Daring cavalry officer under Napoleon. Murat became king of Naples. (Chapter
Mysteries of Udolpho:
Title of a famous Gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), an English
author. (Chapter 11)
Nelson: Horatio Nelson
(1758-1805), British admiral who won important victories in the Napoleonic
wars at Cape Trafalgar, near Spain, and Abu Qir Bay, off Alexandria, Egypt.
(Chapters 3, 4, 5, 9)
Oates, Rev. Dr. Titus
(1649-1705): Anglican clergyman who spread a lie that Jesuits (Roman Catholic
priests) were plotting to assassinate England's King Charles II. His story
fanned the coals of anti-Catholic sentiment. (Chapter 8)
Paine, Thomas (1737-1809):
English-American author who argued for American independence from England
in "Common Sense," a political pamphlet published on January 10, 1776,
and supported the American Revolution with a series of pamphlets entitled
"Crisis." He also defended the French Revolution in The Rights of Man,
published in March 1791. (Chapter 1)
BC): One of the three greatest philosophers of ancient Greece. The other
two were Socrates and Aristotle. (Chapter 11)
Rodney: George Brydges
Rodney (1718-1792), English admiral who distinguished himself in battles
against the French, Dutch, and Spanish. (Chapter 6)
Saul: In the Old
Testament, the first king of Israel, reigning until about 1000 BC. (Chapter
Theseus: Great hero
of Greek mythology who killed the minotaur, a monster with the body of
a man and the head of a bull. (Chapter 5)
Pen name of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778),
one of the greatest French writers. His most famous work is Candide.
Wellesley Wellington (1769-1852), British army commander. With the
support of Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, of Prussia,
Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, Belgium, in 1815. (Chapter 4)
are examples of figures of speech in Billy Budd.
He had much
prudence, much conscientiousness (Chapter
1, paragraph 7)
the might-have-been is but
ground to build on. (Chapter 4, paragraph
Billy saw the culprit's naked back under the scourge gridironed with red
welts, and worse; when he marked the
dire expression on the liberated man's face as with his woolen shirt flung
over him (Chapter 9, paragraph 2)
good humor (Chapter 1, paragraph 2)
(Chapter 1, paragraph 8)
helped to win
for Nelson at the Nile,
and the naval crown
for him at Trafalgar (Chapter 3, paragraph 9)
with steel in frank
4, paragraph 2)
weight of men
(Chapter 19, paragraph 2)
Such a cynosure,
at least in aspect, and something such too in nature, though with important
variations made apparent as the story proceeds, was welkin-eyed Billy Budd.
. . . (Chapter 1, paragraph 6)
Comparison of Billy Budd
to the constellation Ursa Minor (cynosure)
His wizened face, time-tinted
and weather-stained to the complexion of an antique parchment (Chapter
9, paragraph 4)
Comparison of the Dansker's
face to parchment
Those lights of human intelligence
(Chapter 20, paragraph 4)
Comparison of Claggart's
eyes to lights
the rose-tan of
his cheek looked struck as by white leprosy (Chapter 20, paragraph 4)
Comparison of the color
of Billy Budd's cheek to the color of a leper's cheek
Those lights of human intelligence
losing human expression, gelidly protruding like the alien eyes of certain
uncatalogued creatures of the deep.
Comparison of the protrusion
of Claggart's eyes to that of mysterious ocean creatures
In a legal view
the apparent victim of the tragedy was he who had sought to victimize a
man blameless (Chapter 22, paragraph 4)Author
Melville, was born in New York City on Aug. 1, 1819, and died there on
Sept. 28, 1891. His name was Herman Melvill until 1832, when the family
added the final "e" to the name. He was one of eight children, four boys
and four girls. Melville taught school briefly in Pittsfield, Mass., studied
surveying, served as a cabin boy on a voyage to Liverpool, England, and
in 1841 joined the crew of the whaling ship Acushnet for a voyage
to the South Seas. He jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands and spent time
there with the native people according to unconfirmed accounts. He also
reportedly served on an Australian whaler, the Lucy Ann. Later,
in Nantucket, Mass., he was hired as a harpooner on the Charles &
Henry, then quit the ship in the Hawaiian Islands and signed on as
a seaman with a frigate, the United States, and ended his sea career
in 1844. His sea background, along with his extensive reading of the great
works of literature, provided him the raw material for Moby Dick
and other books, as well as short stories.
Questions and Essay Topics
Although Billy Budd killed Claggart
unintentionally, he was aware that striking a superior officer was a serious
offense. However, Claggart had provoked him by accusing him of organizing
a mutiny. If you were judging Billy's case and believed that Claggart was
lying, would you find Billy entirely innocent of wrongdoing? Or would you
find him guilty of violating naval law?
Read "Was Claggart Really Evil?"(above).
Then present your opinion on this topic. Explain your answer.
Why did Claggart scheme against
Billy but not against other crewmen?
After Billy's execution, Captain
Vere dies from a wound suffered in a battle with another ship. Was Vere's
death a sign that Melville believed Vere deserved punishment for giving
Billy a death sentence?
Why didn't Billy tell Captain
Vere about his encounter with the afterguardsman?
Does the presence of a clergyman
(the chaplain who visits Billy after his sentencing) on the Indomitable
suggest that organized religion sanctions England's war with France?
Do the crewmen of the Indomitable
believe that Billy deserved the death penalty?