Billy Budd
By Herman Melville (1819-1891)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Composition, Publication
Ship's Name
Point of View
Plot Summary
Was Claggart Really Evil?
Billy Budd and Adam
Billy Budd and Christ
Nautical Terms
Figures of Speech
Author Information
Questions, Essay Topics
Complete Free Text
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.© 2010

Type of Work

.......Herman 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.

Composition, Publication, and Editions

.......Herman 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. 
.......Other 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. 


.......The 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.

Ship's Name

.......Raymond 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. Cummings 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 Indomitable. As his surname suggests, he is a bud—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. 
Captain 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.
Captain Graveling: Master of the merchant ship Rights-of-Man. When the British navy needs seamen for military duty, a representative of the navy boards the Rights-of-Man 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 Indomitable crewman in whom Billy Budd confides. 
Jimmy Legs: The Dansker's name for John Claggart.
Afterguardsman: Crewman 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.
Lieutenant Ratcliff (Ratcliffe in some editions of the novel): Officer who boards the Rights-of-Man 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.
Boatswain: (usually pronounced BOH zun): Officer in charge of the Indomitable's deck crew.
Chaplain: Clergyman who attends to Budd's spiritual needs before his hanging. 
First Lieutenant, Captain of Marines, Sailing Master: Members of the court-martial panel sitting in judgment of Billy Budd.
Senior Lieutenant: 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.
First Officer
Albert: Captain's hammock boy.
Mr. Wilkes: Midshipman.
Purser: Indomitable's accountant.
Petty Officers
Boatwain's Mates

Point of View

.......An 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
Based on the 1924 Edition, Entitled Billy Budd, Foretopman
By Michael J. Cummings.© 2010

.......In 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—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 among themselves. 
.......But 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.
.......So 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. 
.......“But 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), Budd says. 
.......Billy 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.
.......The 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. 
.......Among 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 “sort of Chief of Police,” the narrator says, “charged among other matters with the duty of preserving order on the populous lower gun decks” (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, “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” (Chapter 8).
.......A 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. 
.......Billy 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 “vague threat” (Chapter 9) from one of the ship's corporals over trivial matters such as “the stowage of his bag or something amiss in his hammock” (Chapter 9). The threat vexes him, for he really does not understand what, if anything, he did wrong.
.......Budd 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. 
.......Budd, as previously mentioned, is an innocent, benevolent young man. Claggart is his opposite. He was born with “the mania of an evil nature” (Chapter 11), the narrator says Apparently, when he sees goodness, he wants to destroy it. He abhors innocence. 
.......Is it possible, though, that Claggart envies Billy for his good looks and charisma? The narrator answer this question: “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” (Chapter 13).
.......One day, an afterguardsman tells Billy that “something is in the wind” (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, “We are not the only impressed ones, Billy. There's a gang of us.—Couldn't you—help—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, “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)
.......Wondering 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.
.......Meanwhile, 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.
.......“Not for nothing does he insinuate himself into the good will of his shipmates,” Claggart says, “since at the least all hands will at a pinch say a good word for him at all hazards” (Chapter 19).
.......The 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.
.......After Billy arrives, Vere says, “Now, Master-at-arms, tell this man to his face what you told of him to me” (Chapter 20).
.......Claggart then repeats his accusation. The lie so overcomes Billy emotionally that he “stood like one impaled and gagged,” 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 “like a heavy plank, lets out a gasp or two, and lies still” (Chapter 20)
.......Vere says, “Fated boy, what have you done?” (Chapter 20)
.......He 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. 
......."Struck dead by an angel of God!” Vere says. “Yet the angel must hang!" (Chapter 20)
.......Although 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—including his cousin, Jack Denton—defend his decision.
.......A 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, “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)
.......Vere says he believes him. Budd then adds, “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. . .” (Chapter 22)
.......After 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 “warm hearts" (Chapter 22). In other words, they must abide by imperial laws.
.......The junior lieutenant asks, "Can we not convict and yet mitigate the penalty?" (Chapter 22).
.......The captain replies that showing leniency would send the wrong message to the impressed seamen.
.......“They would think that we flinch, that we are afraid of them—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” (Chapter 22).
.......Billy 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.
.......After a funeral service, Claggart's body is committed to sea. Early the next day, Billy goes to his death peacefully. 
.......“God bless Captain Vere,” he says before the noose wrenches the life from him (Chapter 26).
.......Billy is wrapped in his hammock and placed on a plank that tilts forward and drops him into the depths. 
.......While 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 “vindictively stabbed” (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 “extreme depravity” but depicts Claggart as a heroic patriot (Chapter 30).
.......As 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, “Billy in the Darbies” (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

.......Billy 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—an Adam who never ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. 
.......John Claggart is his opposite. In him, the narrator says, “was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate. . . . "
.......Thus, 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—even in the middle of an ocean. 


.......Billy 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. 

Deceptive Appearances

.......In 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 Macbeth, Lady Macbeth tells her husband, “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.” To Billy, Claggart looks like the flower, but he is really the serpent under it.


.......The 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 the crewmen. 


.......After 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.


.......Very 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.


.......Impressment 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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.......The 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.

Was Claggart Really Evil?

.......When 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. 
.......When 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. 
.......The 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 “was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate. . . .” 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 “annul” this evil, he had no free will. He was like a predatory animal that follows its instincts. 

Billy Budd and Adam

.......To 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

.......To 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 the following:

  • 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 other offenses.
  • 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.

.......The climax occurs when Billy Budd, unable to defend himself verbally because of his stammer, kills Claggart (unintentionally) with a blow to his forehead. 


.......The 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.

Nautical Terms

.......Herman 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.
blue-jacket: Veteran British seaman. 
boatswain (usually pronounced BOH zun): Officer in charge of a ship's deck crew.
bow: Front part of a ship.
deck: Floor on a ship.
coxswain (usually pronounced COX un): Sailor who pilots a ship's oar-powered boat.
dog-watch: Period 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.
forecastle (usually pronounced FOHK sl): Upper deck in the front of a ship.
hull: Body of a ship.
foremast: Mast near the front of the ship.
foretopman: Sailor 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.
H.M.S.: Abbreviation 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.
helmsman: Crewman 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.
master-at-arms: Petty 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.
merchantman: Merchant ship.
midshipman: Noncommissioned 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.
quarterdeck: Rear 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 a ship.
rudder: Pivoting 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 navigator.
seventy-four: Warship 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.
starboard: Right side of the ship as one faces forward.
stern: Rear part of a ship.
taffrail: Rail around the stern of a ship.
tar: Sailor.
tiller: Handle for turning the rudder of a boat.
yard: Horizontal pole, tapering at the ends, that supports the sails of a ship.
yardarm: Half of the yard.

Allusions and Direct References

Achilles: In Greek mythology, the greatest warrior on earth. He spearheaded the Greek forces in the Trojan War. (Chapter 9)
Aldebaran: Gigantic star in the Taurus constellation. (Chapter 1)
Alexander (356-323 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 20) 
Apollo: God 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)
Benthamites: Followers of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), an English philosopher, economist, and author. (Chapter 4)
blood-dyed 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)
Bucephalus: Alexander 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)
Charles II (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)
Cloots, Anarchasis (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 Pacific Ocean. 
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—scheduled for Nov. 5—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. (Chapter 14)
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)
Girard, 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. (Chapter 1)
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)
Mansfield (1705-1793): William Murray Mansfield, chief justice in Britain from 1756 to 1788. (Chapter 5)
Mars: Roman name for Ares, the Greek god of war. (Chapter 25)
Marvell, Andrew (1621-1678): English lyric poet. (Chapter 6)
Monitor: Ironclad warship used in the American Civil War. (Chapter 4)
Montaigne: Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), famous French writer who pioneered the essay as a literary form. (Chapter 7)
Murat (1767-1815): Daring cavalry officer under Napoleon. Murat became king of Naples. (Chapter 1)
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)
Plato (427?-327? 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 13)
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)
Voltaire: Pen name of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), one of the greatest French writers. His most famous work is Candide. (Chapter 1)
Wellington: Arthur 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)

Figures of speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in Billy Budd.


He had much prudence, much conscientiousness (Chapter 1, paragraph 7)
But the might-have-been is but boggy ground to build on. (Chapter 4, paragraph 6)
When 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)
beamed with barbaric good humor (Chapter 1, paragraph 2)
the Indomitable's Lieutenant, burly and bluff (Chapter 1, paragraph 8)
helped to win a coronet for Nelson at the Nile, and the naval crown of crowns for him at Trafalgar (Chapter 3, paragraph 9)
too craven to stand up crossing steel with steel in frank fight (Chapter 4, paragraph 2)
the weight of men and metal (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 Information .
.......Herman 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. 

Study 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?