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,
impressed into naval duty as a foretopman (a sailor who sits atop
the foremast or above) on board the warship H.M.S. Bellipotent.
much younger than most of the Bellipotent
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
in-depth analysis of Billy Budd.
Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere
Captain of the H.M.S. Bellipotent.
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.
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
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.
acquaintance and confidante aboard the Bellipotent.
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
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.
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.
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
most cunning corporal. Squeak supports and fuels Claggart’s contempt
for Billy, and tries by various maneuvers to make Billy’s life miserable.
Vere’s hammock boy. Trusted by the captain, Albert is sent to summon
Billy to the cabin on the day Claggart accuses him.
The brusque boarding officer of the Bellipotent.
Ratcliffe selects only Billy from the company of the Rights-of-Man
impressment, or involuntary recruitment into naval service.
Captain of the Rights-of-Man.
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.
Billy strikes him, his hatred of Billy turns to love, which both
parallels and contrasts with Billy’s disastrous striking of Claggart.
forecastleman who reproves Billy for not taking greater disciplinary
action against the stranger who tries to corrupt him.