The narrator begins the story by recalling a time, in the days before steamships, when it was common to observe in port towns a group of sailors gathered around a “Handsome Sailor” type—a man who stood out from his peers by being taller, stronger, and more physically attractive. The Handsome Sailor’s peers would instinctively look up to and follow this naturally superior specimen. As an example, the narrator cites an instance in Liverpool in which he observed a male African in a plaid cap promenading proudly in the company of his fellow seamen.
At twenty-one years old, though young-looking for his age, Billy Budd exemplifies the Handsome Sailor type. He has only recently entered into the service of the British naval forces. In the summer of 1797, while returning to the British Isles on board the merchant ship Rights-of-Man, he is impressed into duty by the H.M.S. Bellipotent, a warship in need of extra sailors.
Billy is the only member of his company on the Rights-of-Man selected to change ranks by the representative of the Bellipotent, Lieutenant Ratcliffe. Without complaint, Billy accepts his reassignment, much to Ratcliffe’s satisfaction. However, this shift surprises his old company and meets with the silent disapproval of his old shipmaster, Captain Graveling.
In preparation for his departure from the Rights-of-Man, Billy goes to the lower hold to gather his gear. Meanwhile, Ratcliffe barges his way into the cabin of the Rights-of-Man and helps himself to a drink. Graveling plays the polite host, but refrains from drinking himself.
In a quiet moment, Graveling reproaches Ratcliffe for stealing Billy from the Rights-of-Man. After eliciting a meager apology, Graveling proceeds to lament his loss, recounting the tale of Billy’s days on board the Rights-of-Man. He recalls Billy’s arrival amidst a quarreling crew, the rapid rise of his popularity and authority, and his swift and judicious use of force at necessary moments. He relates a story in which a sailor referred to as “the Red Whiskers,” the only member of the crew who disliked Billy, tried to bully the young sailor. When the Red Whiskers punched Billy, Billy responded with a forceful blow of his own. To the surprise of all, Billy’s violent response actually pacified the Red Whiskers’ hatred for Billy, turning that hatred to love. Graveling details the love felt by all for Billy the peacekeeper and dreads the encroaching discord that will doubtlessly return to the Rights-of-Man upon Billy’s departure.
Ratcliffe delivers the tongue-in-cheek reply, “Blessed are the peacekeepers, especially the fighting peacekeepers.” Then he gestures toward the cannons on board the Bellipotent to illustrate his idea of what a peacekeeper is. He reassures Graveling that despite the hardship of his immediate loss, he should remember that the king would doubtless approve of such selfless compliance with the needs of the empire. Calling out to Billy on deck, Ratcliffe tells him to slim down his possessions from a large box to a smaller bag.
After Billy reorganizes his gear, Ratcliffe follows him down into one of the Bellipotent’s cutters, or small boats, and they push off from their mooring. As they pass beneath the stern of the larger ship, Billy stands up, and, with a wave of his hat, bids a friendly good-bye to his old crew and to the Rights-of-Man. This last farewell earns Billy a harsh rebuke from Ratcliffe, who orders him to sit down.
Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian . . .
On board the Bellipotent, Billy quickly settles into his new routine, working good-naturedly in his position as foretopman. Markedly younger than the rest of the company, he finds himself less of a focal point among his new peers than he had been on the merchant marine. Of the other men on board the Bellipotent, most are far more battle-tested, although the ingenuous Billy is not intimidated by the presence of such experienced colleagues.
In passing, the narrator notes that Billy was a foundling at birth, orphaned by his parents and placed in a basket at the knocker of a stranger’s door. The narrator speculates that Billy might actually be of noble parentage, given the striking quality of his appearance. Billy is depicted as a sort of natural man, chiseled and proud, but without self-consciousness. He compensates for his illiteracy with his skill as a singer. The narrator notes that Billy has a slightly barbaric, animal, or primitive quality in terms of his comprehension of morality. Still, Billy’s only serious shortcoming is his tendency to stutter or, on occasion, to be rendered speechless. The narrator states that Billy’s vocal imperfection reveals his mortality in the face of his unequaled beauty and stature. The narrator emphasizes that Billy is not a typical hero, and that his story will not be a romance.
Billy Budd is an unusual hero because he is so intellectually and emotionally limited. Throughout the novel, we are in the position of knowing and understanding more than he does. He is handsome, well liked, and widely admired, and he exhibits leadership among his fellows on the Rights-of-Man, but he is not gifted with unusual intelligence or self-awareness. In particular, the narrator emphasizes that although Billy exerts a good influence on other people, he lacks a well-developed moral sense. He does not have the knowledge, experience, or wisdom to be a moral role model, even though he clearly has a good heart. The narrator describes Billy by comparing him to animals and primitive men, even as he tells us that Billy is a noble specimen of manhood. Essentially, Billy Budd represents the finest qualities that nature produces in human beings without the help of civilization—he has not been cultivated by education or a sophisticated understanding of morality. The novel explores what happens when such a natural man is confronted with authority, social pressure, and the subtlety and guile of evil men.
The conflict between the individual and society is introduced relatively quickly, with Billy’s impressment, or involuntary recruitment, in Chapter 1. If Billy is like man in a state of nature, as yet untroubled by the demands of civilized society, his extraction from the Rights-of-Man to the Bellipotent symbolizes the power that society exercises over individuals. The scene vividly demonstrates the idea that the demands of society overpower the rights of the individual. As the narrator points out, the Rights-of-Man is named after a book by Thomas Paine that defends the principles of individual liberty and human rights that inspired the French Revolution. Ironically, the Bellipotent removes Billy from that ship against his will, and forces him to join in the war effort against the French. The Bellipotent is a much more hierarchically organized and strictly run vessel, and throughout the novel it represents the forces of society and authority.
Billy’s problems are greater than the conflict between an individual and an authoritarian society that strips him of his rights and freedoms. Another, more mysterious danger lies in wait for Billy—the threat of evil. The narrator introduces his view of the elusive quality of evil with the discussion of Billy’s intermittent speech impediment. The narrator interprets the stutter as an indication that nature did not, in fact, make Billy perfect. He compares this imperfection to a calling card left by the devil, suggesting that the devil is fond of leaving such reminders that he has a hand in everything created on Earth, however beautiful. It is important for us to keep in mind, then, that Melville does not portray evil as a product of society, although he does not explain where it comes from or what it means. The mysterious presence of evil adds another dimension to the novel, preventing us from reducing the story to the conflict between the individual and society.
Although it is not obvious early in the novel, the first few chapters begin to establish a connection between Billy and Jesus Christ. When an officer on the Bellipotent asks him who his father is, Billy replies, “God knows, sir.” The response indicates that Billy is simply ignorant of his origins, but it also faintly suggests that his origins are divine. Jesus was similarly evasive when asked about his parentage, and just as Billy’s paternity is a mystery, the relationship between Jesus and God the Father is one of the central mysteries of Christianity. The nickname that Billy gains on board the Bellipotent, Baby Budd, suggests an association with the baby Jesus, aligning Billy with the Son in the Christian idea of the Holy Trinity. Several times Billy is described as “welkin-eyed”—welkin means sky—suggesting that his vision is somehow heavenly. Similar hints and references abound, but it is important not to overplay the association of Billy with Christ. After all, the differences between Billy, who is morally and spiritually limited, and Christ, who embodies divine wisdom and love, are more striking than the similarities. One of the central puzzles of Billy Budd is why Melville creates the parallel between Billy and Christ, and different readers have interpreted this aspect of the text in very different ways.