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Billy Budd, Sailor

Herman Melville
  • Study Guide
Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title  Given in various editions as Billy Budd; Billy Budd, Foretopman; and Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative). The last seems to represent Melville’s final intention before he died.

author  Herman Melville

type of work  Novel

genre  Sea story, Christian allegory, novella, philosophical novel

language  English

time and place written  1886–1891, New York City

date of first publication  1924

publisher  Constable & Company, Ltd.

narrator  The story is narrated in an omniscient third person voice whose liveliness, strong opinions, and stylistic inconsistency give the narrator a forceful, erratic personality that colors the events of the story. The narrator jumps freely from character to character in describing backgrounds, attitudes, and mindsets, yet often admits ignorance concerning certain events.

point of view  The narrator generally focuses on Billy’s point of view, but in certain chapters shifts to that of Claggart and Vere. For brief moments, the point of view of minor characters such as Captain Graveling is represented.

tone  The narrator’s attitude toward his story is generally one of ironic disillusionment. The notes of hope, reconciliation, and optimism that creep into the text, especially toward the end, have been interpreted by some readers as sincere and by others as satirical.

tense  Past

setting (time)  Summer of 1797, four years into the Napoleonic Wars between England and France and several months after the Great Mutiny at Nore

setting (place)  On an English warship, the Bellipotent, somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea

protagonist  Billy Budd

major conflict  On one level, the conflict of the book is between the natural innocence and goodness of Billy and the subtlety and deceptiveness of evil, represented by Claggart. The second major conflict of the book is the dilemma about whether Vere should absolve Billy for killing Claggart, since Billy is fundamentally innocent, or whether he should execute him to avoid appearing lenient toward mutiny.

rising action Billy’s persecution for minor infractions, his spilling the soup in front of Claggart, and his encounter with the afterguardsman, who may have been seeking to entrap him, all bring Billy and Claggart toward open conflict.

climax Billy strikes Claggart dead after being falsely accused of mutiny.

falling action Vere forms a special drumhead court to try Billy, and pressures the court to convict and condemn him; Billy is executed in front of the entire crew; Billy’s legend gradually begins to spread among the sailors.

themes The individual versus society; conscience versus law; the vulnerability of innocence

motifs Christian allegory; suggestive names; mutiny

symbols  The ships, the purser, the surgeon

foreshadowing  The Dansker’s warning that Claggart hates Billy; the intimations of mutiny made to Billy in the darkness