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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
Time and place written
1886–1891, New York City
Date of first publication
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
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
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