About Billy Budd


Critical Assessment

Like many artists, Melville felt constrained to choose between art and money. The turning point of his career came in 1851. With the publication of Moby-Dick, he grew disenchanted with his attempt to please the general reader. Instead, he cultivated a more spiritual language to express the darker, enigmatic side of the soul. Like his letters, Melville's literary style became torturous and demanding; his themes questioned the nature of good and evil and what he perceived as upheaval in universal order. Pierre, his first published work after Moby-Dick, with its emphasis on incest and moral corruption, exemplifies his decision to change direction. His readers, accustomed to the satisfying rough and tumble of his sea yarns, were unable to make the leap from straightforward adventure tale to probing fiction. The gems hidden among lengthy, digressive passages required more concentrated effort than readers were capable of or willing to put forth.

Under the tutelage of Hawthorne, Melville developed the metaphysical elements of his work, often to the detriment of clarity of diction and flow of language. For example:

On the starboard side of the Bellipotent's upper gun deck, behold Billy Budd under sentry lying prone in irons in one of the bays formed by the regular spacing of the guns comprising the batteries on either side. All these pieces were of the heavier caliber of that period. Mounted on lumbering wooden carriages they were hampered with cumbersome harness of breeching and strong side-tackles for running them out. Guns and carriages, together with the long rammers and shorter lintstocks lodged in loops overhead — all these, as customary, were painted black; and the heavy hempen breechings tarred to the same tint, wore the like livery of the undertakers. In contrast with the funereal hue of these surroundings, the prone sailor's exterior apparel, white jumper and white duck trousers, each more or less soiled, dimly glimmered in the obscure light of the bay like a patch of discolored snow in early April lingering at some upland cave's black mouth. In effect he is already in his shroud, or the garments that shall serve him in lieu of one.

Challenged to delve into the perplexities of human life, Melville avoided the more obvious superficialities and plunged determinedly into greater mysteries. His output dwindled from novel length to short story. One of the most obtuse of these, "Bartleby the Scrivener," published in Putnam's magazine in 1855, focused on the dehumanization of a copyist; the nineteenth-century equivalent of a photocopy machine. Suggesting the author's own obstinacy, the main character replies to all comers, "I would prefer not to," thereby declaring his independence from outside intervention.

Because the reading public refused his fiction, Melville began writing poems. The first collection, Battle Pieces (1866), delineates Melville's view of war, particularly the American Civil War. With these poems, he supported abolitionism, yet wished no vengeance on the South for the economic system it inherited. The second work, Clarel (1876), an 18,000-line narrative poem, evolved from the author's travels in Jerusalem and describes a young student's search for faith. A third, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888), followed by Timoleon (1891), were privately published, primarily at the expense of his uncle, Peter Gansevoort.

Virtually ignored by the literary world of his day, Melville made peace with the creative forces that tormented him by writing his final work, Billy Budd, which records the ultimate confrontation between evil and innocence. It took shape slowly from 1888 to 1891, for Melville had ceased scrabbling for a living and could afford the luxury of contemplative art. As he expressed to his friend and editor, Evert Duyckinck, "I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more." Such a creature was Melville.


The creation of Billy Budd depended on the amalgamation of several sources. According to the dedicatory page, Melville owed much to his former sea buddy, Jack Chase, whose rugged good looks and ebullient spirit served as the model for Billy. Likewise, Melville himself was once a handsome, rebellious sailor and fathered two boys who came to unfortunate ends, one a suicide and the other a wandering seaman and ne'er-do-well.

The setting harks back to Melville's memories of his navy years aboard the man-of-war United States. More significant to the subject matter was a scandal resulting from an abortive mutiny on the U.S. brig-of-war Somers on December 1, 1842. The captain, Alexander Mackenzie, convened a shipboard court and, at his officers' direction, ordered the hanging of three troublemakers, one of whom was the son of Secretary of War John Spencer.

When the Somers returned to port, Mackenzie met the fury of the influential Spencer family, yet survived both a military and civil tribunal with his honor intact. However, facts revealed in public testimony cast doubt on the captain's sanity. Melville read of these proceedings in the Albany newspapers and received eyewitness accounts of the alleged mutiny from his cousin Guert Gansevoort, a lieutenant aboard the Somers who guarded the prisoners and assisted at their executions. Gansevoort publicly condoned the captain's actions, but privately sided with the victims.

Critics surmise that Melville, who had a brush with a shipboard uprising in Papeete, identified with the situation, which he used as the basis for his fable. Unlike his earlier sea stories, Billy Budd concentrates on the sailor's shipboard milieu, not the sea or its creatures. His understanding of the microcosm of the ship in which the captain attains a god-like stature led him to probe the ethical and moral underpinnings of justice as seen through the eyes of a common sailor.

For a nation that had undergone the agonizing paranoia of a civil war, the short novel spoke volumes. Billy, like many people caught up in conflicting loyalties, represents two possible modes of morality. As a member of the British navy, he owes allegiance to the flag and the law-bound nation it represents. From the personal point of view, he is a civilized being who owes fidelity to order and propriety. When the public stance comes in conflict with the private, Billy must violate one to placate the other.

By accidentally killing his tormentor, Billy calls into play the earthly judge, Captain Vere, who has come to love Billy like a son. The captain, also a victim in the scenario, is forced to exercise his military authority in spite of the fact that execution will not right Billy's wrong. The irony of this wretched impasse is that impersonal laws, when applied to Billy's crime, call for his death. And so a public citizen and military man is hanged, thereby annihilating the private soul who quelled evil with one involuntary blow of his fist.


The story of Billy Budd, since its publication in 1924, has inspired reams of critical controversy. Central to some of the critical disputes is the determination of the motif, or controlling pattern, around which Melville fashioned the plot. The possibilities generated by this wealth of criticism are numerous. For example, the novel has been described as:

  • a simple allegory of the struggle between good and evil
  • a symbolic tale of a boyish Christ, his physical destruction by evil, and the resulting resurrection of his spirit through the other sailors' admiration of his virtues
  • a recreation of Adam and his destruction by Satan
  • the embodiment of coming of age through the stereotypical son who must justify his acts to an authoritative father figure
  • the story of a blameless journeyman or pilgrim who falls victim to the cynical malevolence that lurks in an imperfect world
  • the struggle of everyman against the machinery of arbitrary justice
  • the story of an innocent man caught up in the zeitgeist, or spirit of the times
  • a tragedy in which Billy Budd, flawed by a single blemish, serves as a victim caught in the finer points of law
  • an ironic sea tale set in a milieu of wartime violence
  • the author's personal protest against repression in society
  • a diatribe against the falseness of the Christian faith as applied to real situations

Whatever pattern the reader comprehends in the story, the complexity of the interwoven characterizations of Billy, Claggart, and Vere refutes any attempt to trivialize the novel by tidy, one-dimensional analysis.

Subsequent Forms

Billy Budd has served as the kernel of a stage play, opera, musical, and movie. The 1949 stage play, written by Louis O. Coxe and Robert H. Chapman, entitled Uniform of Flesh, reappeared two years later under its original title. Also performed in 1949 was the opera Billy Budd, featuring a text by Salvatore Quasimodo and music composed by Giorgio Ghedini. Two years later, Benjamin Britten, England's major twentieth-century composer, produced a four-act musical version of the story. Performed in London's Covent Garden Theatre, Britten's Billy Budd featured a memorable interlacing of sea chanteys and traditional hornpipes, as well as words by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier.

In 1962, Peter Ustinov produced a British film version in black and white. Directed by Ustinov and starring Robert Ryan, Melvin Douglas, David McCallum, and Terence Stamp, who received an Academy Award nomination for his performance, the film lacked public enthusiasm. Viewers responded well to the vivid photography, but languished in the obtuse allegory, which deprived the play of commercial success.

In addition to these productions, poet W. H. Auden memorialized the novel in his poem "Herman Melville," which appeared in Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957. Likewise did Helen Pinkerton in a four-line verse entitled "Billy Budd" for Southern Review, Summer 1968.

Character Names

Like Charles Dickens, Herman Melville typifies his characters by the selection of evocative names. He chooses Billy Budd as a naive, childlike nickname for the standard English given name of William. Likewise, Budd, suggesting an emerging flower, underscores the notion of immaturity and innocence. His foil and nemesis, John Claggart, also bears a common English given name along with the harsh, cacophonous name that typifies his role as conniving perpetrator of evil and disturber of universal order. Rounding out the group of three major figures is Captain Vere, whose surname suggests two Latin words: verus, which means "true," and vir, which means "man." The conjunction of these two denotations creates a picture of a dependable, stalwart leader.

Lesser characters also bear prophetic names. Squeak, the diminutive, ferret-like toady who sniffs out information for Claggart, carries a nickname that suggests a small, weak animal. Ratcliffe, the impressment officer, also is marked by a name suggesting the predatory nature of his job. Both Graveling and Mordant have ominous names, the first suggesting the seriousness of Billy's impressment, the second characterizing the caustic, biting nature of military law, which ultimately executes Billy.

A Note about Text Differences

The reader may discover textual differences in the various editions of Billy Budd. There is even disagreement in the form of the title, the names of ships, epigraphs or quotations at the heads of chapters, and chapter divisions. This situation arises from the publishing history of the book. The work was not edited or printed in Melville's lifetime. At his death he left behind a rough manuscript containing many ambiguities and variant readings, some of which his wife tried to reconcile.

The book was first published in 1924. Since then, several scholars working from the original manuscript have prepared editions representing their best efforts to provide a version of Billy Budd that represents Melville's final intentions. Earlier editions are: Billy Budd, Foretopman, ed. Raymond Weaver (New York: Horace Liveright, 1928); and Billy Budd (An Inside Narrative), ed. Fredric Barron Freeman and revised by Elizabeth Treeman (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1948, 1956). The chapterization in these Notes conforms to the most recent version, considered to be the definitive text: Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

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