Billy Budd by Herman Melville: Summary, Characters, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores Herman Melville's novella, 'Billy Budd,' providing a summary of the text and description of its key characters. In addition, this lesson analyzes the novella's meaning and significance.

Lesson Overview

Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd (also known as 'Billy Budd, Sailor') is an icon of American literature. In it, Melville explores innocence lost, the diabolical forces which conspire to corrupt and to harm, and the making of legends when integrity is preserved. In 'Billy Budd,' we see the title character rise from a talented but naïve young sailor to the ranks of legend and martyr, an example of incorruptible goodness in a malevolent world.

'Billy Budd' Summary

'Billy Budd' is the story of a young sailor, the title character, serving honorably onboard the merchant ship, Rights-of-Man, before being conscripted, or forced into service, on the warship, Bellipotent, which translates roughly from the Latin to mean 'all-powerful in war.' Just as he had done in his service on the merchant ship, Billy quickly distinguishes himself aboard the Bellipotent. He is an industrious and talented sailor with a promising career ahead of him.

Perhaps even more remarkable than Billy's skills as a sailor, however, is his goodness and innocence. The integrity and the guilelessness of the young sailor win him friends and admirers in every corner, not to mention the recognition of his superiors, who commend the young man and look forward to the bright future which lies ahead for him.

But not everyone is a fan, and jealousy soon rears its ugly head, most notably in the figure of Claggart, the ship's master-at-arms. Claggart resents Billy's sterling reputation and the charmed life for which the young man seems destined. Claggart's bitterness manifests most clearly in his hostility, his criticism, and judgment of all that Billy does. When Billy accidentally spills soup on Claggart's boots and makes a self-deprecating remark, Claggart takes the event as a willful offense; he takes the crew's laughter as a sign of Billy's disrespect.

From that moment, Claggart vows to avenge himself on the naïve Billy, enlisting his assistant, Squeak, in the conspiracy. One night, Billy is awakened from a deep sleep by an unknown figure and summoned to an isolated part of the ship, where another unknown person shows the confused young man two guineas. Billy recognizes that this figure is trying to bribe him in exchange for some kind of cooperation, but Billy's integrity is such that he instantly refuses and endeavors to raise the alarm, frightening away the unknown conspirator.

Despite Billy's innocence and fidelity, however, Claggart brings the events of the evening to the attention of Captain Vere, intimating that Billy is the ringleader of an attempted mutiny on ship. Despondent at being the target of such accusations, Billy lashes out at Claggart, punching him in the head with such force that Claggart ultimately dies.

A drumhead court is convened and, while conceding to the blow that took Claggart's life, Billy adamantly maintains his innocence in regard to any mutiny or to any ill intention against Claggart. Captain Vere, however, exerts his force as chief witness to the impromptu court, ultimately securing a reluctant guilty verdict from the deadlocked officers by arguing that the rule of law must be obeyed above any dictates of conscience or sentiment.

Billy is sentenced to be hanged and his final words reverberate through the final pages of the story like a haunting refrain: 'God bless Captain Vere!' The integrity, innocence, and forgiveness which characterize Billy's final moments cement his legend. Shortly after Billy's execution, Captain Vere dies in a skirmish at sea with the French warship The Atheist, his legacy tarnished by the implication of his guilt in the death of the noble young man. Meanwhile, Billy's reputation continues to flourish, becoming the stuff of legend.

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