Billy Budd, Sailor
· Summer of 1797, four years into the Napoleonic Wars between England and France and
several months after the Great Mutiny at Nore
· On an English warship, the Bellipotent, somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea
· Billy Budd
· 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
· The ships, the purser, the surgeon
· The Dansker’s warning that Claggart hates Billy; the intimations of mutiny made to
Billy in the darkness
T he setting is the last decade of the eighteenth century. The British naval warship H.M.S. Bellipotent
impresses, or involuntarily recruits, the young sailor Billy Budd, extracting him from duty aboard the
Rights-of-Man, a merchant ship. Billy’s commanding officer, Captain Graveling, though reluctant to let
one of his best men go, has little choice in the face of the superior ship’s demands. Billy packs up his gear
without so much as a protest and follows the boarding officer of the Bellipotent, Lieutenant Ratcliffe,
across the gangway to his new assignment. After a cheery good-bye to his old mates, Billy settles in
quickly among the company of the Bellipotent. He proves most industrious and eager in his role as
foretopman and soon earns the affection of his more experienced fellow sailors.
Billy is deeply affected by the sight of a violent lashing given to one of the ship’s crew. Hoping to avoid a
similar punishment, Billy attempts to fulfill his duties in model fashion, but finds himself under constant
scrutiny due to various minor infractions. Puzzled by this persecution, Billy seeks out the advice of the
Dansker, an aged, experienced sailor. After explaining the situation to him, the Dansker concludes that
Claggart, the master-at-arms, holds a grudge against Billy. Refusing to accept this theory, Billy dismisses
the Dansker’s opinion but continues to wonder pensively about his situation.
Shortly thereafter, at a lunchtime meal, Billy accidentally spills his soup pan in the ship’s dining room