Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

The book opens with the narrator introducing the concept of the Handsome Sailor and his popularity among his fellow seamen. The Handsome Sailor is beautiful but not "vainglorious." The narrator remembers a beautiful African sailor he once saw on the dock in Liverpool, England. He was the embodiment of the Handsome Sailor—beautiful, jovial, and "the center of a company of his shipmates." Like all Handsome Sailors, he had strength and beauty but was not a "dandy" and a show-off. The narrator further explains the Handsome Sailor had a moral nature that mirrored his physical beauty.

The narrator states that Billy Budd—the object of his story—is an exemplar of the Handsome Sailor. Budd, aged 21, is a foretopman on a British merchant vessel. Lieutenant Ratcliffe of the British navy boards the merchant ship, called the Rights-of-Man, to impress merchant seamen into service in the British navy. When Ratcliffe sees Billy Budd, he determines that Budd will be the only sailor he will take with him to the warship Bellipotent. Captain Graveling of the Rights-of-Man is unhappy about losing Budd, who goes down to the forecastle to pack his bag. He is so upset he ignores naval tradition and fails to offer Ratcliffe the hospitality of a drink. It was Graveling's duty to hand over Budd, but doing so was "a dry obligation" done with regret. Graveling tells Ratcliffe he's taking "my best man ... the jewel of 'em," and Ratcliffe replies, "I know." Graveling tells Ratcliffe how Budd's good nature improved the functioning of the ship and brought peaceful cooperation among the sailors, "sugaring the sour ones." He reports that all the sailors "love him," and his departure will likely bring renewed discord to the merchant ship.

Budd has come up on deck with his bag of personal belongings. As Lieutenant Ratcliffe boards his small boat to take Budd to the warship, instead of slowly and grudgingly climbing aboard, Budd jumps from the bow of the Rights-of-Man into the waiting boat. Boarding a boat that way is "a terrible breach of naval decorum," but Ratcliffe does not reproach him. Budd then bids goodbye to the sailors and to Captain Graveling. Budd seems to take his impressment in stride and with equanimity.

Aboard the Bellipotent Billy Budd is deemed a fit sailor and assigned to be a foretopman. He quickly learns his job and carries it out in "a genial, happy-go-lucky" way. Budd's good nature quickly makes him a favorite among the sailors on the warship.

Chapter 2

Billy Budd is a "novice," having never served on a warship before. But his lack of "conceit or vanity" made other sailors eager to teach him his task, and he willingly accepted their guidance. He was guileless and did not notice when a few others gave him an "ambiguous smile" or when the ship's officers regarded him favorably. He always had "a humane look of reposeful good-nature" and even showed the grace and love the narrator associates with "a mother."

When Budd is officially questioned about himself he tells the officer he doesn't know where he was born or who is father is—that he knows nothing about his beginnings as he was a foundling. Yet his nature and bearing suggest that he was of "noble descent" even though he was an orphan. Although Budd cannot read he is likened to an "illiterate nightingale" who "could not read but ... could sing." The narrator goes on to describe Billy Budd's purity and reflect on it in terms of "civilization."

Billy Budd has one defect: he stutters. When he is "provoked" his strong feelings mute his otherwise "musical voice," and he cannot speak or he speaks with a severe stammer. Budd's muteness in the face of provocation is described as "an organic hesitancy" created seemingly by some evil "interferer."

The narrator states Budd's "imperfection" is a clue his story is not a "romance" but something far darker.

Analysis

The novel opens with the motif of the Handsome Sailor, a figure who is physically beautiful but lacking in vanity and of a mild temperament and genial disposition. The Handsome Sailor (now "extinct" the narrator says) is known not only for his physical beauty but also for his "prowess," honesty, and impeccable "moral nature."

The story of the African sailor serves as an introduction to Billy Budd, who is also the embodiment of the Handsome Sailor. Captain Graveling, the commander of his ship, Rights-of-Man, is sorry to lose Budd to naval impressment. Budd's good nature and aversion to conflict made him the "peacemaker" on the merchant vessel. Unlike most sailors facing impressment Budd accepts Lieutenant Ratcliffe's order with "uncomplaining acquiescence" and goes immediately to pack his belongings.

The theme of duty and loyalty is briefly introduced when Captain Graveling is upset at losing Billy Budd to the British navy. Yet "his duty he always faithfully did" even when he did not like it. As he prepares to leave the merchant vessel Ratcliffe tells Graveling the king will be "delighted to learn that one shipmaster at least cheerfully surrenders to the King the flower of his flock." Ratcliffe suggests the king will compensate Graveling for acquiescing to the impressment of his best sailor. Graveling's loyalty to the king is shown by his willingness to do his duty, and this will be noted and rewarded. Ratcliffe is similarly impressed by Budd's compliance, which he attributes to his loyalty to the king. However, Ratcliffe is likely mistaken. Budd's ready acquiescence is certainly more an expression of his gentle nature than it is of his loyalty.

The theme of morality is touched on briefly. Budd is said to have a "moral nature" that is as pure and beautiful as his physical being. The purity of his morality will be contrasted with that of others later in the book.

Animal imagery illuminates Budd's true plight. Budd's acceptance of his impressment compares him to a goldfinch put into a cage. In the matter of impressment any protest, or "demur," Budd might have made would have been as pointless as the protests of that goldfinch. Like the goldfinch, a wild bird, Budd is snared in society's system of manning its military. He has no agency and is powerless.

Names are symbols in these opening chapters. The Rights-of-Man is a merchant ship whose name is taken from the book by Thomas Paine. In his book Paine argues all men should be free, should have rights, and should live in a democratic society. The name of the merchant vessel contrasts sharply with the name of the warship Budd is taken to. The name Bellipotent means "the power of war." That the British carry out naval wars by impressing free men into military service is diametrically opposed to the ideas of Thomas Paine. Even the name Budd may be symbolic of Budd's potential opening up to a full flowering of ultimate purity and spirit. Perhaps it signifies his full realization of his true nature when he dies.

Biblical references are a motif used in these opening chapters. In blithely referring to Budd, Ratcliffe quotes the Bible, saying, "blessed are the peacemakers." This may be a foreshadowing of later events in the story. It may refer to Budd's achieving absolute blessedness when he dies, or it may refer to his blessing of Captain Vere just before he is hanged. Budd's character is described in both biblical and animal terms. He is said to lack "the wisdom of the serpent" (as in the serpent in the Garden of Eden) but is not "quite a dove" (a biblical symbol of peace). Further, when asked about who his father is, he answers "God knows." This may just be common usage, but it might also underline Budd's divine nature. Throughout the novel Billy Budd is referred to in terms that seem to make him into a Christ-like figure. In Chapter 2 Budd's purity is compared with that of Adam before the Fall—before he'd been enticed to eat of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Because he lacked worldly knowledge Adam in the Garden was the purest of pure beings. Comparing Budd to Adam implies Budd was totally pure and without sin.

The symbol of knowledge represents civilization. Although the narrator has always described Budd as beautiful and pure—as pure as Adam before the Fall—the fact that Budd is illiterate makes him "in many respects ... little more than a sort of upright barbarian." Here knowledge is the symbolic keystone of civilization. It is almost shocking that Budd would be described this way because he is illiterate. Those without knowledge or education—those of the lower classes—are seen as subhuman. Even the Christ-like Billy Budd is demeaned by his "betters" for not having the worldly knowledge an upper-class education provides.

Budd's stammer seems to represent an imperfection in his otherwise perfect being. In describing Budd's stammer, the narrator uses a biblical reference. He implies it was an imperfection imposed on Budd by Satan, the "arch-interferer ... the envious marplot of Eden." Budd's stammer may be a symbol of a flaw that makes Budd more human and less divine. Yet Budd stutters when he is confronted by an evil and outrageous provocation. As will be seen later in the story, Budd's stammer may arise from his inability to comprehend the evil in ordinary mortals. He is mute when confronted by evil because he is too pure to communicate with it and reveal his true feelings about it.

Billy Budd is an innocent. But his innocence may not be perfect. A flaw in Budd's character is revealed as a defect in his innocence and in his role as peacemaker. In a paragraph that foreshadows pivotal events to come, Graveling describes how Budd reacted to an "insulting" nudge in the ribs by Red Whiskers, a sailor who was teaching Budd how to do something. "Quick as lightning Billy let fly his arm," striking Red Whiskers and giving him a "terrible drubbing." Graveling says Red Whiskers envied Budd and Budd knew of no way to respond to the insult except by lashing out. However, Budd "never meant to do [harm]," and later Red Whiskers comes to "really love Billy." The incident later in the book will not have such a happy ending. Budd's leaping into Ratcliffe's boat—a "terrible" breach of naval rules—also foreshadows events to come.

When Billy Budd leaves the merchant ship he calls out, "And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man!" This statement introduces the theme of justice because Budd is literally leaving behind his rights as an individual in society and under the law when he is taken from the merchant vessel. Budd's words also foreshadow events to come, which are set in motion by a social order that sacrifices human rights to the power of the law, and thus deforms justice.

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