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Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Context


Naval Supremacy

Billy Budd takes place during the 18th century, when England and France fought battles over who would have naval supremacy. Between 1688 and 1763 they fought in four major wars, most of which were won by the British. These victories were a key factor in England's later important victories over French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, who sought to conquer England. Instead Napoleon was defeated in 1805 by Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. These battles gave the British control of the sea and initiated a period of peace, known as the Pax Britannica, which lasted through the 19th century.


The British navy of the 18th century solved its manpower shortage by a type of kidnapping, called impressment, as was the case with Budd. Voluntary enlistment was low, and officers frequently boarded merchant vessels, seized unwilling sailors, and forced them onto warships to serve in the British navy. Sometimes violent gangs were used to impress into service lower-class civilian men who lived in English port cities. Men were seized from pubs, brothels, and boardinghouses. Vagrants were picked up off the streets. As one might expect, unsavory characters were often impressed into service, and they sometimes made shipboard a dangerous place for other sailors. The frequent brutality and inhumanity of impressment eventually led to laws moderating its use.

American ships were common targets of British vessels seeking to impress sailors. It's estimated that between 1793 and 1812 more than 15,000 American sailors were impressed into the British navy. This so outraged the United States that it became a key factor in the outbreak of the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain.

Harsh Treatment and Mutiny

A sailor's life aboard an 18th-century British warship was harsh. Strict discipline was enforced by punishment for the slightest infraction of the rules. Sailors who shirked their duties or didn't follow orders were severely punished. Flogging with a cat o' nine tails was a common tool of punishment. Flogging was always carried out in public before the entire crew.

Mutinies were an ever-present threat. Impressed sailors resented their harsh treatment and dreadful living conditions. Sailors were poorly paid, and shipboard food was very bad (and there was often too little of it). Sailors sometimes mutinied against a particularly harsh and unjust commander.

Narrative Style

The narrator recounts something that happened long ago and therefore has no direct knowledge of what actually occurred. The narrator admits this but speculates on the thoughts, motives, and actions of the key characters. Yet the narrator fails to divulge some important information, such as exactly why Claggart hates Budd so much or what was said when Captain Vere told Budd of his upcoming execution. The reader should be alert to those parts of the narrative that are presented as truthful (even if they're unsubstantiated) and those that are made up or even seemingly omitted. The narrator claims to be objective, and thus truthful, but that is not always the case.

The narrator compensates for his inability to tell the complete truth of the story by elevating his language to make himself seem more "upper class" and more educated, trustworthy, and "civilized." Melville exploits the assumption that a well-educated man of the upper classes would naturally tell a more truthful story than a lower-class narrator. The reader might better understand the story by rewording some of the more complicated language and "translating" it into plain English. For example, "Something less unpleasingly oracular he tried to extract" might be reworded as "he tried to get a simpler answer."

The narrator goes off on a tangent to discuss some historical or cultural event or person. Although this might seem out of place, a careful reading reveals most digressions shed more light on the action taking place or about to take place. Additionally the narrator frequently includes allusions to historical figures or events and makes numerous references to the Bible.

Situational Irony or Resignation

There are two camps among literary critics interpreting Billy Budd. One group insists the story—and especially the ending (Budd's death)—indicates the world-weary Melville's resignation to the power of authority. Budd is executed because civilization is based on laws that must be carried out to the letter; what Melville calls "measured forms" are necessary to maintain social order. Melville writes, "With mankind ... forms, measured forms, are everything ... [and] the disruption of forms [leads to what is] going on across the Channel and the consequences thereof." Here Melville states disruption or compromising of forms (authoritarian laws) undermines society and leads to anarchy, such as the chaos and bloodshed of the French Revolution. These critics assert Melville accepts "that the rule of law is a condition of civilization and is prior to justice and mercy," as scholar William Bartley puts it.

Other critics insist Melville—a staunch supporter of freedom whose grandfather was a hero at the Battle of Bunker Hill—cannot possibly be taking the side of Captain Vere in carrying out an unjust law to condemn Budd. They assert Melville is using irony—words and situations that convey the opposite of their literal meaning—to undermine what on the surface appears to be an educated man's recounting of actual events. There is situational irony in characters: Budd is portrayed as superhumanly mild, peaceful, and innocent—until he murders Claggart. Claggart, the villain of the story, ends up being a sympathetic victim of Budd's violence. Nothing is as it seems, and the fate of these characters is the exact opposite of what their inner natures would produce. The innocent is guilty; the villain is martyred.

The narrator uses verbal irony as well. His high-brow language puts the narrator in league with the defenders of harsh, uncompromising law. The narrator uses erudite language to describe Captain Vere as a good and fair man. The Latin root ver means "truth." He uses the same style to show Vere's willingness to condemn Budd based on the uncorroborated rumor (Budd's planned mutiny) Claggart whispers in Vere's ear. What some critics call Melville's "high diction" is used to suggest his narrator's objectivity and reliability. At the same time that language is used to attack the values (laws) of those born into the upper echelons of British society. For these critics the style is built on verbal irony. The narrator seems to support the unjust application of the law, yet he also undermines the law by using the language of the upholders of the unjust law. Melville therefore emphasizes the terrible cost of enforcing merciless laws that underpin civilization. The reader should note, however, that the verbal irony in no way detracts from the poetry and the rhythm of Melville's writing.

American Romanticism

Melville lived and wrote during the Romantic period in American literature, which emphasized the human connection with nature, an idealized view of the individual, and belief in the power of human imagination and intuition. Melville shared this literary approach with other great writers of the Romantic era, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. American Romanticism in literature has been defined by A Handbook to Literature as "a literary and philosophical theory that tends to see the individual at the center of all life, and it places the individual, therefore, at the center of art ... Although romanticism tends at times to regard nature as alien, it more often sees in nature a revelation of Truth ... and a more suitable subject for art than those aspects of the world sullied by artifice. Romanticism seeks to find the Absolute, the ideal, by transcending the actual."

In Billy Budd the "center of the art" is a focus on Budd, the individual and his "unique" qualities. Budd is the "ideal" that transcends the "actual" real life. However, he is presented as a type of "Truth" that is in fact sullied by the artifice or malicious rumor mongering and lying of Claggart and even the strict adherence to the law of Vere. The story told in Billy Budd may or may not be true. It is certainly "incomplete" in its telling and meaning, and in this way it exemplifies a Romantic work of literature.

Religious Allegory

An allegory imposes symbolic meaning on fictional characters and events to illuminate some truth of human nature and experience. Billy Budd is often interpreted as a biblical allegory based on Christ and the crucifixion. The narrator quotes or liberally references the Bible to shape the allegory. Budd is often likened to Jesus in his otherworldly characteristics—his purity and innocence. As a Christ-like figure Budd's execution reveals modern society and its laws are no better than the ancient laws that led to Jesus's crucifixion. Budd is also compared to Adam, the first man, who is without sin in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. By comparing Budd to Adam the author connects knowledge (from the Garden's Tree of Knowledge as well as in modern human society) to sinfulness. Budd cannot comprehend the baseness of human nature just as Adam in the Garden did not know he was naked until he ate from the Tree of Knowledge.

Literary, Historic, and Biblical Allusions

The text alludes to people and events from literature (mainly ancient classics), history (mainly British military), and the Bible.


  • Hawthorne (Chapter 2): (1804–64) an American novelist and short story writer.
  • Charles Dibdin (Chapter 3): (1745–1814) a British writer who wrote more than 600 songs.
  • Old Merlin (Chapter 9): the wise wizard in the tales of King Arthur; he is used to describe Dansker.
  • Chiron instructing Achilles (Chapter 9): in Greek mythology a centaur who raised and educated the warrior Achilles.
  • Plato (Chapter 11): Greek philosopher who wrote on human nature, the nature of reality and experience, and other philosophical topics.
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho (Chapter 11): (1794) Gothic novel of romance and mystery by Ann Radcliffe; it was wildly popular.
  • Delphic (Chapter 15): the ancient Greek Oracle of Delphi who couched pronouncements and predictions in cryptic terms.
  • Hyperion (Chapter 17): a god in Greek mythology associated with the sun.
  • Mars (Chapter 21): in ancient Roman mythology the god of war.


  • Aldebaran (Chapter 1): giant star in the constellation Taurus.
  • Anacharsis Cloots (Chapter 1): (1755–94) a Prussian nobleman who went to France to support the French Revolution. Although he was innocent, he was guillotined during the Reign of Terror.
  • Alexander and Bucephalus (Chapter 1): Macedonian warrior and conqueror Alexander the Great (356–33 BCE) and his horse, Bucephalus.
  • Thomas Paine (Chapter 1): (1737–1809) one of America's Founding Fathers. He was a philosopher, political activist, and revolutionary. He wrote the Rights of Man (1791) in support of the French Revolution and as a call for individual rights and freedoms. He was a key voice calling for independence from Britain for the American colonies.
  • Joachim-Napoleon Murat (Chapter 1): (1767–1815) an admiral under Napoleon Bonaparte and known as a dandy for the fancy clothes he wore.
  • Caspar Hauser (Chapter 2): (died 1833) a German man who claimed to have spent most of his life locked alone in a cell, knowing nothing of the world. Experts have since refuted his story.
  • Nelson at the Nile (Chapter 3): Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805), who oversaw the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile (1798).
  • Nelson at Trafalgar (Chapter 3): refers to the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) in which Nelson defeated 33 ships and gained a decisive victory over Napoleon.
  • Don John of Austria (Chapter 4): a Spanish admiral under King Philip II of Spain; he defeated the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto (1571).
  • Jean Bart (Chapter 4): (1650–1702) a French naval commander during the Nine Years' War (1688–97).
  • American Decaturs (Chapter 4): refers to Stephen Decatur (1779–1820), a commander in the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812.
  • Admiral Wellington at Waterloo (Chapter 4): refers to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
  • Rev. Dr. Titus Oates (Chapter 8): (1649–1705) fabricated a story of a Popish plot to overthrow King Charles II of England.
  • Luís Vaz de Camões (Chapter 8): (1524–80) one of Portugal's greatest poets. The "Spirit of the Cape" recounts the Spanish victory over anti-Christian forces.
  • Admiral Nelson and the Agamemnon (Chapter 9): Nelson was the commander of the ship Agamemnon in 1793 when he fought against the French at Corsica.
  • Calvin and Calvinism (Chapter 11): John Calvin (1509–64) was a Protestant reformer who taught sinfulness underlies all of human nature, which is "depraved." Calvin established a bleak theocracy in Geneva, Switzerland, which he ruled with rigid authority.
  • Guy Fawkes (Chapter 13): (1570–1606) a British Catholic who executed the failed Gunpowder Plot (1605) to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Fawkes was tortured and executed. To this day the British celebrate Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) to commemorate his capture and death as well as the survival of the British government.
  • Peter the Barbarian (Chapter 21): refers to Peter the Great of Russia (Tsar Peter I) (1682–1725) and his generally repressive reign, as well as murders that occurred at Peter's court.
  • USS Somers (Chapter 21): In November 1842 a mutiny erupted on the ship. Captain Mackenzie executed, flogged, or imprisoned sailors after a shipboard trial. Melville likely heard about this from his cousin, Lt. Gansevoort, who was an officer on the ship.
  • Germanicus (Chapter 24): successful Roman general who was the nephew and adopted son of Emperor Tiberius. Germanicus died before he could become emperor.
  • Fra Angelico (Chapter 24): (1395–1455) an Italian Renaissance painter known for his religious works; he was also a Dominican friar.


  • Cain's city (Chapter 2): Cain killed his brother, Abel. God exiled him and he settled in the land of Nod, where he established a city.
  • Jonah's toss (Chapter 11): a prophet of the Old Testament who is believed to have lived in the eighth century BCE. A storm arises when Jonah and other sailors are at sea. Jonah says the storm will cease only if he is "tossed" overboard. The sailors do that and the storm stops. Later Jonah is swallowed by a whale.
  • Saul brooding on the comely David (Chapter 12): King of Israel until he's told God no longer wants him to rule. Saul becomes mentally unstable and asks for music to soothe his mind. David, a beautiful youth, is sent to play the harp. Saul is soothed by David's playing but becomes envious of him. David becomes a great warrior and eventually king of Israel.
  • Pharisee (Chapter 13): their insistence on people following the letter of the law got them into trouble with the burgeoning of Christianity. Their literal interpretation of religious law has given the word Pharisee its current meaning: an arrogant and self-righteous person more concerned with the letter of the law than its spirit.
  • Jacob's children with Joseph's coat (Chapter 18): Joseph got a "coat of many colors" from his father, Jacob. Joseph's brothers envied him and conspired to kill him. Instead one brother had Joseph thrown into a pit and stained his coat with goat's blood. The brothers brought the coat to Jacob to "prove" Joseph had been killed. Instead Joseph is found and sold into slavery.
  • Divine judgment on Ananias (Chapter 19): Ananias hides some money from the sale of his possessions, giving the balance to the Apostles. Peter reveals the deception, and Ananias dies upon hearing it. The allusion is to Ananias as the iconic liar.
  • Mystery of iniquity (Chapter 21): A biblical phrase associated with the End of Times when the "man of sin" (the Antichrist) will be revealed and destroyed. The quote reads, "For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way."
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