Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Motifs



The main conflict in Billy Budd arises from the paranoia of the British navy at that time. In the late 18th century impressed sailors on some warships organized and carried out highly disruptive mutinies against their commanders to protest their treatment under the laws and practices of the British navy.

The fear of mutiny preys on Captain Vere's mind and is a key motivation for his swift, draconian sentencing of Billy Budd. Vere's paranoia about mutiny is not unfounded. In one key scene it seems as if a sailor approaches Budd to enlist him in a mutiny aboard ship. This scene may or may not indicate a brewing mutiny on board Vere's vessel; the attempt to involve Budd may just be part of Claggart's conspiracy to destroy Budd. Yet the event emphasizes the real danger of mutiny at that time.

The Handsome Sailor: Appearance and Identity

The Handsome Sailor is almost a mythical figure who represents the perfect sailor to the seamen of that time. Melville describes the figure of the Handsome Sailor as

proficient in his perilous calling ... [and possessing] strength and beauty. Tales of his prowess were recited [among sailors]. Ashore he was a champion. ... [He was] a superb figure ... [whose] moral nature was seldom out of keeping with the physical make. Indeed, except as toned by the former, the comeliness and power, always attractive in masculine conjunction, hardly could have drawn the sort of honest homage the Handsome Sailor in some examples received from his less gifted associates. ... Such ... was ... Billy Budd.

The Handsome Sailor is an idealized figure who is physically beautiful, well liked by his fellow sailors, and physically very strong. Throughout the book Billy Budd is compared to or identified with the Handsome Sailor.

The beauty of the Handsome Sailor is reflected in Billy Budd's appearance. Budd is "welkin-eyed," golden haired, beautiful of feature and form, a strong and uncomplaining worker, and invariably cheerful and genial. He is also a serene young man who sees the best in everyone. Budd's appearance and temperament not only identify him as a type of Handsome Sailor but as a Christ-like figure as well. His beautiful appearance conveys Budd's inner purity, spirituality, and even transcendent otherworldliness. However, equating Billy Budd with the Handsome Sailor also may imply that Budd is as fanciful (nonreal or fictional) a character as the Handsome Sailor of lore is.

Animal Imagery and References

The author sometimes compares characters in the story to animals. In simile and metaphor, characters are likened to different animals to make their characteristics more vivid.

For example, Claggart is sometimes referred to as a serpent. He is also compared to a "scorpion" who stings itself with its own tail to kill whatever good may be hidden within. These animal images make clear Claggart's "evil" nature. When Budd is confronted by the afterguardsman's treachery he is said to react like a "young horse fresh from pasture suddenly inhaling a vile whiff from some chemical factory." The vivid image of the horse conveys Budd's alienation from the evil of men and shows how repellent he, as innocent of evil as a horse, finds it. Throughout the story, animal imagery is used to convey the actions or feelings of various characters.


Critics such as American writer Rictor Norton as have detected an undercurrent of homoeroticism in parts of the novel. The other sailors on the ship seek out Budd's company. Although it is stated that this is because Budd is always so cheerful and genial, the sailors' desire for proximity to him may indicate an underlying homosexual attraction.

Both Claggart and Captain Vere may have barely recognized, and certainly unacknowledged, sexual feelings for Budd. It is likely these men are not fully homosexual but instead are so completely drawn to Budd's beauty and goodness their attraction to him has a sexual component to it.

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