Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Plot Summary

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Summary

Naval Wars

It is the late 18th century when Britain and France are engaged in near constant naval battles for control of the seas around Europe. Britain is having a hard time enlisting volunteers into its navy to man its warships. When the story opens, Lieutenant Ratcliffe of the warship Bellipotent has boarded the merchant vessel Rights-of-Man. Ratcliffe is there to impress sailors for duty on the warship. He sees Billy Budd and takes him as the only impressed sailor to serve on the Bellipotent. Instead of resisting impressment, as most sailors would do, Budd cheerfully follows Ratcliffe to the warship.

Billy Budd

Billy Budd is a beautiful and innocent young man who quickly becomes a favorite among the sailors on the warship. He is also an able and willing hard worker. He is assigned to be one of the ship's foretopmen.

Budd works diligently and tries to stay out of trouble. He is confused by the unwelcome attention he gets, especially from the master-at-arms John Claggart, for the few minor infractions or accidents he's involved in. Budd confides in Dansker, an experienced but rather inscrutable sailor on board the ship. Dansker tells Budd he should watch out for Claggart, who nurses a hatred for Budd. Budd cannot comprehend hatred in others as he is incapable of that emotion himself. Thus Budd does not believe Dansker or take his advice.

Malice and Conspiracy

Sometime later at lunch Budd accidentally spills his soup. Some of the soup flows toward the feet of Claggart, who happens to be passing nearby. Claggart makes a lame joke of the incident, which makes the other sailors laugh. Claggart's lighthearted response to the incident makes Budd feel there is no animosity between them. Secretly, however, Claggart views the incident as proof that Budd is slighting him in some way, and this fuels his growing anger and hatred for Budd. Claggart determines to destroy Budd. He engages the aid of his underlings, particularly Squeak, to humiliate and persecute Budd.

One night a sailor awakens Budd and summons him to a meeting in an isolated part of the ship. The innocent Budd goes to the appointed meeting place where a man he does not know offers him two guineas if he will "cooperate" on something. Budd does not understand what the man wants or why he's offering the money. Yet Budd is astute enough to realize something about the meeting, the man, and the money is not right. Budd stutters as he threatens to strike the mysterious man if he does not go away and leave him alone. Budd returns to his sleeping area where two fellow sailors question him about what happened. Uncharacteristically, Budd says simply the sailor he met was confused and lost in a remote part of the ship.

Claggart's persecution of Budd has not satisfied him or slaked his hatred. He approaches Captain Vere to report there is a rumor that Budd is organizing a mutiny on board. Vere is alarmed and calls Budd to his cabin. He has Claggart repeat his accusation in front of Budd. Budd is so shocked by Claggart's blatant lie he cannot speak. In the face of this outrageous accusation Budd's stutter has left him completely mute. Yet Vere prompts Budd to give his side of the story, to defend himself. Captain Vere tries to calm Budd to lessen his stutter and allow him to explain and defend himself. But Budd cannot talk. In his frustration and outrage at Claggart's false allegation, Budd reacts in the only way he can under the circumstances. He lashes out with his arm and punches Claggart powerfully on the forehead. Claggart collapses, unconscious and bleeding profusely from a head wound. When Captain Vere is unable to rouse Claggart he sends Budd to an adjoining stateroom. Then Vere calls the surgeon who pronounces Claggart dead.

The Killing Defense

Killing a senior officer is a capital offense on board ship. Captain Vere arranges for petty officers to sit in a hastily convened drumhead court to judge Budd. Vere is the sole witness to the crime, and he describes to the court what happened. Budd is summoned and somehow is able to utter a few words in his defense. He admits he hit Claggart but claims he did not intend to hurt or kill him. He maintains his intention was "innocent." He also asserts he in no way is involved in a mutiny. The officers send Budd back to the stateroom while they deliberate.

In a key scene in the book Vere speaks to the court to convince the officers to convict and quickly sentence Budd to death for his crime of murder. Vere argues their feelings about Budd and his innate innocence must be ignored so they can do their duty to the law and find him guilty. They must override whatever their conscience and their morality tell them in this case. They must convict and do so immediately. The court acquiesces to Vere's argument and finds Budd guilty of murder. They agree he is to be hanged the next morning.

Vere goes into the stateroom and tells Budd of his fate. What is said between them is not reported. That night Captain Vere tells the assembled sailors what happened and that they must witness Budd's hanging the next morning. The captain takes precautions to prevent the shocked and potentially angry sailors from protesting the pending execution.

Budd spends the night chained on deck. The ship's chaplain comes to counsel Budd and ready him for his death. The chaplain is nonplussed when he finds Budd is fully reconciled to his impending death. Budd is at peace with dying and does not fear it. The chaplain realizes he has nothing to teach Budd, so he just kisses his cheek as he leaves him.

Execution

At four the next morning Budd is hanged from a spar on the ship. Budd's last words just before he dies are "God bless Captain Vere!" Budd hangs calmly and without moving. The assembled sailors pick up and repeat Budd's last words. As Budd calmly dies, a beautiful dawn breaks over the ship.

Many sailors are upset by Budd's execution, but they are put to work to prevent them from organizing any kind of protest. On board the daily routine is reinstated. Yet some sailors secretly talk about Budd's strangely calm death and what it may mean.

Later the Bellipotent engages in battle with a French vessel, the Athée (the Atheist), and defeats the French. Captain Vere is wounded during the battle and later dies of his wounds. His last words as he's dying in the hospital are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd."

As the story of Budd becomes more widely known it is picked up by a newspaper. The article gets Budd's story completely backward, portraying Budd as a treacherous murderer who killed a blameless master-at-arms. British sailors, however, come to venerate Budd and keep his legend alive. The spar from which he was hanged becomes for them a kind of holy relic, and they sing songs to celebrate Billy Budd.

Billy Budd, Sailor Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Billy Budd is impressed onto the Bellipotent.

Rising Action

2 Budd spills his soup near John Claggart, who begins to hate him.

3 Claggart's assistants persecute Budd.

4 Budd is secretly offered money to join a mutiny; he refuses.

5 Claggart tells Captain Vere Budd is organizing a mutiny.

6 Vere asks Budd to defend himself; his stutter silences him.

Climax

7 Confused and mute, Budd strikes Claggart, killing him.

Falling Action

8 Vere convinces the court to condemn Budd to die.

Resolution

9 Budd is hanged; he's then venerated by the sailors.

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