Book Review: Billy Budd by Herman Melville

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“Billy Budd” is the final work of American author Herman Melville which was discovered amongst his papers three decades after his death and first published in Raymond Weaver’s 1924 edition of “The Collected Works of Melville.” 

The emergence of that collection as well as Weaver’s 1921 biography, “Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic”, sparked a revival of interest in the forgotten writer.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Plot Summary

A handsome young sailor, falsely accused of mutiny, becomes a legend when he is hanged for killing his tormentor.

Chapters 1–2 (and Preface) 

The year is 1797, a time of crisis for the whole Christian world. In France, bloody revolution has given way to constant warfare under Napoleon. In England, mutinies (revolts against authority figures) are put down only when their ringleaders are publicly hanged. 

Those strolling through the seaports of this period sometimes encounter the “Handsome Sailor,” a type of man worshipped by his shipmates because of his strength and beauty. Billy Budd is an example of such a man.

The British merchant ship The Rights of Man is headed for Britain when it is stopped by the HMS Indomitable, which needs sailors. Billy is chosen, and though the Rights’s captain pleads to keep his much-beloved “peacemaker,”

Billy makes no protest as he is led away. Breaking with proper form, he jumps up to wave good-bye to his shipmates and calls farewell to the ship. 

Soon the Handsome Sailor feels at home as foretopman (a sailor who works on a ship’s foretop, the deck below the ship’s main mast) on his new ship, where everyone but John Claggart, the ship’s “chief of police” or master-at-arms (i.e., discipline officer), likes him for his good looks and cheerfulness. From the very beginning, Claggart is jealous of Billy’s beauty.

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Chapters 3–5 

The narrator tells of the Great Mutiny of 1797, during the Napoleonic Wars between England and France, in which a group of sailors tried to overthrow the officers of their ship. This posed a serious threat to the British Empire even though many mutineers later won great glory fighting alongside Lord Nelson at Trafalgar (at the southwest coast of Spain). 

The narrator praises Nelson’s heroism and noble sentiments, then notes that he, like other officers, must remain on guard against further protests by disgruntled sailors.

Chapters 6–10 

Billy’s ship offers little evidence of the recent mutinies, largely because of Captain Vere’s strong character. There is gossip about Claggart’s shady past. Rumor has it that he was involved in a swindle and had joined the navy as a way of escaping trouble. He has a foreign accent and seems suspicious. 

Billy works hard and finds life in the ship’s foretop agreeable. Having witnessed the punishment of another sailor, Billy decides to behave in a manner totally beyond criticism. Yet he finds himself getting in trouble over little things (such as the tidiness of his hammock and gear). 

Puzzled, he seeks advice from a veteran sailor, the Dansker, who informs Billy that Claggart is “down on” him. Surprised by this, Billy insists that the master-at-arms always speaks kindly to him. Billy’s impression seems to be confirmed the next day: when Billy accidentally spills soup on Claggart’s feet, the officer’s playful remark about Billy’s “handsome” deed is taken as a joke by all who hear it.

Chapters 11–18 

But Claggart is indeed “down on” Billy Budd, for reasons the narrator has difficulty explaining. He links Claggart with Plato’s (Greek philosopher) idea of “Natural Depravity” (sin) and suggests that the master-at-arms was born evil. 

Though lawyers, juries, and clergymen have long debated the origins of sin, Claggart’s main reason for being “down on” Billy is his jealousy of the sailor’s handsomeness and innocence. The soup incident made Claggart think that Billy disliked him and confirmed reports he had heard of Billy’s insolence. Claggart decides to seek revenge.

One warm night, Billy is called to a secret meeting in a secluded part of the ship. Since his good nature makes him reluctant to refuse, he goes to the secluded platform and is shocked by a proposal that he join a rebellion of sailors who, like him, have been forced into the navy. Billy stutters with anger and nearly throws the man overboard. 

He tells the man to “be off.” Billy is confused by the affair and again seeks out the old Dansker, who guesses that Claggart was somehow related to an attempt to involve Billy in a mutiny. 

Billy, who has no sense of the evil in others, remains unaware of Claggart’s intentions and, for a while, experiences no more trouble with the little problems that had come up earlier (i.e., his untidy hammock). But Claggart’s hatred continues to grow and begins to call for action.

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Chapters 19–23 

The Indomitable, sent away from the fleet on a special mission, becomes involved in a skirmish with an enemy frigate (i.e., a fast naval ship). A long chase follows, but the enemy destroyer eventually escapes. 

Soon afterward, Claggart approaches Captain Vere and tells him that he suspects Billy of plotting a mutiny. Astonished, Vere warns Claggart about the punishment for false accusations and quietly makes plans to test him. 

The Captain brings Billy and Claggart together in his cabin, where Claggart repeats his accusation. Billy turns pale and is completely tongue-tied. Instead of calming Billy, the Captain’s fatherly promptings paralyze him even more. 

Suddenly, Billy knocks Claggart to the deck and kills him with a single blow. At once, the Captain sends Billy to a nearby stateroom. Claggart’s body is placed in the opposite compartment after the ship’s surgeon declares him dead. Leaving to tell the other officers what has happened, the surgeon wonders about Captain Vere’s plans to try Billy by a drumhead court-martial (i.e., a court where military personnel are appointed to try offenses against military law). 

The court convenes and hears the testimony of Billy and the Captain. Billy insists on his loyalty and states that he never would have struck Claggart if he had been able to speak; he had been so frustrated by his inability to talk that he panicked and used physical force to express himself.

Vere agrees that Claggart’s motives were a mystery, but argues that the court should concern itself only with Billy’s deed. Given the laws in force at wartime, his deed requires the death penalty. The other officers recognize that Billy did not intend to kill Claggart and they hesitate to order his death. But Vere persuades them to sentence Billy to be hanged early the next morning.

Chapters 24–28 

When the men are called on deck to hear Captain Vere’s explanation of what has happened, a growing murmur rises from the crowd—a murmur that is stopped only by whistles signaling the next watch. 

Claggart’s body is buried at sea with all due honors. Lying chained on an upper gun deck, Billy appears to be in a trance, his face serene. He is completely without fear of death. The Chaplain tries to preach to Billy about salvation, but quickly kisses him on the cheek and leaves. Night soon becomes morning and the sailors gather to watch the execution. 

Billy arrives with the Chaplain and, to everyone’s surprise, his last words (“God bless Captain Vere!”) ring out without a stutter.

Almost involuntarily, the entire crew echoes Billy’s words while the Captain stands rigid in his place. Then, as the clouds begin to glow with the light of dawn, Billy’s body rises and hangs motionless from the mainyard. 

A few days later, the purser and the surgeon argue over the reasons for the lack of movement in Billy’s suspended corpse. At that point, the narrator adds that the crowd began murmuring again when Billy’s corpse slid into the sea, and that their murmur was accompanied by the cries of seabirds circling his burial spot.

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Chapters 29–31 

Returning to join the rest of the British fleet, the Indomitable encounters a French ship, the Atheiste. Captain Vere is wounded in the battle that follows and dies in the English port of Gibraltar, muttering his last words—Billy Budd’s name—with no tone of regret. 

Several weeks later, a naval newspaper reports the execution of William Budd, an evil foreigner who had stabbed a patriotic petty officer named Claggart while the officer was reporting “some sort of plot.” 

As time passes, English sailors keep track of the pole used to hang Billy. They remember his handsomeness and believe he was incapable of mutiny or murder. On board the Indomitable, one of Billy’s fellow foretopmen composes a poem describing the last moments of Billy’s life. In it, Billy can already feel himself sinking down among the weeds at the bottom of the sea.

Key Characters

Billy Budd: Excellent sailor; age 21. Assigned to work on the Indomitable’s foretop. Nicknamed “welkin-eyed Billy” (due to his habit of looking toward the sky; welkin means “sky”) and “Baby Budd.” Strong; extremely handsome: blond, blue eyes, rosy cheeks. Seems to have noble blood, but parents unknown. Illiterate, pure-hearted, innocent about the evils of the world. Cheerful, good worker, a “peacemaker.” Symbolic name suggests flowers—beautiful but fragile. Stutters when overcome by strong emotion. Symbol of good in the world, a sort of Everyman (ordinary man).

John Claggart: Indomitable’s officer in charge of discipline; age 35. Nicknamed “Jimmy Legs.” Tall, thin; neat dresser. Intellectual face, clean-shaven, good-looking except for heavy chin. Curly black hair, violet eyes, pale complexion. Background unknown but slight accent suggests foreign birth; possible shady dealings. Extremely jealous of Billy’s purity, innocence, and good looks.

Captain Vere: Indomitable’s captain; age 40. Full name: Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere. His nickname “Starry Vere” was taken from a poem by Andrew Marvell. Bachelor, aristocratic background. Gray eyes; otherwise unremarkable appearance. Honest, intelligent, loves to read; strict but concerned about the welfare of his men. Sometimes a dreamer. His symbolic name means “man of truth” (Latin veritas means “truth”). Perhaps too serious, intellectual, too rigid in enforcing military discipline.

The Dansker: Veteran sailor on the Indomitable; exact age unspecified. Danish origin. Nicknamed “Board-her-in-the-smoke” because of the battle where he received the cut on his face. Beady eyes, wrinkled face. Wise but cynical. A man of few words. Melville compares him to the magician Merlin (because of his wisdom) and to an ancient Greek oracle (i.e., a person consulted for advice and predictions of the future).

Surgeon: Indomitable’s tall, thin, gloomy-looking medical officer. Firm believer in the truths of science, but has no scientific reason for the lack of movement in Billy’s corpse.

Purser: Indomitable’s accountant. Chubby, red-faced. Represents those who see Billy’s death as a spiritual event: feels that science cannot explain the reason why Billy’s body didn’t move at the hanging; it was a “phenomenal” event that went beyond physical explanations.

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Themes and Ideas

1. Good vs. Evil

In this theme, Billy represents pure goodness, “an angel of God.” However, he is unable to resist the forces of evil in Claggart. Claggart’s false accusation and Billy’s stutter (which Melville uses to show the input of Satan even in the makeup of the angelic Billy) eventually lead to Billy’s execution. Claggart’s evil outlives the master-at-arms in the newspaper report of his killing, yet the legend of Billy also lives on in a ballad (popular poem with a simple story) and in the hearts of sailors.

This suggests that good is still stronger than evil. Billy’s goodness is closely tied to his innocence. Before encountering Claggart, he has no knowledge of evil; he is a “child-man,” like a country bumpkin who has never seen the city and who remains uncorrupted by its temptations. This virtue is also a flaw: it blinds Billy to the threat represented by Claggart.

2. Nature

Nature is explored in two main aspects:

(1) The natural world, which is sometimes beautiful (rosy dawn) and sometimes meaningless (“blank sea”), as opposed to the world of civilization and duty shown on board the Indomitable. Billy is portrayed as being close to nature (“rustic beauty”), suffering from the rules and evils of civilization.

(2) “Human nature,” which can be pure and innocent (Billy) but also evil (Claggart’s “Natural Depravity”). Both types of character are innate in everyone, which suggests that nature itself is neither completely good nor entirely evil.

3. “Mystery of Iniquity (Evil)”

Claggart’s evil actions are motivated by his anger toward Billy: he is jealous of Billy’s beauty and purity. But Claggart’s death prevents the military court from discovering his motives, since no one knew about them (he had kept them private).

The final source of wickedness in Claggart’s nature also remains unexplainable to the reader (Melville indicates that there are certain reasons why Claggart betrayed Billy, but the reason why Claggart was so evil in the first place cannot be explained).

This is an example of a basic problem of knowledge: the reader can never know the true nature of Claggart’s soul. The story tries to show the nature of good and evil, but because human emotions are complicated, there is no full explanation.

4. Duty vs. Morality

Billy’s unintentional killing of Claggart presents Vere and the drumhead court with a difficult decision: the moral principles prompt the judges to look at Billy’s motives, and they conclude he is “innocent before God.” But the officers are subjects of the king and therefore have a duty to obey his laws first, even if these laws appear harsh and arbitrary. Their duty to the Crown wins out as Billy is condemned to die.

5. Order vs. Disorder

Captain Vere recognizes the basic human need for order (“measured forms”), especially the need to maintain discipline when dealing with uneducated sailors in times of political upheaval. The execution of Billy is seen as a way of preserving order, but disorder threatens as sailors “murmur” when the sentence is announced, when Billy is hanged, and when Billy’s body is buried at sea.

In each case, the commands of senior officers quickly restore order. But the spiritual, mystical quality of Billy’s death challenges rational order, just as the farewell to his first ship broke with proper naval behavior. Claggart’s outwardly rational behavior betrays the complex nature of his emotions and the lack of a rational explanation for his evil deeds. The narrator comments on order (“symmetry of form”) as a characteristic of art, but notes that a factual story such as his necessarily has “ragged edges.”

6. Revolution and Reform

Historical revolutions, especially those like the French Revolution and the mutinies of British sailors, bring about reform and overthrow oppressive authorities. But they also cause great turmoil, suffering, and injustice. It is ironic that Billy is called a “fighting peacemaker,” since peace and fighting are opposites.

The situation of war and the fear of further mutinies are responsible for Billy’s execution; in wartime, moral principles must be overlooked, and the deed itself must be punished. Science and modern inventions cause a similar revolution in knowledge and in the way wars are fought, but they also mean the loss of beauty and a changed understanding of heroism.

7. The Great Man

Lord Nelson, Captain Vere, and Billy are all extraordinary men. Nelson’s leadership and profound feelings make him “the greatest sailor since our world began.” Vere’s greatness is tied to his honesty and faithful adherence to his duty. As a representative of the “Handsome Sailor,” Billy possesses beauty and goodness that make him heroic; like Nelson, he dies a glorious death.

The comparison of the three men suggests that true greatness comes from nobility of character (“magnanimity”) more than from brave deeds. It is worth noting that Claggart is “exceptional” in the negative sense, and that Melville sets all four men apart, beyond the understanding of common people.


The Sea – The main symbol of primitive nature and human instincts, with the ocean that surrounds the ship and crew (Captain Vere calls it “Where We Move and Have Our Being”). Vere must struggle against it, climbing up on the deck as he seeks to impose military law.

Mainyard – A horizontal pole used to suspend the ship’s mainsail. The main-yard and mainmast from which Billy is hanged would be in the shape of a cross, linking Billy’s execution with the crucifixion of Christ. The sailors later value a piece of the mainyard as if it were “a piece of the Cross,” indicating their view of Billy as a godlike, innocent man.

Birds – The screaming seabirds circle the place where Billy’s corpse falls into the water, representing Nature’s grief at his death and the completion of the life cycle as Billy’s body is returned to the source of all life.

White Uniform – As Billy awaits execution, his white clothing stands out against the darkness, symbolizing his continued purity and innocence. His uniform also resembles a shroud (i.e., a cloth used to wrap a corpse for burial), symbolizing his closeness to death.

Ship’s Guns – Confined to the Indomitable’s upper gun deck, the condemned Billy is surrounded by heavy black cannons and battle equipment which suggest the death that awaits him and the violent mission of the ship carrying the “peacemaker” Billy.

Gold Coins – The sailor who invites Billy to join in the mutiny offers him two guineas, symbols of worldly corruption and temptation, which Billy refuses.

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1. The Themes of Justice and Morality

One of the most compelling aspects of Billy Budd is the exploration of justice and morality in a complex and imperfect world. The story is set on a British naval ship during the Napoleonic Wars, where discipline and order are paramount. When the handsome and popular sailor Billy Budd is falsely accused of mutiny and strikes his accuser, the evil Claggart, he is sentenced to death by a court-martial.

The book raises important questions about the nature of justice and the morality of a system that can condemn a good man like Billy. It also examines the corrupting influence of power and the tragic consequences of unchecked authority.

These themes are as relevant today as they were when Melville wrote the book, making it a timeless work of literature that continues to resonate with readers.

2. Melville’s Mystical Writing Style

Melville’s writing style is often described as difficult and mystical. He deals with occult aspects of the world that no one, not even Melville himself, could fully understand. He wanted his writing to be tough to read, and it certainly is. But the power of his writing is undeniable.

Every gnarly sentence shakes you up as a reader and makes you see life in a special way, as only great writing can do. Melville was always tough to read, but his ideas were always weird and his stories were never meant to be fun and easy.


1. The Unfinished Nature of the Story

One of the biggest disappointments for me was that Melville died before he could complete the book. It’s impossible to say how good or bad “Billy Budd, Sailor” could ultimately have been, but the unfinished nature of the story is certainly frustrating. The writing style seems wooden, and it simply doesn’t have the same compelling quality as Melville’s more famous work, Moby-Dick. While the story itself is interesting and holds promise, it ultimately falls short of my expectations.

2. The Heavy Allegory

“Billy Budd” is an allegory, which means it’s saying something by pretending to say something else. While this can be effective in conveying messages, I often find heavy allegory to be void of explanation or character development.

In this case, it’s difficult to truly care about Billy Budd as a character because he’s presented as a symbol of goodness rather than a fully-realized human being. The side characters are slightly more interesting, but they get so little page time in such a short story that they didn’t stick with me.


Billy Budd by Herman Melville is a challenging but rewarding read. While the writing style may be difficult for some, the ethical and moral issues presented in the story are thought-provoking and offer a fascinating portrayal of innocence versus evil. Despite the fact that the characters are more like symbols than flesh and blood, their dilemmas are real and the story is a powerful exploration of justice and morality in a complex and imperfect world.

The book is short and would be an excellent choice for book clubs. I personally led a discussion of it in a large group, and the members were avidly trying to make their contributions before time ran out. This is a testament to the impact that the story has on readers, and the conversations it can spark.

In the end, if you can get past the thickened prose of Herman Melville, Billy Budd is a wonderful and thought-provoking story that portrays the struggles of innocence against evil amidst the Napoleonic Wars. 

About The Author

Herman Melville was a famous American author born in New York City in 1819. He had some exciting adventures, such as working on a merchant ship and whaling in the South Sea Islands. Inspired by his experiences, he wrote several popular sea stories, including Typee (1846) and White Jacket (1850), as well as his most famous novel, Moby-Dick (1851).

He also wrote a collection of poems about the Civil War called Battle Pieces (1866) and some short stories. In his later years, Melville worked as a customs inspector in New York City.

Melville is known for being a moralist and his novels often explore the struggle between good and evil. He portrays rebels protesting against injustice and authority.

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