History: This novella was begun around 1886 by American author Herman Melville, left unfinished at his death in 1891 and not published until 1924. The story may have been based on events onboard USS Somers, an American naval vessel; one of the defendants in the later investigation was a distant relative of Melville.
Plot: The plot follows Billy Budd, a seaman impressed into service aboard the HMS Bellipotent in the year 1797, when the Royal Navy was reeling from two major mutinies and was threatened by the Revolutionary French Republic's military ambitions. Billy, an orphaned illegitimate child suffused with innocence, openness and natural charisma, is adored by the crew, but for unexplained reasons arouses the antagonism of the ship's Master-at-Arms, John Claggart, who falsely accuses Billy of conspiracy to mutiny. When Claggart brings his charges to the Captain, the Hon. Edward Fairfax "Starry" Vere, Vere summons both Claggart and Billy to his cabin for a private confrontation. When, in Billy's and Vere's presence, Claggart makes his false charges, Billy is unable to find the words to respond, due to a speech impediment. Unable to express himself verbally, he strikes and accidentally kills Claggart.
Vere, an eminently thoughtful man then convenes a drumhead court-martial. He acts as convening authority, prosecutor, defense counsel and sole witness (except for Billy himself). He then intervenes in the deliberations of the court-martial panel to argue them into convicting Billy, despite their and his belief in Billy's innocence before God. Vere claims to be following the letter of the Mutiny Act and the Articles of War, but recent scholarship suggests otherwise.
At his insistence, the court-martial convicts Billy; Vere argues that any appearance of weakness in the officers and failure to enforce discipline could stir the already-turbulent waters of mutiny throughout the British fleet. Condemned to be hanged from the ship's yardarm at dawn the morning after the killing, Billy's final words are, "God bless Captain Vere!", which is then repeated by the gathered crew in a "resonant and sympathetic echo.
The novel closes with three chapters that cloak the story with further ambiguity.
Review: A story ultimately about good and evil, Billy Budd has often been interpreted allegorically, with Billy interpreted typologically as Christ or the Biblical Adam, with Claggart (compared to a snake several times in the text) figured as Evil. Part of Claggart's hatred comes because of Billy's goodness rather than in spite of it.
Claggart is also thought of as the Biblical Judas. The act of turning an innocent man in to the authorities and the allusion of the priest kissing Billy on the cheek before he dies, just as Judas kisses Jesus on the cheek when he was betrayed, are cited in support of this reading. Vere is often associated with Pontius Pilate. This theory stems mainly from the characteristics attributed to each man. Billy is innocent, often compared to a barbarian or a child; while Claggart is a representation of evil with a "depravity according to nature," a phrase Melville borrows from Plato. Vere, without a doubt the most conflicted character in the novel, is torn between his compassion for the "Handsome Sailor" and his martial adherence to his own authority. I am also convinced the story is questioning the purpose of death as punishment, the corporal law imposed on those who are inherently good.
Opening Line: “In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a stroller along the docks of any considerable seaport would occasionally have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war’s men or merchant-sailors in holiday attire ashore on liberty.”
Closing Line: “I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.”
Quotes: “Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins?”
“God Bless Captain Vere.”