Billy Budd, Sailor – Chapters 1–2

Summary: Chapter 1
The narrator begins the story by recalling a time, in
the days before steamships, when it was common to observe in port
towns a group of sailors gathered around a “Handsome Sailor” type—a
man who stood out from his peers by being taller, stronger, and
more physically attractive. The Handsome Sailor’s peers would instinctively look
up to and follow this naturally superior specimen. As an example,
the narrator cites an instance in Liverpool in which he observed a
male African in a plaid cap promenading proudly in the company of
his fellow seamen.
At twenty-one years old, though young-looking for his
age, Billy Budd exemplifies the Handsome Sailor type. He has only
recently entered into the service of the British naval forces. In
the summer of 1797, while returning to the
British Isles on board the merchant ship Rights-of-Man, he
is impressed into duty by the H.M.S. Bellipotent, a
warship in need of extra sailors.
Billy is the only member of his company on the Rights-of-Man selected
to change ranks by the representative of the Bellipotent, Lieutenant
Ratcliffe. Without complaint, Billy accepts his reassignment, much
to Ratcliffe’s satisfaction. However, this shift surprises his old
company and meets with the silent disapproval of his old shipmaster,
Captain Graveling.
In preparation for his departure from the Rights-of-Man, Billy goes
to the lower hold to gather his gear. Meanwhile, Ratcliffe barges
his way into the cabin of the Rights-of-Man and
helps himself to a drink. Graveling plays the polite host, but refrains
from drinking himself.
In a quiet moment, Graveling reproaches Ratcliffe for
stealing Billy from the Rights-of-Man. After eliciting
a meager apology, Graveling proceeds to lament his loss, recounting
the tale of Billy’s days on board the Rights-of-Man. He
recalls Billy’s arrival amidst a quarreling crew, the rapid rise
of his popularity and authority, and his swift and judicious use
of force at necessary moments. He relates a story in which a sailor
referred to as “the Red Whiskers,” the only member of the crew who
disliked Billy, tried to bully the young sailor. When the Red Whiskers
punched Billy, Billy responded with a forceful blow of his own.
To the surprise of all, Billy’s violent response actually pacified
the Red Whiskers’ hatred for Billy, turning that hatred to love.
Graveling details the love felt by all for Billy the peacekeeper
and dreads the encroaching discord that will doubtlessly return
to the Rights-of-Man upon Billy’s departure.
Ratcliffe delivers the tongue-in-cheek reply, “Blessed
are the peacekeepers, especially the fighting peacekeepers.” Then
he gestures toward the cannons on board the Bellipotent to
illustrate his idea of what a peacekeeper is. He reassures Graveling
that despite the hardship of his immediate loss, he should remember
that the king would doubtless approve of such selfless compliance
with the needs of the empire. Calling out to Billy on deck, Ratcliffe
tells him to slim down his possessions from a large box to a smaller
After Billy reorganizes his gear, Ratcliffe follows him
down into one of the Bellipotent’s cutters, or
small boats, and they push off from their mooring. As they pass
beneath the stern of the larger ship, Billy stands up, and, with
a wave of his hat, bids a friendly good-bye to his old crew and
to the Rights-of-Man. This last farewell earns Billy
a harsh rebuke from Ratcliffe, who orders him to sit down.
Summary: Chapter 2

Billy in many respects was little more
than a sort of upright barbarian . . .
(See Important Quotations Explained)

On board the Bellipotent, Billy quickly
settles into his new routine, working good-naturedly in his position
as foretopman. Markedly younger than the rest of the company, he
finds himself less of a focal point among his new peers than he
had been on the merchant marine. Of the other men on board the Bellipotent, most
are far more battle-tested, although the ingenuous Billy is not
intimidated by the presence of such experienced colleagues.
In passing, the narrator notes that Billy was a foundling
at birth, orphaned by his parents and placed in a basket at the
knocker of a stranger’s door. The narrator speculates that Billy
might actually be of noble parentage, given the striking quality
of his appearance. Billy is depicted as a sort of natural man, chiseled
and proud, but without self-consciousness. He compensates for his
illiteracy with his skill as a singer. The narrator notes that Billy
has a slightly barbaric, animal, or primitive quality in terms of
his comprehension of morality. Still, Billy’s only serious shortcoming
is his tendency to stutter or, on occasion, to be rendered speechless.
The narrator states that Billy’s vocal imperfection reveals his
mortality in the face of his unequaled beauty and stature. The narrator
emphasizes that Billy is not a typical hero, and that his story
will not be a romance.
Analysis: Chapters 1–2
Billy Budd is an unusual hero because he is so intellectually
and emotionally limited. Throughout the novel, we are in the position
of knowing and understanding more than he does. He is handsome, well
liked, and widely admired, and he exhibits leadership among his
fellows on the Rights-of-Man, but he is not gifted
with unusual intelligence or self-awareness. In particular, the
narrator emphasizes that although Billy exerts a good influence
on other people, he lacks a well-developed moral sense. He does
not have the knowledge, experience, or wisdom to be a moral role
model, even though he clearly has a good heart. The narrator describes
Billy by comparing him to animals and primitive men, even as he
tells us that Billy is a noble specimen of manhood. Essentially,
Billy Budd represents the finest qualities that nature produces
in human beings without the help of civilization—he has not been
cultivated by education or a sophisticated understanding of morality.
The novel explores what happens when such a natural man is confronted
with authority, social pressure, and the subtlety and guile of evil
The conflict between the individual and society is introduced
relatively quickly, with Billy’s impressment, or involuntary recruitment,
in Chapter 1. If Billy is like man in a state
of nature, as yet untroubled by the demands of civilized society,
his extraction from the Rights-of-Man to the Bellipotent symbolizes
the power that society exercises over individuals. The scene vividly
demonstrates the idea that the demands of society overpower the
rights of the individual. As the narrator points out, the Rights-of-Man is
named after a book by Thomas Paine that defends the principles of
individual liberty and human rights that inspired the French Revolution.
Ironically, the Bellipotent removes Billy from
that ship against his will, and forces him to join in the war effort
against the French. The Bellipotent is a much more
hierarchically organized and strictly run vessel, and throughout
the novel it represents the forces of society and authority.
Billy’s problems are greater than the conflict between
an individual and an authoritarian society that strips him of his
rights and freedoms. Another, more mysterious danger lies in wait
for Billy—the threat of evil. The narrator introduces his view of
the elusive quality of evil with the discussion of Billy’s intermittent
speech impediment. The narrator interprets the stutter as an indication
that nature did not, in fact, make Billy perfect. He compares this
imperfection to a calling card left by the devil, suggesting that
the devil is fond of leaving such reminders that he has a hand in
everything created on Earth, however beautiful. It is important
for us to keep in mind, then, that Melville does not portray evil
as a product of society, although he does not explain where it comes
from or what it means. The mysterious presence of evil adds another
dimension to the novel, preventing us from reducing the story to
the conflict between the individual and society.
Although it is not obvious early in the novel, the first
few chapters begin to establish a connection between Billy and Jesus
Christ. When an officer on the Bellipotent asks
him who his father is, Billy replies, “God knows, sir.” The response
indicates that Billy is simply ignorant of his origins, but it also
faintly suggests that his origins are divine. Jesus was similarly
evasive when asked about his parentage, and just as Billy’s paternity
is a mystery, the relationship between Jesus and God the Father
is one of the central mysteries of Christianity. The nickname that
Billy gains on board the Bellipotent, Baby Budd,
suggests an association with the baby Jesus, aligning Billy with
the Son in the Christian idea of the Holy Trinity. Several times Billy
is described as “welkin-eyed”—welkin means sky—suggesting that his
vision is somehow heavenly. Similar hints and references abound,
but it is important not to overplay the association of Billy with
Christ. After all, the differences between Billy, who is morally and
spiritually limited, and Christ, who embodies divine wisdom and
love, are more striking than the similarities. One of the central puzzles
of Billy Budd is why Melville creates the parallel
between Billy and Christ, and different readers have interpreted
this aspect of the text in very different ways.