Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) is a novella by American writer Herman Melville, left unfinished at his death in 1891. Acclaimed by critics as a masterpiece when a hastily transcribed version was finally published in 1924, it quickly took its place as a classic second only to Moby-Dick among Melville's works. Billy Budd is a "handsome sailor" who strikes and inadvertently kills his false accuser, Master-at-arms John Claggart. The ship's Captain, Edward Vere, recognizes Billy's lack of intent, but claims that the law of mutiny requires him to sentence Billy to be hanged.

Billy Budd
Billy Budd manuscript, first page
Opening leaf of the story portion of the Billy Budd manuscript with pencil notations
AuthorHerman Melville
CountryUnited States, England
Genre(s)Adventure fiction, sea story
Publication date
  • 1924 (London)
  • 1962 (Chicago)
TextBilly Budd at at Wikisource

Melville began work on the novella in November 1886, revising and expanding it from time to time, but he left the manuscript in disarray. Melville's widow Elizabeth began to edit the manuscript for publication, but was not able to discern her husband's intentions at key points, even as to the book's title. Raymond M. Weaver, Melville's first biographer, was given the manuscript and published the 1924 version, which was marred by misinterpretation of Elizabeth's queries, misreadings of Melville's difficult handwriting, and even inclusion of a preface Melville had cut. Melville scholars Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts Jr. published what is considered the best transcription and critical reading text in 1962.[1] In 2017, Northwestern University Press published a "new reading text" based on a "corrected version" of Hayford and Sealts' genetic text prepared by G. Thomas Tanselle.[2]

Billy Budd has been adapted into film, a stage play, and an opera.


Billy Budd is a seaman impressed into service aboard 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. He is impressed to this large warship from another, smaller, merchant ship, The Rights of Man (named after the book by Thomas Paine). As his former ship moves off, Budd shouts, "And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man."

Billy, a foundling from Bristol, has an innocence, good looks and a natural charisma that make him popular with the crew. He has a stutter, which becomes more noticeable when under intense emotion. He arouses the antagonism of the ship's master-at-arms, John Claggart. Claggart, while not unattractive, seems somehow "defective or abnormal in the constitution", possessing a "natural depravity." Envy is Claggart's explicitly stated emotion toward Budd, foremost because of his "significant personal beauty," and also for his innocence and general popularity. (Melville further opines that envy is "universally felt to be more shameful than even felonious crime.") This leads Claggart to falsely charge Billy with conspiracy to mutiny. When the captain, Edward Fairfax "Starry" Vere, is presented with Claggart's charges, he summons Claggart and Billy to his cabin for a private meeting. Claggart makes his case and Billy, astounded, is unable to respond, due to his stutter. In his extreme frustration he strikes out at Claggart, killing him instantly.

Vere convenes a drumhead court-martial. He acts as convening authority, prosecutor, defense counsel and sole witness (except for Billy). He intervenes in the deliberations of the court-martial panel to persuade them to convict Billy, despite their and his beliefs in Billy's moral innocence. (Vere says in the moments following Claggart's death, "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!") Vere claims to be following the letter of the Mutiny Act and the Articles of War.

Although Vere and the other officers did not believe Claggart's charge of conspiracy and think Billy justified in his response, they find that their own opinions matter little. The martial law in effect states that during wartime the blow itself, fatal or not, is a capital crime. The court-martial convicts Billy following Vere's argument that any appearance of weakness in the officers and failure to enforce discipline could stir more mutiny throughout the British fleet. Condemned to be hanged the morning after his attack on Claggart, Billy before his execution says, "God bless Captain Vere!" His words were repeated by the gathered crew in a "resonant and sympathetic echo."CH 26

The novel closes with three chapters that present ambiguity:

  • Chapter 28 describes the death of Captain Vere. In a naval action against the French ship, Athée (the Atheist), Captain Vere is mortally wounded. His last words are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd."
  • Chapter 29 presents an extract from an official naval gazette purporting to give the facts of the fates of John Claggart and Billy Budd aboard HMS Bellipotent – but the "facts" offered turn the facts that the reader learned from the story upside down. The gazette article described Budd as a conspiring mutineer likely of foreign birth and mysterious antecedents who is confronted by John Claggart. The master-at-arms, loyally enforcing the law, is fatally stabbed by Budd. The gazette concludes that the crime and weapon used suggest a foreign birth and subversive character; it reports that the mutineer was executed and nothing is amiss aboard HMS Bellipotent.
  • Chapter 30 is a cheaply printed ballad, "Billy in the Darbies," written by one of Billy's shipmates as an elegy. The adult, experienced man represented in the poem is not the innocent youth portrayed in the preceding chapters.

Composition historyEdit

The last known image of the author, taken in 1885.

Composed fitfully over the last five years of his life, the novella Billy Budd represents Melville's return to prose fiction after three decades of only writing poetry. Melville had a difficult time writing, describing his process with Moby-Dick as follows: "And taking a book off the brain is akin to the ticklish and dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel—you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety—and even then the painting may not be worth the trouble...."[3] The "scrapings" of Billy Budd lie in the 351 leaves of manuscript now in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

The state of this manuscript has been described as "chaotic," with a bewildering array of corrections, cancellations, cut and pasted leaves, annotations by several hands, and with at least two different attempts made at a fair copy. The composition proceeded in three general phases, as shown by the Melville scholars Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., who did an extensive study of the original papers from 1953 to 1962.[4] They concluded from the evidence of the paper used at each stage, the writing instruments (pencil, pen, color of ink), insertions, and crossings out that Melville introduced the three main characters in three stages of composition: first Billy, in a draft of what became "Billy in the Darbies"; then Claggart: and finally Vere.

The work started as a poem, a ballad entitled "Billy in the Darbies", which Melville intended for his book, John Marr and Other Sailors. He added a short, prose head-note to introduce the speaker and set the scene. The character of "Billy" in this early version was an older man condemned for inciting mutiny and apparently guilty as charged. He did not include the poem in his published book. Melville incorporated the ballad and expanded the head-note sketch into a story that eventually reached 150 manuscript pages. This was the first of the three major expansions, each related to one of the principal characters.[5] As the focus of his attention shifted from one to another of these three principals, he modified the plot and thematic emphasis. Because Melville never entirely finished the revisions, critics have been divided as to where the emphasis lay and to Melville's intentions.[5]

After Melville's death, his wife Elizabeth, who had acted as his amanuensis on other projects, scribbled notes and conjectures, corrected spelling, sorted leaves and, in some instances, wrote over her husband's faint writing. She tried to follow through on what she perceived as her husband's objectives but her editing was confusing to the first professional editors, Weaver and Freeman, who mistook her writing for Melville's. For instance, she put several pages into a folder and marked it "Preface?" indicating that she did not know what her husband had intended. At some point Elizabeth Melville placed the manuscript in "a japanned tin box"[6] with the author's other literary materials, where it remained undiscovered for another 28 years.

Publication historyEdit

First edition cover page, 1924.

In August 1918, Raymond M. Weaver, a professor at Columbia University, doing research for what would become the first biography of Melville,[7] paid a visit to Melville's granddaughter, Eleanor Melville Metcalf, at her South Orange, New Jersey home. She gave him access to all the records of Melville that survived in the family: manuscripts, letters, journals, annotated books, photographs, and a variety of other material. Among these papers, Weaver was astonished to find a substantial manuscript for an unknown prose work entitled Billy Budd.

After producing a text that would later be described as "hastily transcribed",[1] he published the first edition of the work in 1924 as Billy Budd, Foretopman in Volume XIII of the Standard Edition of Melville's Complete Works (London: Constable and Company). In 1928 he published another version of the text that, despite numerous variations, may be considered essentially the same text.

F. Barron Freeman published a second text in 1948, edited on different principles, as Melville's Billy Budd (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). He believed he stayed closer to what Melville wrote, but still relied on Weaver's text, with what are now considered mistaken assumptions and textual errors. Subsequent editions of Billy Budd up through the early 1960s are, strictly speaking, versions of one or the other of these two basic texts.[8]

After several years of study, in 1962, Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., established what is now considered the correct, authoritative text. It was published by the University of Chicago Press, and contains both a "reading" and a "genetic" text. Most editions printed since then follow the Hayford-Sealts text.

Based on the confusing manuscripts, the published versions had many variations. For example, early versions gave the book's title as Billy Budd, Foretopman, while it now seems clear Melville intended Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative); some versions wrongly included as a preface a chapter that Melville had excised (the correct text has no preface). In addition, some early versions did not follow his change of the name of the ship to Bellipotent (from the Latin bellum war and potens powerful), from Indomitable, as Melville called it in an earlier draft. His full intentions in changing the name of the ship are unclear, since he used the name Bellipotent only six times.[9]

Literary significance and receptionEdit

The book has undergone a number of substantial, critical reevaluations in the years since its discovery. Raymond Weaver, its first editor, was initially unimpressed and described it as "not distinguished". After its publication debut in England, and with critics of such caliber as D. H. Lawrence and John Middleton Murry hailing it as a masterpiece, Weaver changed his mind. In the introduction to its second edition in the 1928 Shorter Novels of Herman Melville, he declared: "In Pierre, Melville had hurled himself into a fury of vituperation against the world; with Billy Budd he would justify the ways of God to man." German novelist Thomas Mann declared that Billy Budd was "one of the most beautiful stories in the world" and that it "made his heart wide open"; he declared that he wished he had written the scene of Billy's dying.[10]

In mid-1924 Murry orchestrated the reception of Billy Budd, Foretopman, first in London, in the influential Times Literary Supplement, in an essay called "Herman Melville's Silence" (July 10, 1924), then in a reprinting of the essay, slightly expanded, in The New York Times Book Review (August 10, 1924). In relatively short order he and several other influential British literati had managed to canonize Billy Budd, placing it alongside Moby-Dick as one of the great books of Western literature. Wholly unknown to the public until 1924, Billy Budd by 1926 had joint billing with the book that had just recently been firmly established as a literary masterpiece. In its first text and subsequent texts, and as read by different audiences, the book has kept that high status ever since.[1]

In 1990 the Melville biographer and scholar Hershel Parker pointed out that all the early estimations of Billy Budd were based on readings from the flawed transcription texts of Weaver. Some of these flaws were crucial to an understanding of Melville's intent, such as the famous "coda" at the end of the chapter containing the news account of the death of the "admirable" John Claggart and the "depraved" William Budd (25 in Weaver, 29 in Hayford & Sealts reading text, 344Ba in the genetic text) :

Weaver: "Here ends a story not unwarranted by what happens in this incongruous world of ours—innocence and 'infirmary', spiritual depravity and fair 'respite'."

The Ms: "Here ends a story not unwarranted by what happens in this {word undeciphered} world of ours—innocence and 'infamy', spiritual depravity and fair 'repute'."

Melville had written this as an end-note after his second major revision. When he enlarged the book with the third major section, developing Captain Vere, he deleted the end-note, as it no longer applied to the expanded story. Many of the early readers, such as Murry and Freeman, thought this passage was a foundational statement of Melville's philosophical views on life. Parker wonders what they could possibly have understood from the passage as printed.[6]

Analysis and interpretationsEdit

There appear to be three principal conceptions of the meaning of Melville's Billy Budd: the first, and most heavily supported, that it is Melville's "Testament of acceptance," his valedictory and his final benediction. The second view, a reaction against the first, holds that Billy Budd is ironic, and that its real import is precisely the opposite of its ostensible meaning. Still a third interpretation denies that interpretation is possible; a work of art has no meaning at all that can be abstracted from it, nor is a man's work in any way an index of his character or his opinion. All three of these views of Billy Budd are in their own sense true.

—R. H. Fogle[11]

Hershel Parker agrees that "masterpiece" is an appropriate description of the book, but he adds a proviso.

[E]xamining the history and reputation of Billy Budd has left me more convinced than before that it deserves high stature (although not precisely the high stature it holds, whatever that stature is) and more convinced that it is a wonderfully teachable story—as long as it is not taught as a finished, complete, coherent, and totally interpretable work of art.[6]

Given this unfinished quality and Melville's reluctance to present clear lessons, the range of critical response is not surprising. A wide range of views by about twenty-five different authors, including Raymond Weaver, Lewis Mumford, Newton Arvin, and W.H. Auden, are published in Melville's Billy Budd and the Critics.[12]

Some critics have interpreted Billy Budd as a historical novel that attempts to evaluate man's relation to the past. Thomas J. Scorza has written about the philosophical framework of the story. He understands the work as a comment on the historical feud between poets and philosophers. By this interpretation, Melville is opposing the scientific, rational systems of thought, which Claggart's character represents, in favor of the more comprehensive poetic pursuit of knowledge embodied by Billy.[13]

The centrality of Billy Budd's extraordinary good looks in the novella, where he is described by Captain Vere as "the young fellow who seems so popular with the men—Billy, the Handsome Sailor,"[14] have led to interpretations of a homoerotic sensibility in the novel. Laura Mulvey added a theory of scopophilia and masculine and feminine subjectivity/objectivity. This version tends to inform interpretations of Britten's opera, perhaps owing to the composer's own homosexuality.[15] In her book Epistemology of the Closet (1990/2008), Eve Sedgwick, expanding on earlier interpretations of the same themes, posits that the interrelationships between Billy, Claggart and Captain Vere are representations of male homosexual desire and the mechanisms of prohibition against this desire. She points out that Claggart's "natural depravity," which is defined tautologically as "depravity according to nature," and the accumulation of equivocal terms ("phenomenal", "mystery", etc.) used in the explanation of the fault in his character, are an indication of his status as the central homosexual figure in the text. She also interprets the mutiny scare aboard the Bellipotent, the political circumstances that are at the center of the events of the story, as a portrayal of homophobia.[16]

Melville's dramatic presentation of the contradiction between the requirements of the law and the needs of humanity made the novella an iconic text in the field of law and literature. Earlier readers viewed Captain Vere as good man trapped by bad law. Richard Weisberg, who holds degrees in both comparative literature and law, argued that Vere was wrong to play the roles of witness, prosecutor, judge, and executioner, and that he went beyond the law when he sentenced Billy to immediate hanging.[17] Based on his study of statutory law and practices in the Royal Navy in the era in which the book takes place, Weisberg argues that Vere deliberately distorted the applicable substantive and procedural law to bring about Billy's death.[18] Judge Richard Posner has sharply criticized these claims. He objects to ascribing literary significance to legal errors that are not part of the imagined world of Melville's fiction and accused Weisberg and others of calling Billy an "innocent man" and making light of the fact that he "struck a lethal blow to a superior officer in wartime."[19] The first issue of Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature is devoted to Billy Budd and includes essays by Weisberg and Posner.[20]

H. Bruce Franklin sees a direct connection between the hanging of Budd and the controversy around capital punishment. While Melville was writing Billy Budd between 1886 and 1891, the public's attention was focused on the issue.[21] Other commentators have suggested that the story may have been based on events on board USS Somers, an American naval vessel; Lt. Guert Gansevoort, a defendant in a later investigation, was a first cousin of Melville. If so then the character Billy Budd was likely inspired by a young man named Philip Spencer who was hanged on USS Somers on December 1, 1842.[22][23]

Harold Schechter, a professor who has written books on American serial killers, has said that the author's description of Claggart could be considered to be a definition of a sociopath. He acknowledges that Melville was writing at a time before the word "sociopath" was used.[24] Dr. Robert Hare might classify Claggart as a psychopath, since his personality did not demonstrate the traits of a sociopath (rule-breaking) but of grandiosity, cunning manipulation, and a lack of empathy or remorse.

In law and literatureEdit

Since the late 20th century, Billy Budd has become a central text in the field of legal scholarship known as law and literature. The climactic trial has been the focus of scholarly inquiry regarding the motives of Vere and the legal necessity of Billy's condemnation. Vere states, given the circumstances of Claggart's slaying, condemning Billy to death would be unjust. While critics have viewed Vere as a character caught between the pressures between unbending legalism and malleable moral principles, other critics have differed in opinion.[25] Such other critics have argued that Vere represents a ressentient protagonist whose disdain for Lord Admiral Nelson he takes out on Billy, in whom Vere sees the traits of Nelson's that he resents. One scholar argues that Vere manipulated and misrepresented the applicable laws to condemn Billy, showing that the laws of the time did not require a sentence of death and that legally any such sentence required review before being carried out.[26] While this argument has been criticized for drawing on information outside the novel, Weisberg also shows that sufficient liberties existed in the laws Melville describes to avoid a capital sentence.[27]

Adaptations in other mediaEdit

Charles Nolte as Billy Budd in the 1951 Broadway production

Theater and operaEdit

  • In 1951, Louis O. Coxe and Robert Chapman's 1949 stage adaptation, Billy Budd, opened on Broadway, winning both the Donaldson Awards and Outer Critics Circle Awards for best play.[28]
  • The best-known adaptation is the opera Billy Budd, with a score by Benjamin Britten and a libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier. The opera follows the earlier text of 1924, and was premiered in December 1951 in a 4-act version. Britten, Forster and Crozier subsequently revised the opera into a 2-act version, which was first performed in January 1964. Scholar Hanna Rochlitz has studied the adaptation of the novella into this opera in detail.[29]
  • Giorgio Ghedini also composed an Italian-language opera, premiered in 1949, adapted from the novella with a libretto by Salvatore Quasimodo based on the 1942 Italian translation by Eugenio Montale. The Ghedini opera has not been as widely performed as Britten's work.[29]



  • Billy Budd is a song on the 1994 album Vauxhall and I by English indie artist Morrissey.




  • In 2018 the actor and audiobook narrator Liam Gerrard narrated the audiobook version of Billy Budd, Sailor for Enriched Classics.


  1. ^ a b c Parker, Hershel (Winter 1990). "'Billy Budd, Foretopman' and the Dynamics of Canonization". College Literature. 1. 17 (1): 21–32. JSTOR 25111840.
  2. ^ Melville, Herman (2017). Hayford, Harrison; MacDougall, Alma; Sandberg, Robert; Tanselle, G. Thomas (eds.). Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings. The Writings of Herman Melville The Northwestern-Newberry Edition Volume Thirteen. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 978-0810111134.
  3. ^ Melville, Herman (1922) [December 1850]. "Letter to Evert Duyckinck". In Meade Minnigerode (ed.). Some Personal Letters of Herman Melville and a Bibliography. New York: Edmond Byrne Hackett. p. 71.
  4. ^ Vincent, Howard P. (1971). Twentieth Century Interpretations of Billy Budd. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. pp. 4–5. ISBN 978-0130847157.
  5. ^ a b Melville, Herman (1962). Harrison Hayford & Merton Sealts, Jr. (ed.). Billy Budd, Sailor: An Inside Narrative. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 3. ISBN 0226321312. LCCN 62-17135.
  6. ^ a b c Parker, Hershel (1990). Reading Billy Budd. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. pp. "japanned tin box": 45, "proviso": 6. ISBN 0810109611.
  7. ^ Weaver, Raymond W., Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, New York: George H. Doran Company, 1921.
  8. ^ Hayford & Sealts, pp. 12–23.
  9. ^ Hayford & Sealts, p. 20.
  10. ^ Andreas Platthaus: Melvilles 200. Geburtstag : Oh, hätte ich das geschrieben!, FAZ, August 1, 2019 (German)
  11. ^ Fogle, Richard Harter (1971) [1958]. "Billy Budd – Acceptance or Irony". In Howard P. Vincent (ed.). Twentieth Century Interpretations of Billy Budd. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. p. 41. ISBN 9780130847157.
  12. ^ Stafford, William T., ed., Melville's Billy Budd and the Critics, Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., Inc. (1961).[ISBN missing][page needed]
  13. ^ Scorza, Thomas J. (1979). In the Time Before Steamships: 'Billy Budd, The Limits of Politics, and Modernity. Northern Illinois University Press. p. 210. ISBN 978-0875800714.
  14. ^ Melville, Herman (1995) [1924] Billy Budd, Sailor, Penguin Popular Classics, p. 54
  15. ^ Fuller, Michael (Summer 2006). "The Far Shining Sail: a glimpse of salvation in Britten's 'Billy Budd'". The Musical Times. 1895. 147 (20): 17–24. doi:10.2307/25434380. JSTOR 25434380.
  16. ^ Sedgwick, Eve (1990). Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 91–130. ISBN 0520070429.
  17. ^ Tom Goldstein, "The Law: Once Again, Billy Budd is Standing Trial," New York Times June 10, 1989
  18. ^ Weisberg, Richard (1984). "The Case of Billy Budd, Sailor". 'The Failure of the Word: The Lawyer as Protagonist in Modern Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 131–176. ISBN 0300045921.
  19. ^ Posner, Richard A. (2009). Law and Literature. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674054417. pp. 211–23
  20. ^ Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring, 1989).
  21. ^ Franklin, H. Bruce (June 1997). "Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Three Centuries". American Literature. Archived from the original on 2000-08-16. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
  22. ^ Delbanco, Andrew (2005). Melville: His World and Work. New York: Knopf. p. 298. ISBN 0375403140.
  23. ^ McFarland, Philip, Sea Dangers: The Affair of the Somers, New York: Schocken Books, 1985.[ISBN missing][page needed]
  24. ^ Schechter, Harold (2003). The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World's Most Terrifying Murderers. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 16. ISBN 978-0345472007.
  25. ^ Page (1986), p. 406.
  26. ^ Weisberg, Richard (1984). The Failure of the Word: The Lawyer as Protagonist in Modern Fiction. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. pp. 145–153. ISBN 978-0300045925. OCLC 1032720496.
  27. ^ Page, William (1986). "The place of law and literature". Vanderbilt Law Review. 39 (2): 407.
  28. ^ Howe, Marvine (May 28, 1993). "Louis O. Coxe, 75; His Poems Reflected New England Roots". New York Times. Retrieved 29 April 2011.
  29. ^ a b Hanna Rochlitz (2012). "Sea-changes: Melville–Forster–Britten: The Story of Billy Budd and its Operatic Adaptation" (PDF). Universitätsverlag Göttingen. Retrieved 2020-07-24.
  30. ^ a b Billy Budd (1962), production details, British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive, film identifier 23095. Kingshill Way, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, UK. Retrieved 6 July 2022.
  31. ^ "Claire Denis and Robert Pattinson on High Life | Film Comment Talk". Retrieved 2021-01-20.
  32. ^ Billy Budd, Sailor (Radio Theatre) [Focus on the Family]. ISBN 1589970152.

External linksEdit

Adaptations for cinema and television: