Billy Budd

Billy Budd Themes

Innocence, and the Noble Savage

Billy Budd's innocence, which reaches the point of naïveté, is one of the points repeatedly stressed in the narrative. Innocence, embodied in Billy, is paired off against evil and depravity, embodied in Claggart. Billy's innocence is a central part of his beauty and charisma, but it is also part of what dooms him. Lacking any wiles, he falls victim to Claggart's malice and treachery.

Billy is also an example of Melville's fascination with ideas of man in a state of perfect nature, the Noble Savage. Billy is likened to Adam before the Fall; he is also called a barbarian, in a positive sense of the word, more than once. Innocent to the deceptions of civilized life, he is an idealized version of manhood and humanity.


Billy's innocence finds its counterpart in John Claggart's depravity. Although Melville hints at some of Claggart's motivations and paints a convincing psychological portrait of hatred, some part of Claggart's hate must necessarily go unexplained. There is something inherently evil in Claggart: "What was the matter with the master-at-arms?" The question is never completely answered. Claggart is likened by Melville to Satan, and in literatary studies he is often compared to Iago. Part of Claggart's hatred comes not despite Billy's goodness, but because of it.

The Handsome Sailor

The Handsome Sailor is a motif of the novella. Melville lists three important characteristics of the handsome sailor, and Billy exhibits all of them. 1) Like the Handsome Sailor, Billy is physically beautiful. The narrator calls him "welkin-eyed," meaning that his eyes were an intense, sky-colored shade of blue; again and again, we are told of Billy's athletic and beautiful body. We are told that Billy in the nude could pose as Adam before the fall. 2) His appeal to others is direct and immediate. Lieutenant Ratcliff chooses Billy even before all the other men have come on deck for inspection, and because of the quality of his pick he feels no need to take any others. Billy exudes a simplicity and goodness that has a magical effect on the tempers of the other men. 3) Billy is also physically powerful, as we learn from the story of Red Whiskers. He does not know his own strength; later, this excessive strength will doom both Claggart and Billy.


Melville devotes an incredible amount of attention to Billy's physical characteristics. Few now debate the frankly homoerotic content of Billy Budd; only the most reactionary of high school English teachers deny that male-male desire is a driving theme in the novel. For his own part, Billy's own desires do not play a significant role; it is his power to excite desire in others that is key.

Suffice it to say, Billy excites different kinds of desire in the men around him. For many of the men, the attraction is a kind of hero-worship or affection for a superior specimen, not necessarily primarily sexual in nature. But Melville never makes a clear distinction between "homoerotic" and "homosocial" attraction, and the slipperiness of the divide is part of the territory for nineteenth-century literature. The sight of his face and body gives pleasure to the men around him; the nature and degree of that pleasure, we can assume, varies with each man. Officers notice him: "little did he [Billy] observe that something about him provoked an ambiguous smile in one or two harder faces among the bluejackets. Nor less unaware was he of the peculiar favorable effect his person and demeanour had upon the more intelligent gentlemen of the quarter-deck" (299). Captain Vere, we learn, considers getting Billy promoted so that the boy will more often be under his own observation (345). The most import manifestation of desire is the implicit lust Claggart feels for Billy, which is part of the origin of the master-at-arms' hatred for the boy.

Duty and Principle

Duty and principle are essential to many of the questions the novella poses. As forces, they are embodied in Captain Vere, whose devotion to the Crown and his office cost Billy his life. Vere's principles are not ill-considered jingoism or baseless fanaticism; he is an extremely well-read and intelligent man, one who has considered his place in the world and the chaos on the continent with an open and perceptive mind. The narrator speaks with admiration of Vere and his principles, which act "as a dike against those invading waters of novel opinion social political and otherwise" (312). But the novel gives us questions rather than answers, and at the end of the novel we must reach our own conclusions about duty and principles, and the cost of adhering to them.

The Role of the Individual in Society

Closely connected to the themes of duty and principle, this theme pervades the questions brought up by the book. Especially toward the end of the novella, the narrator spends a good deal of time exploring some of the contradictions and obligations of serving one's country in a time of war. Rights and democracy are defended by a military hierarchy that in its own structures respects neither; what then is the role of the individual? What constitutes an ethical choice?

The Christ Reading

Melville loads down his slim novella with Christ imagery. Allegorical elements abound. Billy has echoes of Christ, Vere God the Father, and Claggart Satan. But these elements do not close off the interpretations of the novel. At times it seems that Melville sets up this allegorical framework just so he can tear it down. Yes, Billy is a kind of Christ. But we are left asking if his death was necessary, and despite his vision-like death scene the book finishes not with images of Billy in paradise, but with images of Billy dead in the dark murk of the sea. Allegory is here for the purpose of enrichment, and Melville's vision is ultimately something more difficult and less comforting than the story of Jesus Christ.

Fate and fatalism

Fate plays a part in the events on the ship. Billy seems to have little agency. He makes a few critical choices, but given Billy's character and limited experience it is hard to imagine how he could have acted otherwise. Part of Billy's beauty and charm is his ability to adapt himself to his own fate. He takes impressment without complaint; he goes to his death with grace and acceptance.

Breakdown of Communication

Arguably, fear of silence and isolation pervades most of Melville's later work. Billy's speech impediment is also a metaphor for an idea that was important to Melville: the inability to communicate. Billy Budd was written after the failure of Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Melville began to fear that his vision was not communicable, that no audience would ever understand him. In fact, it took until several decades into the twentieth century for Melville to be appreciated; today, he is venerated as one of the greatest literary minds in history, and Moby-Dick is often called the greatest novel in English. But critical and commercial failures were all that greeted Melville during his own life, and in his work one can see the desperation of a man who speaks and speaks without being heard. Billy's inability to speak during times of emotion will mean that later, he cannot speak the truth and save himself.


Closely connected to the above theme. Isolation is the natural consequence of being unable to communicate. Many of the characters are isolated: Claggart by his secret obsession, Vere by his superior mind and sense of duty, the Dansker by his decision to withdraw from active participation in the world around him, Billy by his innocence and his inability to articulate his thoughts.