Billy is twenty-one years old, a foretopman, and a man who was impressed (conscripted against his will) into military service. He is physically beautiful, a specimen of what Melville calls the Handsome Sailor. He is likened to both Adam before the Fall and Jesus Christ. He is often called "Baby Budd" by his fellow sailors, emphasizing that he is innocence embodied, wild and natural man, pure unadulterated goodness. His one weakness is inarticulateness: though bright, when seized by strong feeling he stutters.
Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere: Known as "Starry Vere," the captain is an erudite man and an efficient officer. Intelligent and well-read, he is sometimes criticized behind his back for being a touch too in love with abstractions and ideas. Vere is a man immersed in ideas, but he is also a man with strong conviction about his duty to the navy and to England. His commitment to his values leads to the death of Billy Budd.
Master-at-Arms John Claggart
Claggart is evil personified, though on the surface he seems a competent and devoted officer. His obsession with Billy Budd is in part sexual; nothing unusual there, as the narrator suggests that Billy excites desire in one form or another in most of the men he meets. But for Claggart, what begins as desire becomes something much darker. He longs to destroy what he cannot have. What he cannot have is not merely Billy's physical body, but the foretopman's innocence and purity.
An elderly sailor who befriends Billy. He bestows on Billy the nickname "Baby." The Dansker sees quickly that Claggart's intentions on Billy are less than benign, but he is reluctant to give Billy any real advice.
Captain Vere's hammock boy. He is Vere's trusted aid and messenger.
The officer who chooses Billy for impressments. A forward and somewhat off-putting man, he chooses Billy alone to be conscripted out of all of the sailors aboard the Rights-of-Man.
Billy's old captain aboard the merchant vessel Rights-of-Man. Though Lieutenant Ratcliffe only chooses one man out of his whole crew, Captain Graveling remains upset because the one man is Billy.
One of Billy's fellow sailors aboard the Rights-of-Man. He is the one man on the merchant ship who hates Billy, until Billy gives him a sound beating.
The surgeon verifies Claggart's death. Some days after Billy's execution, he discusses the stillness of the body with the ship's purser.
The ship's purser. Some days after Billy's execution, he discusses the stillness of the body with the ship surgeon.
An unsavory character. Possibly trying to trap Billy at Claggart's command, he approaches Billy to ask for his help in a possible mutiny.
One of Claggart's spies aboardship.
Captain of the Marines, the Sea Lieutenant, and the Sailing Master: Three officers called to hear Billy's case. Persuaded by Vere's arguments about the threat of mutiny and duty to the king, they condemn Billy to hang.
Billy Budd Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Billy Budd is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere: Known as "Starry Vere," the captain is an erudite man and an efficient officer. Intelligent and well-read, he is sometimes criticized behind his back for being a touch too in love with abstractions and...
What we do know is that Billy Budd today is ranked as one of Melville's greatest works, and one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. It is difficult for me to fine literary weakness other than my own personal bias. Could you see any...