The narrator begins by speaking of a phenomenon known more frequently in the days before steam ships. Often in seaports, bands of sailors walking about town would consist of any number of normal sailors and, at the center of their group, one superior specimen. Melville dubs this central figure the "Handsome Sailor." The other sailors would surround him "like a bodyguard," and the Handsome Sailor would accept the other men's adoration "with the offhand unaffectedness of natural regality" (291).
The narrator goes on to explain that the Handsome Sailor was no dandy; invariably, he was also a physically powerful man, often skilled at fighting. And the Handsome Sailor was also an ethical and upright being; strength and beauty alone would not have been enough to make him into a hero among his shipmates.
Billy Budd, the narrator tells us, was in some respects an example of this kind of man. He was a twenty-one-year-old foretopman on the H.M.S. Bellipotent. Toward the end of the eighteenth century; not long before the start of our story, he was impressed, or forced, into military service. He had set out to sea aboard an English merchant ship called The Rights of Man, but in those dies the British fleet was severely undermanned. To fill gaps in their crews, British military vessels would board civilian ships and force men into the King's service.
The narrator describes the scene of impressment. The boarding officer, Lieutenant Ratcliffe, chooses Billy immediately, and does not take any other men. Billy says nothing in protest. Lieutenant Ratcliffe invites himself into the shipmaster's cabin, sniffs out the liquor, and begins to drink. The merchantman's shipmaster, Captain Graveling, tries to explain to Ratcliffe that Billy is indispensable. The other men love him, and his mere presence keeps the peace aboard ship. Only one sailor, Red Whiskers, disliked him. One day, he jabbed Billy insultingly under the ribs, and Billy gave Red Whiskers a sound beating. After that fight, Red Whiskers gave up his enmity for Billy. All of the men go out of their way to help Billy, the Captain tells Ratcliffe; Ratcliffe is stealing his peacemaker.
Billy appears, his belongings in a chest, and Ratcliffe tells him to repack his things in a bag. Life in the military means a shorter supply of space. After repacking, Billy sets out in the tiny craft that will take him to the Bellipotent. He is almost cheerful, crying out with great spirits, "And goodbye to you too, old Rights-of-Man."
Billy, at heart a fatalist, accepts his conscription with good cheer. Unlike many of the other impressed men, he goes about his work without sullenness. In part, the narrator tells us, his cheer may be connected to his youth and the fact that he has no family waiting for him at home.
Melville's prose is some of the most impressive stuff written in English. His sentences are long, complex, and difficult; one of his most important literary influences was Shakespeare, and Melville shows a Shakespearean fondness for cramming a sentence to its maximum capacity. His writing is also marked by long digressions, which initially seem unrelated to his central story. His description of the Handsome Sailor phenomenon, for example, includes an anecdote about an experience he had in Liverpool, where he saw a number of sailors flanking a tall and striking black man who drew looks of awe from all who passed. After this bypath, Melville seems to remember himself, and comes back to the central story: the next paragraph begins, "To return" (292).
Anyone who has read Melville's masterpiece Moby Dick will be familiar with Melville's love of allowing himself to be distracted. These digressions are an integral part of Melville's work. He is virtually unmatched in his power to set a tone; every new event in a Melville novel breathes in an atmosphere of images and brief stories set down previously by the author. His approach is one that could easily fail in the hands of less gifted writers, but Melville is able to use his digressions to craft worlds that seem rich, complete, living.
He begins by sketching his central character. First, he describes a type of great man, the Handsome Sailor, and then he gives us Billy, who seems representative of this category of man, although the narrator tells us immediately that in several key respects Billy is a divergence from the basic formula. Billy's shortcomings will be described later. But by suggesting that Billy does not match perfectly with this ideal, the narrator is also moving Billy beyond the ideal. He is not a category: he is a man, a unique character with his own strengths and weakness.
The Handsome Sailor is a motif of the novella. 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. 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. He is also physically powerful, as we learn from the story of Red Whiskers. And he exudes a simplicity and basic goodness that works magic on the other men. Captain Graveling says that Billy is his most valuable sailor, and that his arrival changed the dynamic on the ship: "But Billy came; and it was like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy. Not that he preached to them or said or did anything in particular; but a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones" (295).
These are the three basic qualities of the Handsome Sailor, but Billy has several other important attributes. For one, he is very young. He is also naïve and often unknowledgeable in the ways of the world, even the world of sailing etiquette. His goodbye to his old ship is a serious breach of naval etiquette that displeases Ratcliffe, but Billy means no insult by it. He is also extremely simple. He accepts his fate without complaint. And he has no family. He is alone in the world, a beautiful and unique being without a family to miss, and so is adaptable to the impressment in ways that the other sailors are not.
His farewell to the ship is also a bit of foreshadowing: "Goodbye to you, old Rights-of-Man" refers not only to the ship but to the philosophical rights of man. The impressment is the first curtailing of Billy's rights. Equally symbolic is the name of Billy's new ship, the H.M.S. Bellipotent, which combines latin roots derived from the words for "war" and "power." This period in history was a difficult one for sailors and their commanding officers, as Melville will soon show us. Billy Budd shows Melville's old theme of the relationship between the individual and society; this hero is thrust into a situation where great forces work on and against him.