On the Bellipotent, Billy is not the same kind of center of attention that he was on the merchant ship. The crew is larger, and many of the military sailors have their own share of good looks, physical prowess, and fine character: "As the Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd's position aboard the seventy-four was something analogous to the rustic beauty transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the high-born dames of the court" (299). Billy is unaware of the change; a lack of self-consciousness about his charisma is one of his most appealing traits. But even on the Bellipotent, his presence is welcomed by crewmen and officers. His beauty is described as being deeply Saxon (blond and blue-eyed), and possessing something of the serenity of Greek sculpture. Though he is a foundling, his whole look suggests that he might carry some of the grace and loveliness of a mother whom we can surmise was beautiful. There is something princely about him, suggesting aristocratic lineage.
When Billy was being formally mustered into the service, the officer learns that Billy was a foundling. Billy is unselfconscious and honest. He tells the officer that he does not know his birthplace or the identity of his parents. He was found in a silk-lined basket at the door of a good poor man in Bristol.
Though intelligent, he is illiterate. But he loves to sing, and often improvises his own songs.
The narrator speaks of the nature of virtue and civilization, suggesting that truly superior men seem to have some quality stemming not from convention or custom; they possess a simple goodness that seems to belong to some long-lost, primitive era.
Billy has one noticeable defect. When in the grips of strong emotion, he cannot speak. His words come out as a stutter. The narrator muses that this defect is evidence that the devil has his say in all things, just as God does.
The narrator finishes this chapter with a tone of foreboding: "The avowal of such an imperfection in the Handsome Sailor should be evidence not alone that he is not presented as a conventional hero, but also that the story in which he is the main figure is no romance" (302).
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. In The Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick does a brilliant reading of the novella through the lens of desire and the question of homo/hetero definition. For the purposes of this ClassicNote, Sedgwick's work is too difficult to condense here, but the curious student should consider reading it, along with Sedgwick's introduction to her book, which maps out the conceptual framework for her analyses.
Suffice 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 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. Melville uses metaphors that ground Billy firmly in a world of sexual competition; he compares Billy to a rustically beautiful girl who then finds herself in a court full of fine ladies.
He brings together some strong elements that make Billy into something of a legendary figure. His proportions and manner are described in heroic terms; we also hear intimations that he must come from noble blood. But paradoxically, Melville also makes Billy something of a savage. The idea of the noble savage appealed immensely to Melville; in Moby-Dick, Queequeg is Melville's version of these ideas. Billy is as well, although in a different way. Melville writes at one point that true nobility of spirit is something not found in civilization, but in some kind of primal state that predates civilization . There is nobility in man that is natural and comes not from the city. Billy is compared at several points to Adam, man in nature before the Fall.
But Melville also believes in evil, or at least some aspect of fate that is hostile. Fate is a key theme in this book, and fate is usually sinister in Melville's work. He writes that Billy's speech impediment under stress, though not evil in itself, is proof that evil has a hand in making the world: "In every case, one way or another he [the devil] is sure to slip in his little card, as much as to remind us I too have a hand here" (302). Though there is nothing evil about a speech impediment, evil here is defined in aesthetic terms. It mars the perfection of Billy's person. Also, this speech impediment will later cost Billy his life.
Melville finishes the chapter with a darkening of tone and a bit of grim foreshadowing. He assures us that this novella will be no romance. We are headed toward an unhappy ending. From that moment on, the novel is framed by a grim certainty that something will go wrong; Melville has framed his novel like a tragedy in which the horrible ending is already known. This move is consistent with Melville's view of fate as a hostile force.
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.