Melville began writing Billy Budd in 1886, but he never completed the novella in a finished form, and so it was prepared for publication after his death. It’s a simple tale, one that could be summed up and told as a short story of a few pages, set in 1797 after the Royal Navy had been rocked by two recent mutinies. Billy Budd, a young, handsome, sailor, is impressed from a merchant ship on board the Royal Navy warship HMS Indomitable (according to Wikipedia this should actually be HMS Bellipotent, corrected in later editions of the text). Although seemingly happy to leave his ship, The Rights of Man, he bids farewell in an ironic manner which seems to suggest that he views his change of ship as leaving freedom behind.
Billy’s good looks and childlike innocence make him popular on board his new ship, with the exception of the Master of Arms, John Claggart, who is ‘against’ Billy for some reason which Melville never quite explains, apart from ‘natural depravity’. Claggart engineers evidence which suggests Billy is conspiring to mutiny; he accuses Billy in the presence of the captain, Vere. Billy’s speech impediment causes him to remain silent, though angry, in front of his accuser; then, still unable to speak, strikes Claggart, accidentally killing him. As the ship is on a war footing, Billy’s offence means he should be hanged, and Captain Vere – though he is the only witness to the scene – takes over the court-martial that day and convinces the other officers that they must condemn Billy to the prescribed sentence, no matter how leniently they would like to treat him, and how innocent of the charge of mutiny they believe him to be
Billy is hanged summarily, though goes to his fate with resignation, even serenity.
Melville explains a good deal of the background to the story, the mutinies, for example, which have made the naval officers so wary about any potential threat of mutiny in their own crew, and it’s how Vere makes the others see that they cannot possibly treat Billy leniently. He fails in attributing any believable motive for Claggart’s animosity against Billy – the latent homosexual reading of several critics seems apt, which suggests that both Claggart and Vere are attracted to Billy, though in different ways, which makes their actions more explicable, I think.
The ending is ambiguous, too, as though Melville hadn’t quite made up his mind about the meaning of the story, or was trying to show how events are misinterpreted by people afterwards. Whether his version of events is the correct one, who knows?
The novella is, in my opinion, very much in the mind of the reader: Melville doesn’t show us what Claggart thinks or what Billy thinks – if indeed Billy thinks at all, and doesn’t just react to everything, like a child – and thus it’s difficult to like or sympathise with any of the characters. Even Captain Vere, whose conflict is shown, never becomes entirely sympathetic or understandable to a modern reader.
While very readable, I do feel this would have been better as a short story, perhaps maintaining the ambiguity of intention and emotion, but minimising the philosophising. It also suffers, I think, from lack of psychological insight, and wonder what a modern writer might do with the story.