Billy Budd

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Billy Budd Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Herman Melville's Billy Budd. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Herman Melville
Herman Melville was born into a well-off family in New York City. He began writing at an early age, and served on a trans-Atlantic merchant ship at the age of twenty. Following this voyage, he taught for some time, but took to the sea again in 1841. His sea travels and experiences with Polynesian natives greatly influenced his writing, especially his popular book Typee, based on his experiences with some natives of the Pacific isles. After Typee he continued to write popular novels depicting life at sea, such as Omoo and White-Jacket, and, after marrying in 1847, settled down in New York and then in Massachusetts. Melville published Moby Dick in 1851, but (although it is regarded today as a classic) it was not a success. His literary career and popularity declined, but Melville continued to write, including Billy Budd. Deeply affected by the American Civil War, Melville also turned to writing poetry, though his poems, like his later novels, were also not highly regarded by his contemporaries. Melville died in 1891 in New York City, not a particularly popular author. After his death, though, his reputation was gradually recuperated, and he is now recognized as one of the greatest writers in the history of the United States.
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Historical Context of Billy Budd
The events of the story take place during Great Britain's conflict with Napoleonic France, when the British Royal Navy was desperate for sailors to serve on its ships. The story also takes place soon after the Nore Mutiny, when members of the Nore mutinied against their captain. The danger of mutiny thus looms in the background of the story, affecting many of the characters thoughts and actions.
Other Books Related to Billy Budd
Billy's original ship, the Rights-of-Man, is named after a book written by Thomas Paine, which argues that political revolution is justified when a government fails to protect individual rights. Like Paine's book, Melville's novella is interested in the conflict between individual rights and society at large.
Key Facts about Billy Budd
  • Full Title: Billy Budd (an Inside Narrative)
  • When Written: Late 1880s to 1891
  • Where Written: New York
  • When Published: 1924
  • Literary Period: American Romanticism
  • Genre: Novella, historical fiction.
  • Setting: Summer of 1797, aboard the Indomitable at sea in the Mediterranean
  • Climax: After being falsely accused of plotting mutiny, Billy hits Claggart, unintentionally killing him.
  • Antagonist: John Claggart
  • Point of View: The story is recounted in the first-person voice of an anonymous narrator, but one who often has the knowledge of an omniscient narrator.
Extra Credit for Billy Budd

A Forgotten Story. Billy Budd was never published during Melville's lifetime. A Columbia University professor researching Melville discovered the unknown manuscript of the novella among Melville's letters in 1919 and Billy Budd was at last published soon after.