Billy Budd Plot Summary
The merchant sailor, Billy Budd, is inspected and enlisted for naval service on the Bellipotent. Although his civilian captain is not happy to see him go, he has to release him to the navy. Billy is a wonderful sailor. All the other sailors like him for his charming looks and honest simple personality. He waves good-bye to his shipmates as he is taken aboard his new ship.
Billy does well in his new surroundings. The other sailors like him as much as he was liked on the merchant vessel. He works in the topsails and makes fast friends with his companions and a veteran sailor, referred to as the Dansker.
The captain of the ship is Fairfax Vere. Captain Vere is a very stern man. He is well-read and educated and he speaks often in historical allusions. Many find him to be less than personable and he is not popular with the sailors, although he is respected.
There is a new master-at-arms on the ship and his name is John Claggart. The job of the master-at-arms has turned into policing his own crew. He is primarily responsible for watching over the men. In recent months there have been mutinies on British ships, so the officers are ill-at-ease. Claggart's job is more difficult as a result of this.
One of the corporals tells Claggart that Billy Budd was ridiculing him. Claggart takes offense at this lie and begins to watch Billy carefully, counterfeiting pleasant hellos. When Billy finds out from the veteran sailor that Claggart doesn't like him, he doesn't believe it.
After the pursuit of a an enemy ship, Claggart goes to captain Vere and tells him that he thinks one of the men is dangerous, liable to mutiny. When he tells him that he means Billy Budd, the captain doesn't believe him. He takes Billy and Claggart into a room and makes Claggart accuse Billy to his face. Billy is stunned by the accusation and when pressured to talk, he punches Claggart in the forehead. This punch hit just right and kills the master-at-arms.
Captain Vere is at first confused, but he calls a court of other officers to review the crime and set a sentence. Although some of them feel that Billy unintentionally committed a crime, Captain Vere maintains that on a warship a murder is a murder regardless of intention. They convict Billy and sentence him to hang at dawn.
At dawn, all the men assemble and Billy is hung by the main mast. The sun rises on his body framed by the mast and the yardarm Some men think that he seemed to die before the noose tightened. Although an official report stated that Billy stabbed Claggart after he was rightly accused, the truth of his execution lived on in a ballad sung by sailors all over the world.