Notes on Characters from Billy Budd

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Billy Budd Major Characters

Billy Budd: The protagonist of this short story, Billy is an amalgamation of many heroic traits. He is handsome and his morality is pure. Although he does not possess the high philosophical morality of Captain Vere, he is honest and true. His magnetic personality has the capacity to enchant fellow men. He unites the crew of the Rights-of-Man and the Bellipotent. This positive energy, however, attracts enemies like John Claggart. Billy’s simple intellect and his tendency to stutter in stressful situations combined with his moral outrage at Claggart’s accusations causes him to punch Claggart resulting in an unintentional death. Billy’s execution is a sort of martyrdom. It is best put in the words of Captain Vere: 'Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!' (Chapter 19, page 478)

Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere: Captain Vere is a different sort of moral force in this text. He is the philosopher. His experience at sea and within the confines of literature and learning has made him concerned with the subtle nuances of right and wrong. It is his conviction that naval law, which requires Billy’s execution, be adhered to. Ironically, he is sorrowful that Billy must be executed, yet he is unwilling to compromise his beliefs or the law. While other men in the court waver, he is solid in his conviction giving the other’s time to work out their solution.

John Claggart: Claggart is the antagonist. He is not an ugly man, but his looks do not have the rugged purity of Billy’s He seems to be intellectual, although he does not possess the philosophical morality of Captain Vere. He is cold and calculating. As a late member of the navy, he must work hard and carefully, if not deviously, to rise in the ranks. As master-at-arms, he is the policeman of the ship. He has no problem with Billy, until he is told, falsely, that Billy has been ridiculing him. He responds with a disproportionate hatred that drives him to accuse Billy of mutiny. Billy responds by punching him. Claggart dies as a result of his own hatred.

Minor Characters

Lieutenant Radcliffe: Naval officer from the H.M.A. Bellipotent who inspected and approved Billy Budd for mandatory enlistment into the British navy. He is moderately stern, but amused when Billy stands in the skiff and waves good-bye to his merchant sailor friends. After Radcliffe’s initial appearance in the story, he disappears.

Captain Graveling: Captain of the merchant ship the Rights-of-Man. He is unhappy when Billy is called up for service. He knows that Billy was his best sailor, the peacemaker of the crew.

Red Whiskers: Sailor aboard the Rights-of-Man who dislikes Billy. He was the lead sailor before Billy arrived and is likely to be again after he leaves.

Admiral Nelson: Although not pictured in this story, Admiral Nelson makes a lasting impression throughout it. He is a contemporary British admiral whose reputation is that of a divine hero. He was instrumental in dealing with the mutinies of the same year. His example is omnipresent for Captain Vere.

Grizzled man: The one who approaches the Dansker and tells him that John Claggart dislikes Billy Budd. He also happens to be the corporal who tells Claggart that Billy Budd has been ridiculing him among the sailors. The grizzled man is the instigator of all the troubles between Billy and the master-at-arms.

The Dansker: A veteran sailor who has served with Admiral Nelson; his name among the Bellipotent’s crew is Board-Her-in-the-Smoke. He is as much of a father figure as the orphan Billy has had. Although he hesitates to give advice, he is always around to warn Billy. He is the first person to make Billy aware of Claggart’s increasing disapproval.

Surgeon: The surgeon verified the death of John Claggart. His reaction to Captain Vere’s orders for the murder is the first indication of strife between the Captain and his officers. The surgeon thinks that the trial should be left until they return to the fleet.

First lieutenant: Another of the officers at the drumhead court, the first lieutenant is also the second in command of the ship. When the Captain is unable to serve, the first lieutenant is in charge.

Captain of the marines: A parallel authority on the ship, the captain of the marines is under Captain Vere’s authority because he is serving on his ship. The captain of the marines does not want to convict Billy because he thinks that he had no intention of killing Claggart.

Sailing master: An officer at the drumhead court, the sailing master is in charge of the daily management of sailing.

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