Study Questions for Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative)

Reading Questions

  1. How did Billy end up on the H.M.S. Bellipotent?  What is the significance of the name Bellipotent?  (Hint: what are the meanings of "bellicose" and "belligerent"?)  In composing Melville sometimes referred to this ship as the Indomitable. Why would he use either of these names for a war ship?
  2. What does it mean for a sailor to be impressed?
  3. What is Billy's effect on the crew while on the Rights-of-Man?
  4. Describe Billy and his background.  What is his one notable imperfection?
  5. When does the book's action take place?  Which two major countries are at war?  What has just occurred in the British navy?
  6. Describe Captain Vere.  What sorts of books does he like to read?  Why does he oppose the "novel opinion social, political, and otherwise" that supported the French Revolution?
  7. Describe John Claggart.  What is his duty on the ship?
  8. What is Billy's response when he sees a sailor being whipped for not doing his duty properly?
  9. Who is the Dansker?  Why does he say that Claggart is "down" on Billy?  What proof does the Dansker have for his accusation?
  10. Who, according to the narrator, are the most "dangerous" madmen?
  11. What, according to the narrator, are the qualities of "Envy"?
  12. In Chapter 14 why does a "stranger" contact Billy?
  13. What is the Dansker's interpretation of events in Chapter 14?
  14. According to the narrator, how do sailors respond to orders?  What, according to the narrator, does "unobstructed free agency on equal terms" teach one?
  15. In Chapter 18 what is the position of the H.M.S. Bellipotent in relation to the rest of the fleet?  What does Claggart relate to Captain Vere?  What is Captain Vere's response?
  16. What is Billy's response to Claggart's accusation against him?  What is Captain Vere's response to that response?  What does Captain Vere mean when he says: "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang"?
  17. What is the surgeon's response to Captain Vere's response?  What is the response of the lieutenants and captain of the marines?
  18. Explain the narrator's thoughts about "sanity and insanity."
  19. What is Billy's response to Captain Vere's account of events during the drumhead court?
  20. To whom, according to Captain Vere, do sailors owe their allegiance?
  21. According to Captain Vere should we trust our heads or our hearts?  What does he mean by "the feminine in man"?
  22. What does Captain Vere say about private conscience?
  23. What is Captain Vere's view about Billy's intent?
  24. Why, according to Captain Vere, can't Billy's penalty be mitigated?
  25. Why is the comparison to events on the Somers apt?
  26. Why is "strict adherence to usage" observed in every "public" proceeding "growing out of the tragedy"?
  27. What is Billy's attitude toward death?
  28. What are Billy's final words?
  29. What is unusual about Billy's execution?
  30. What does Captain Vere mean by: "With mankind . . . forms, measured forms, are everything"?
  31. What does the narrator mean by "Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges"?
  32. How does Captain Vere die?
  33. How are the events on H.M.S. Bellipotent reported in "News from the Mediterranean"?

Discussion Questions

  1. Whether you agree with Captain Vere's judgment of Billy or not, consider how you would counter his argument.

  2. Is Captain Vere's judgment right or wrong?  Is there an alternative position to Captain Vere being either right or wrong?  In the middle of wartime does a military officer have the luxury of considering alternative positions?

  3. "For that law and the rigor of it, we are not responsible.  Our vowed responsibility is this: That however piteously that law may operate in any instances, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it."  Do you agree with Captain Vere or not?  Why or why not? 

    In the Nuremberg Trials that tried Nazi war criminals after World War II, those on trial argued that they were innocent because they were simply following the laws and orders in force in their country.  Many were, nonetheless, convicted.  Is Captain Vere's situation analogous or not?  Why or why not?  If not, how can we determine when we are responsible for the effects of the laws we administer and when we are not?

  4. Billy is described as "innocent before God."  What sort of innocence does Billy embody?  Is that sort of innocence an absolute good, or does it have weaknesses?  Would you like to have the innocence that Billy possesses?  Would you like your friends to have it?

  5. One function of the law is to provide us with guidelines for making clear and unambiguous judgments.  What does Billy Budd teach us about the possibilities for such judgments in a world in which we are continually confronted with "double meanings and insinuations." How should those writing and administering laws respond to a world in which "Truth" always has "ragged edges."

  6. Although not set in the United States, Billy Budd was written after the Civil War, and Melville paid close attention to the issues the war raised.  Indeed, Melville's work of fiction can help us understand the complications of these and similar issues.  Please, therefore, use Billy Budd to discuss the dilemmas faced in the United States today as it continues its "war" against terrorism. How is the United States today balancing the needs for social order with its promise to protect civil liberties?  Is it allowing the President more unchecked power than a constitutional democracy should, or does the President need that power to protect the security of the nation?  What light can the dramatic action of Billy Budd shed on possible answers to those questions?