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Plot Summary

With too many wars to fight and not enough men to fight them, the British navy filled their warships by impressing - unlawfully seizing - sailors from defenseless merchant vessels. One of these impressed sailors, Billy Budd, was the perfect specimen of the human form - handsome and athletic - except for one defect: when he got nervous he tended to stutter. Captain Vere commanded the warship, H.M.S. Bellipotent, for which Billy became a foretopman, an operator of the massive sails on the warship. Vere was an extremely efficient and fair captain for a man who seemed to prefer the solitude of his philosophical books. The chief of police on the Bellipotent, John Claggart, despised Billy Budd because Claggart was jealous of Billy's good looks and innocence. Claggart was an evil man with the intelligence and resources to ruin Billy's life.
While sailing through some rough waters, Billy Budd spills some soup on the clean floor of the dining hall just as Claggart is passing through. Infuriated by this but not wishing to reveal his secret hatred of Billy, Claggart makes a joke out of the soup-spilling. Billy, worried from prior experiences and the warning of an old wise man (the Dansker) that Claggart disliked him, is relieved by the way Claggart handles the situation. A few days after the soup-spilling incident, a man approaches Billy Budd while he is sleeping to recruit him for a mutiny gathering on board the ship. Billy quickly refuses and threatens to toss the man overboard if he doesn't leave. The only person Billy tells about this incident is the Dansker, who warns him again that Claggart dislikes Billy. Billy ignores the Dansker's warning and tries to forget about the mutiny altogether.
On a scouting mission, the Bellipotent spots an enemy frigate, a smaller and quicker vessel, and tries to capture it. Unable to catch up with the frigate, Captain Vere gives up the chase, but he is annoyed at the failed pursuit. Claggart uses Vere's pride against him and accuses Billy Budd of being responsible for allowing the frigate to escape. Vere isn't convinced, but he calls both Claggart and Billy to his private cabin to discuss the matter in private. When Billy hears Claggart accuse him of mutiny, at first he can't speak because he is so shocked. Feeling helpless in the situation, Billy lashes out with his arm and strikes Claggart so hard in the head that it kills him. Vere was ready to believe that Billy did no wrong before this, but he knows that there is nothing he can do to save Billy now. Vere calls an emergency meeting of several officers to hold a trial for Billy, and through Vere's witness testimony and argument, they are convinced that the only course of action is to hang Billy in the morning to prevent a real mutiny. In the morning, Billy Budd is hung with everyone on board watching the execution. The Bellipotent, on its return voyage to the rest of the fleet, encounters a French vessel. During the fight, Vere receives a fatal wound and dies a few days after.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3 and 4
Chapter 5 and 6
Chapter 7 and 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10 and 11
Chapter 12 and 13
Chapter 14 and 15
Chapter 16 and 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19 and 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22 and 23
Chapter 24 and 25
Chapter 26 and 27
Chapter 28, 29, and 30



 






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