Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Penguin 1986 edition. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.
Overall Impression: This is a bleak but moving work, the inspiration for a good opera by Britten.
Summer 1797. Billy Budd is a young 21 y/o former foundling serving on a merchant ship Rights-of-Man returning to England, when he is impressed to serve on the H.M.S. Bellipotent "seventy four" warship. The English are at war with Napoleonic France. He is happy to be taken aboard, though Captain Graveling is grieved to lose him. On departing, he innocently says "And goodbye to you too, old Rights-of-Man", which raises concern because of the potentially mutinous idea it contains. Mutiny is on the minds of the ship's officers since the recent mutiny at the Nore in May. Budd is illiterate and a foundling, and has a stammer which affects him under stress. He is beautiful and "in the nude might have posed for a statue of a young Adam before the Fall." The captain is Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, called "Starry Vere" for his intellectual bookish and sometimes dreamy ways, a bachelor of 40 years or so. John Claggart is the master-at-arms, a sort of police chief who maintains order below decks, 35 y/o, of somewhat mysterious origins. Billy is horrified to see the back of a sailor who has been whipped. He finds himself getting in trouble with Claggart--the old sailor Dansker, who calls him Baby, warns him that "Jemmy Legs [Claggart] is down on you." Claggart takes an inexplicable dislike for Budd, perhaps because he himself is evil, has Natural Depravity, etc. He was moved by Budd's beauty and resolves to foment ill blood. A mysterious sailor appears to Budd one night and speaks veiled but mutinous ideas, offering him money. Billy is aghast at this. Dansker again interprets this as Claggart's doing and warns Budd. Claggart is melancholy, and has "a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban." (i.e., homosexual yearnings). A subterranean fire "was eating its way deeper and deeper in him". Claggart appears to Vere to warn him that there is a dangerous person aboard and hints of possible mutiny. A distant French enemy ship is spied but makes its escape. He accuses Billy Budd, now a foretopman. He refers to him a as mantrap. Vere warns Claggart against bearing false witness, as he cannot believe the innocent Billy could be doing this. Vere resolves to call Budd to confront his accuser.
When Claggart repeats his accusation to his face, he is overcome with a stammer and suddenly strikes Claggart, who falls down dead. The captain is forced to call a drumhead court promptly, since they are at war, and a brief trial takes place in which the captain is the sole witness. Budd professes his loyalty to the king, which Vere says he believes, but after Budd leaves, Vere says to the judges that Budd must die regardless according to rigid naval law (and the need to show strength and firmness of resolve to the crew), despite the "mystery of iniquity" that hangs over the circumstances and the man's obvious innocence. Budd is sentenced to hang from the mainyard the same morning, and Vere himself goes to tell him (we do not hear what is actually said between them). The Captain informs the crew of the death sentence and Claggart is buried at sea. Billy sleeps and spends the night with little fear. The chaplain kisses him on the cheek. When Billy has the noose about him, he says "God bless Captain Vere!" As dawn is breaking "...it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn." Soon he too is buried at sea. Vere later is commended for his necessary action. He dies soon afterwards by a musket ball shot from the enemy's main cabin--as he lingered near death, he said "Billy Budd, Billy Budd". A sailor later makes a ballad about Billy, "Billy in the Darbies".