Places: Billy Budd, Foretopman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1924

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Symbolic realism

Time of work: 1797

Places DiscussedHMS Bellipotent

HMS Billy Budd, ForetopmanBellipotent. Seventy-four-gun warship onto which seaman Billy Budd is impressed to serve in the British Navy. In earlier versions of the story, this ship is called the Indomitable. Both names suggest power as a means of preserving order. The ship, one of many in Britain’s Mediterranean fleet, represents the authority of the state and also serves as the guardian of the state’s citizens’ welfare. At the same time it is a microcosm of the society it is designed to protect. It consists of a variety of social types and a range of social classes all governed by the ultimate authority, Captain Vere. Class stratification and character type are reflected in the various deck levels and compartments of the ship, where the men live and work. Billy, for example, works on the foretop while Claggart works on the lower gun decks. A particularly important location on the ship is Vere’s cabin, the scene of Claggart’s death and Billy’s trial. It represents Vere’s irreproachable authority and is the place where he makes his decision about Billy’s fate and society’s welfare. While the mission of the Bellipotent is to protect the British from the French, British society is also threatened by anarchy, a threat stemming from rights-of-man theories and preceded by actual mutinies in the British fleet, namely that of April, 1797, at Spithead in the English Channel, and May, 1797, at the Nore in the Thames Estuary. To protect society from anarchy, Vere, despite his personal feelings, decides Billy must die for committing this most serious of naval offenses and orchestrates his trial in the confines of his isolated cabin.

Rights of Man

Rights of Man. Merchant ship from which Billy is taken to serve on the Bellipotent, this vessel is named for Thomas Paine’s 1792 book on the natural rights of man. The contrasting names of the two ships reflect this political theme as Billy, for the good of the state and its citizens, is impressed into the Royal Navy, surrendering his natural right to freedom. He is forced to give up a life in which he can act to defend himself or his dignity without fear of government reprisal (the striking of Red Whiskers) and accept the complex social life aboard the great warship, with its reliance on displays of authority against perceived derelictions of duty (the whipping of the after-guardsman).

Upper gun deck

Upper gun deck. Location on the Bellipotent where Billy is kept after he is condemned to die. Herman Melville juxtaposes the natural innocence of Billy against the machinery of war located in this space. Furthermore, the space is lit by lamps fueled by oil provided by war contractors, begging the question, who are the true beneficiaries of war? For whom is Billy being sacrificed? It would seem to be the war contractors rather than the citizens of Britain. This room also stands in stark contrast to the foretop with its relative freedom and natural light.


Mainyard. Spar from which Billy is hanged. Normally, men are hanged in the foreyard but Vere uses Billy’s execution as a special lesson in the exercise of state power, after which any threat of mutiny is squashed and life aboard the ship returns to routine.

Sources for Further StudyBrowne, Ray B. Melville’s Drive to Humanism. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1971. The last chapter examines Billy Budd, Foretopman as a “provocative” and “disturbing” book that grew out of a ballad-like story. Sees the novel as an assertion of a democratic “gospel” and of a humanistic perspective.Bryant, John, ed. A Companion to Melville Studies. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Includes an important essay by Merton Sealts, Jr., “Innocence and Infamy: Billy Budd, Sailor,” and a general article by Rowland Sherrill called “Melville’s Religion.” Bibliography and index.Chase, Richard. Herman Melville: A Critical Study. New York: Hafner Press, 1971. The last chapter, devoted to Billy Budd, Foretopman, calls Melville’s final acceptance of life as tragic. Excellent analysis of the book’s balance between action and philosophisizing.Duban, James. Melville’s Major Fiction: Politics, Theology, and Imagination. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1983. The last chapter, “The Cross of Consciousness: Billy Budd,” treats among other subjects Melville’s relationship to his narrator. Index.Marvel, Laura, ed. Readings on “Billy Budd.” New York: Greenhaven Press, 2003. A collection of essays, often excerpted, from a variety of viewpoints. Bibliography and index.Milder, Robert, ed. Critical Essays on Melville’s “Billy Budd, Sailor.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. Another wide-ranging collection of essays. Index.Parker, Hershel. Reading Billy Budd. Evanstan, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1991. A Melville scholar calls attention to, and demonstrates the largely unrealized potentialities of, the definitive edition of the novelist’s celebrated last novel.Scorza, Thomas J. In the Time Before Steamships: “Billy Budd,” the Limits of Politics, and Modernity. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1979. Approaches the “political dimension” of the novel. Argues that modern people find tragedy rather than glory in the limits of politics. Argues that Melville’s analysis led him to see modern tragedy as the result of prideful rational philosophy.Stafford, William T., ed. Melville’s “Billy Budd” and the Critics. 2d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1968. Discussion of the text and early critical views. Treats acceptance and resistance themes, spiritual autobiography, myth, art, social commentary, and Christian and classical parallels. Recent criticism focuses on the limits of human perception.Vincent, Howard P., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Billy Budd: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Varied and excellent essays on innocence, irony, justice, tragedy, and acceptance in Billy Budd, Foretopman. Part 2 gives the viewpoints of major critics.Yanella, Donald, ed. New Essays on “Billy Budd.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Three of the four essays in this volume deal with questions of religion in Billy Budd, Foretopman. Bibliography and index.
Categories: Places