On one level Melville’s tale is an historical adventure story telling of life aboard ship shortly after the mutiny at Spithead in 1797. Billy is taken from a homeward bound merchantman to serve on the ‘Seventy Four’ HMS Indomitable. He falls foul of Claggart, the ‘Master at Arms’, and the final confrontation results in death. Billy becomes an unwilling martyr - what passes for justice must be implemented because of the rebellious climate of the time. However, below the surface lie some of Melville’s thematic obsessions: the aristocratic savage placed against an inhumanity born of service in time of war, innocence overtaken by fate and the worthy encompassed by the inevitable. The natures of evil and conscience are explored and ‘Billy Budd’ is the author’s “last word upon the strange mystery of himself and human destiny”. Melville is regarded by many as the finest author America has produced.
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