During Billy's trial, Captain Vere says, "In natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered" (21.28). Vere's reminder to the drumhead court might be taken as a reminder to the reader as well. There is so much moralizing and speculation in Billy Budd that at times it's easy to lose sight of what happens in the book. A good exercise for the reader might be to write down the facts that he knows about each of the main characters. In a lot of cases, these facts will boil down to a character's actions.
For example, Billy Budd jumped up on the prow of a ship to wave goodbye to Radcliffe. Billy Budd spilled his soup and laughed about it. Billy Budd did not report the afterguard's request to take part in a mutiny. Billy Budd killed John Claggart.
After listing such facts, one can go back and see just how much of the narrator's philosophizing is actually supported by the character's actions. In many cases, you'll find that the answer is: very little.
What the characters do make up the atoms of characterization in Billy Budd. We'll go into the more complex forms of characterization below.
Two of the main characters in Billy Budd are mysteries: Billy Budd and John Claggart. The narrator openly admits to the reader that he does not understand either of them or their motivations. Ironically, though, instead of just describing what happens, the narrator proceeds to spend entire chapters trying to expound upon the little bit that he knows of the two men. At the opening, he admits that it is pure speculation. But as the direct characterization goes on and on, it's easy for even a keen reader to forget that these are simply the narrator's thoughts, and that they may or may not have anything to do with Billy Budd and John Claggart.
We'll just take one example, one that actually deals with Captain Vere, rather than either of the two main characters. The narrator is describing Vere's calm manner, and he says,
But in fact this unobtrusiveness of demeanor may have proceeded from a certain unaffected modesty of manhood sometimes accompanying a resolute nature, a modesty evinced at all times not calling for pronounced action, which shown in any rank of life suggests a virtue aristocratic in kind. (6.3)
What's the key word in this quote? Answer: may. As in, "this unobtrusiveness of demeanor may have proceeded." Yet, after that key word there is a description that then bursts into another clause and then another one after that. By the time the reader gets to the end of the sentence, it's easy to forget about the little word may and to just take the narrator's description at face value. At the same time, though, the narrator's elitist bias is incredibly apparent. He says that Vere's modesty, when shown "in any rank of life suggests a virtue aristocratic in kind." Why does he have to characterize the virtue as aristocratic? On whose authority is he making such a claim?
Just remember that the key question when you read passages like this is: who is doing the characterizing, and why are they characterizing Captain Vere (or whoever else) this way?
Early on in the book, the narrator is praising Billy Budd's looks, and he says, "The moral nature was seldom out of keeping with the physical make" (1.4). The view – that one's inner moral qualities give themselves away in one's outer physical qualities – is one that the narrator carries throughout the book as he describes the other characters. For starters, simply note that Billy Budd is supposed to be overwhelmingly good and pure, and from the very first paragraph he is called the "Handsome Sailor" (1.1). There is not one point in the book where the narrator notes a moral or a physical defect in Billy's character.
Now, let's pick out the most obvious contrast, which is the narrator's description of John Claggart. First, he notes that he has an over-large chin. Later, when Billy spills his soup, the narrator describes how he grimaces: "Aridly it drew down the thin corners of his shapely mouth" (10.1). It's not the most flattering description of a person's face that we've ever read. A few lines later, he notes how Claggart's ugly expression was "usurping the face from the heart" (10.2). That is another way of saying that Claggart's moral ugliness gets revealed in the distortion on his face.
Perhaps nowhere does the narrator push this view farther than when he describes Claggart's eyes after he accuses Billy. He says,
Meanwhile the accuser's eyes, removing not as yet from the blue dilated ones, underwent a phenomenal change, their wonted rich violet color blurring into a muddy purple. Those lights of human intelligence, losing human expression, were gelidly protruding like the alien eyes of certain uncatalogued creatures of the deep. (19.4)
In his description of Claggart, the narrator literally says that he is "losing human expression." He takes away Claggart's humanity and describes him as having "alien eyes" like "certain uncatalogued creatures of the deep."
There is something weird going on in this form of characterization. You'll notice how pervasive it is when you boil down the narrator's explanation of why Claggart hates Billy Budd: Because Billy is better looking than he is. Let us ask: What is the narrator's obsession with physical attractiveness?
Needless to say, we don't agree with the views that the narrator holds about physical appearances because they don't hold true in real life. One way to think of this type of characterization is that it's just direct characterization in disguise. The narrator's physical descriptions are infused with his own ideas about the characters, and he is often reading much more into their physical make-up than could possibly be there. Some critics have read homoerotic themes into such descriptions, but we'll just boil it down to a simpler and more provocative question: Do you think the narrator is a handsome man or an ugly man?