At an English seaport, Lieutenant Ratcliffe of the H.M.S. Bellipotent is picking men for the ship's next expedition. A large, handsome sailor is immediately chosen and taken aboard the ship, Billy Budd. In speaking with Billy's old shipmaster, Ratcliffe finds out that Billy was enormously admired on board his last ship and that the shipmaster considers him something of a peacemaker.
As the Bellipotent pulls out, Billy hops up on the prow to say goodbye to his old crew. He is yelled at to get down, but he didn't mean any harm. It's just that he is extremely good-natured and simple and can't help but let his enthusiasm spill over the bounds of military propriety. Just by looking at him, the men suspect that Billy came from noble birth but the truth is that Billy doesn't know his origins. He was found in a basket as a child. The one flaw that Billy does have is that he has a severe stutter that comes out when he is nervous or tense.
Our story takes place in 1797 during the Napoleonic Wars, shortly after the notorious Nore Mutiny in the British fleet. After the massive mutinies, things are very tense in the English fleet and a number of captains think that their crews are like powder kegs ready to blow. It takes courageous men like the military hero Lord Nelson to impress men enough to inspire true devotion.
The captain of the Bellipotent is named Captain Edward Fairfax Vere or, as the men have nick-named him, Starry Vere. In general, he is widely admired. He is something of a closet intellectual and always brings a small library with him when he goes to sea. Occasionally the men worry that he's a bit snobbish, that he has his nose in the air, but it's usually not a problem.
Vere has picked up a new master-at-arms for the voyage, a man named John Claggart. No one knows where Claggart came from, but like Billy, he looks too noble and strong to be stuck aboard a ship. Claggart doesn't say anything about his origins, and so gossip flourishes. The gossip is hyped even more by the fact that the rumor is that the English fleet is so pressed for men that they've even been pulling men out of prisons and making sailors of them. This is a concern because 1797 is not too long after the French Revolution and so there's a revolutionary spirit in the lower classes.
Things are going pretty well for Billy Budd aboard the Bellipotent. The one problem, though, is that he keeps getting in trouble for stupid little things like not putting away his hammock properly. Billy decides to go ask the Dansker, a wise old Danish man, why he can't keep out of trouble. The Dansker tells him that it's because Claggart doesn't like him, but Billy can't believe that's true. He has no idea why Claggart wouldn't like him.
A few days later, Billy is below deck and the ship lurches, causing him to spill his soup just as Claggart is walking by. Claggart cracks a joke about it and Billy and all the men laugh. Billy thinks it's a sign that the Dansker doesn't know what he's talking about. The narrator notices, though, that as Claggart moves on he has a mean and distorted expression on his face. It's hard for the narrator to explain why Claggart doesn't like Billy Budd. He just doesn't. The narrator thinks that perhaps Claggart is just naturally depraved (given to bad or evil actions), that perhaps he's slightly mad and directs it straight at Billy.
One possibility is that Claggart is simply jealous of Billy's good looks and likability. Because jealousy is such a petty and embarrassing sin, he has to try to hide it by imagining greater animosity between them. For this reason, Claggart takes Billy spilling his soup as a sign of disrespect, and he begins to employ an underling, Squeak, to report to him on Billy's doings. Squeak is clever and knows Claggart doesn't like Billy, so he exaggerates every thing Billy says to make it seem like he dislikes Claggart. The master-at-arms doesn't doubt it for a second.
A bit later, Billy is snoozing aboard deck when an afterguard (one of the men from the lower decks) sneaks up to him in the night and asks him to assist with a mutiny against the Captain. Billy becomes furious and begins to stutter as he tells the afterguard to get away from him. The other men on the top deck rush up to see what's the matter, but Billy simply tells them that the afterguard was on the top deck when he wasn't supposed to be.
Billy's confused. He sees the afterguard in the light of day, and he's nothing but friendly. When Billy asks the old Dansker what's up, he tells Billy that it's somehow related to Claggart. Billy doesn't understand. The narrator thinks that Billy is just so good and innocent that he can't conceive of the conniving, indirect ways that the minds of bad men work.
A few days later, the Bellipotent is separated from the Mediterranean fleet. While on its solo mission, it sees an enemy ship and takes chase. The ship gets away and Captain Vere is frustrated, pacing up and down the deck. At this moment, Claggart approaches him and begins to allude to some problems among the crew. Vere is very suspicious of Claggart, but he can't understand why he would make anything up. He asks him to name names. Claggart names Billy Budd.
Vere is astonished. He admires Billy greatly and had even thought of promoting him so that they could work more closely together. When Claggart begins to list more evidence against Billy, Vere decides that they will continue the conversation in his cabin with Billy present. He debates whether or not Claggart is telling the truth but his intuitions are blocked.
Billy is not suspicious as he strolls to Vere's cabin. He thinks that perhaps the Captain will promote him. When he comes inside and hears Claggart's accusation, he is shocked. His stutter kicks in with full force and he cannot respond. Vere tries to soothe him, but Billy's hand shoots out and he punches Claggart in the face. Vere is distressed, and the two of them prop the body upright. Vere has Billy go in the back of the cabin and he calls the surgeon, who immediately can tell that Claggart is dead.
Vere can see what is coming. Unjust as the situation is, Billy is going to hang. He calls a drumhead court made up of an officer of marines, a sea lieutenant, and a sailing master. He wants to do everything as quickly as possible because he is worried that, if word gets out, he could have a mutiny on his hands.
Billy testifies before the court in Vere's cabin. He says that it is true that he killed Claggart but that it is not true that he was involved in a mutiny. Vere passionately tells Billy that he believes him. Billy fails to mention the incident with the afterguardsman, but it's only because he can't imagine accusing another member of the crew. The court wants to know why Claggart disliked Billy in the first place, but he has no idea. They suggest to Vere that if other men testified it might become clearer. Vere dismisses the idea, saying that it's something for psychologists and theologians to discuss. Right now, there is only the fact that Claggart is dead and Billy did it.
Vere sends Billy to the back room. The court is extremely compassionate toward Billy, as is Vere, but Vere tells them that, regardless of their private consciences, it is their duty to enforce the law. He reminds them that it is a time of mutiny, and that for this reason the law carries that much more weight. The court doesn't quite agree with him, but none of the men feel adequate to debate him because he is so much more eloquent than they are. In an attempt to soothe them, Vere suggests that Billy himself would take pity on them if he knew what conflict they were in. Billy is condemned to hang in the morning.
Vere himself goes to tell Billy the news. No one knows how their conversation went. The narrator speculates that Vere omitted no details, that Billy understood his dilemma, and that Vere perhaps broke down. The narrator thinks that Vere had come to look on Billy as something of a son. When Vere emerges, it is clear that the news was harder on him than on the condemned.
Vere announces his decision to the crew, and is extremely formal. There is a slight murmur, but he silences it. He does not mention the word mutiny. After that, everything proceeds according to military discipline. In the morning, Billy appears on the deck ready to be hanged with the entire crew gathered round. His last words are, "God Bless Captain Vere" (25.2). The entire crew, as if unconsciously, repeats the words. Billy is hanged. A light pierces the sky as his body goes up, and when everyone looks back he is hanging there unmoving except for the sway of the waves.
The next day, the purser is remarking to the surgeon that Billy must have had remarkable will power not to twitch during the hanging. The surgeon dismisses the idea and says that it's purely circumstance, and that will power has nothing to do with it.
After Billy is hanged, wrapped in canvas, and dropped to the sea fowls, a murmur rises up among the men. The boatswain calls them to deck, though, and they quickly go back to their duty, as sailors are all too accustomed to do.
A few days later, the Bellipotent falls into battle with a French ship called the Atheist. Captain Vere is hit with a musket ball. After the Bellipotent wins the battle, they dock at an English port near Gibraltar. Vere dies there, and just before he passes he is heard murmuring Billy's name over and over again.
In the sailor's newspaper, an article appears detailing what happened on board the Bellipotent. Whatever his intentions, the writer gets it all wrong. He portrays Billy as a mutineer and Claggart as an honorable master-at-arms just doing his duty. He says that Billy stabbed Claggart out of vindictiveness, and reports the details of Billy's hanging. Until the current narrative (the story Billy Budd, this article has been the only record of what happened to Billy Budd.
As for the sailors who knew Billy, they keep track of the spar (part of ship around the stout pole used for a mast) where he was hanged. For a sailor to get a piece of the spar is like getting a piece of the cross on which Jesus was killed. Billy's replacement on board the Bellipotent pays tribute to him with a poem. It is quite vulgar, written from the point of view of Billy just before his execution, and it ends: "I feel it stealing now. Sentry, are you there? Just ease these darbies at the wrist, And roll me over fair! I am sleep, and the oozy weeds about me twist" (30.2).