Study Guide

Billy Budd Chapter 2

By Herman Melville

Chapter 2

  • Billy gets on fine with the new guys, but the narrator points out that he doesn't get on quite so well as he did with sailors on board the Rights-of-Man.
  • Whereas he was the crème de la crème on the old ship, here there are a few other guys that can compete with him for general likeability and coolness.
  • But Billy is one of these guys who is just blissfully unaware of what is going on around him, and so he isn't bothered at all. There's not even one tiny teaspoon of vanity in him.
  • The thing about Billy that weirds everyone out a bit is that, just by looking at him, you can tell that he came from noble birth. So what's he doing on a merchant ship?
  • Well one time one of the officers asked him this very question, and Billy told him that he actually didn't know where he was born. He was just found in a basket on a doorstep in Bristol, England. HINT: Pay attention to the fact that Billy doesn't know his origins.
  • Once Billy shares his origins, everyone just assumes that he is from noble birth.
  • We now get a really awesome and dense character description of our man Billy Budd. See, the thing is that he's a pretty simple guy, fairly unsophisticated. He doesn't even know how to read.
  • Normally, we see this and think that Billy's a dummy, but here the narrator emphasizes a sort of quiet intelligence, a sort of wisdom that Billy has because he is so simple.
  • As for the other sailors, yeah, they have their vices, but their sins usually come from over-excitement, too much enthusiasm for life, and not from any meanness of spirit.
  • Billy might as well be like the biblical Adam before the Fall; he has an "untampered-with flavor like that of berries" to him (2.13). The man's just natural as can be, honest and poor and strong of heart.
  • Billy does have one flaw, though, which is that when he feels strongly about something he develops a stutter, "an organic hesitancy" (2.14).
  • The narrator suggests that because he's shared the fact that Billy has a flaw, "he is not presented as a conventional hero," and that the story will not be a romance. NOTE: Read this bit knowing Melville probably has his tongue in his cheek. Since when can't heroes stutter?