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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
(Chapter divisions follow the Hayford and Sealts edition)
"In the time before steamship," a certain type of superior sailor, known as the "Handsome Sailor," is often seen in seaports. This naturally attractive and masculine sailor can be of any nation or color, but he must be representative of the moral and physical perfection of the human race. He must also possess strength, to wrestle the sails easily. The narrator tells of once observing an African Handsome Sailor in Liverpool. His mates were so proud of his company that they nearly worshipped him like a pagan statue.
Billy Budd, a foretopman in the British navy, is a representative "Handsome Sailor". At the age of twenty-one, he is a picture of masculinity and perfect physical form. His only weakness seems to be the slight stutter that he has when he is angry or upset. When the chapter opens, he is on a homebound merchant ship, The Rights of Man. A ship from the British navy stops the merchant ship. Since the navy is short of sailors, it impresses Billy into service. He is chosen by the keen-sighted Lieutenant Ratcliffe, who chooses no other men than Billy. He does, however, help himself to the captain's liquor and brags about taking Billy away. The Rights' captain is very sorry to lose Billy, for he considers him his best sailor, "the jewel of 'em." Billy is not only a good sailor, but a peacemaker--"like a Catholic priest." He is so well liked by his fellow sailors that they do anything Billy asks. He once gave a shipmate a "drubbing" for ill behavior and won the man's heart. Ratcliffe assures the captain that the King will be forever grateful to him for such a beautiful specimen as Billy. Captain Graveling all but sobs to see him go.
The first chapter introduces important Background Information. First, the setting is established. Since it is a time before steamships and the entire tale takes place on board a ship, the setting becomes a sailing vessel. The atmosphere that is established on the ship in the first chapter is vague enough that it almost seems unreal; but it is clear that the story takes place in a time when the rights of men are not protected. It becomes ironic, then, that the name of the merchant ship is the Rights of Man; it is even more ironic that Billy is forced to leave it and join a ship controlled by military rules.