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BILLY BUDD (An Inside Narrative)
Important Note on the Text to All Readers Billy Budd was in rough manuscript form at the time of Melville's death. Since it was not published during Melville's lifetime, all versions of the tale are "suggested" final versions put together by various editors. Currently there are a huge number of versions available. These notes attempt to address the more common versions and the more standardly agreed-upon components. Be cautioned that these notes will not match all versions and will make very few comments on discrepancies in available texts.
KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
The year is 1797, and the action of the novel takes place during one of Britain's many wars with France. The story primarily concerns two ships, The Rights of Man and the Indomitable, both of which carry hundreds of men in close quarters. Most of the action takes place on the Indomitable, which is a large, sailing warship. It is on its way to join the British naval Mediterranean fleet when it comes upon The Rights of Man, a merchant ship, and impresses Billy Budd into service. At the time of the novel's climax, the ship is in the vicinity of the Straits of Gibraltar.
Just prior to the action of the novel, there has been an alarming set of mutinous uprisings in the British Navy. These mutinies, coupled with the war with France, American resistance to the empire, the rise of democracy, and the crowded quarters, make the Indomitable a very tense ship. In addition, many of the sailors have been "pressed" into service (i.e. forced to serve, veritably kidnapped as Billy is from The Rights of Man).