On one level, Melville's tale is an historical adventure story telling of life aboard ship shortly after the mutiny at Spithead in 1797. Billy is taken from a homeward bound merchantman to serve on the Seventy Four' HMS Indomitable. He falls foul of Claggart, the 'Master at Arms' and the final confrontation...
results in death. However, below the surface lie some of Melville's thematic obsessions - the aristocratic savage pitted against inhumanity born of service and the institutions of war, innocence overtaken by fate and the law, the worthy encompassed by the inevitable.
Billy becomes an unwilling martyr - what passes for justice must be implemented because of the rebellious climate of the time. The natures of evil and conscience are explored and Billy Budd is the author's 'last word upon the strange mystery of himself and human destiny.'
Melville is regarded by many as the finest author America has produced.