Billy Budd is a novella by Melville, who is most famous for his novel Moby Dick that was written some forty years earlier. Foretopman Billy Budd, to give the book its full title, was written in 1891 but was not published until 1924. It is the story of ‘the handsome sailor’ Billy who, though a decent man, is treated badly by his master-at-arms called Claggart and strikes this nasty character down, killing him outright but unintentionally. The cause of this sorry circumstance is Billy’s stammer that prevents him from defending himself in words when he is wrongfully accused by Claggart.
The tale follows his trial under Captain Vere and his subsequent hanging. After his death we are told of his apparent Christ-like return in "glory as... the Lamb of God", and his fellow sailors begin to question whether the man has died at all. The opera of the story by Britten (1951) is extremely popular and one of the most important modern works in the classical repertoire. Melville’s purpose in writing the story originates in the part his older brother played in presiding over the court martial of a sailor involved in insubordination whose punishment was execution.