Billy Budd has a distinct plot, and, for the most part, a very simple one in view of the complexity of the moral concerns of the author. The action of the novel occurs primarily between Billy and Captain Vere, both of whom are symbolic characters. Vere, a father figure with godlike powers, sees the evil in Claggart killed by the "blow of an angel." Ironically, Vere does consider the motives for Billy's action but calls for an immediate trial, at which he urges the death penalty for the Handsome Sailor.
Billy, the central figure, holds the novel together. He is present in every scene and every thought, even after his death. The novel begins with a description of him aboard the Rights-of-Man. It reaches its dramatic climax in the confrontation between Billy and Claggart. The height of significance takes place at the execution, which precedes the description of Billy's burial, which begins in a somber mood before blossoming into a metaphysical transformation. Expressed as pathetic fallacy, Nature acknowledges Billy's sacrifice with color, light, and music. With the death of Billy, however, Melville does not seem satisfied that he has achieved the "symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction." Therefore, he appends an interpretation. In justification of this move, he explains that pure truth always has "its ragged edges."