On the surface, this is a straightforward horizontal novel in that it takes a rather straightforward path in time from the beginning to the end. It consists of thirty chapters balanced between action and comment, with maritime events of the years preceding 1797 and other historical, biblical, and mythological allusions interspersed throughout. The author builds his action to a climax at the point when Claggart informs Captain Vere of Billy's alleged complicity in a mutinous plot. However, the remainder of the novel serves to show the effects of Claggart's duplicity and the effects of Billy's death on those who knew him. This segment carries the author's conviction that even the small contribution of an illiterate seaman has meaning in the greater scheme of things, even a war between two great powers.
In the last chapter, Melville reveals Billy's immortality. His fellow sailors, moved by a face that never sneered or revealed vileness of heart, raise Billy to the level of legend and saint. One from his own watch is so influenced by his sad tale that he creates a crude ballad as a tribute.
Certainly Melville creates the tale as radical social commentary growing out of his own experiences, not only with seafarers, but with a full panorama of human types. Perhaps too Melville is emphasizing immortality attained in the literary world. If this supposition is true, he creates the final and supreme irony with this fable in that it rescued him from literary oblivion with its posthumous publication. Like his hero and his villain, Melville in death gained much greater stature than he ever achieved in life.