Melville tells the story by means of a shadowy first-person narrator. His identity is never revealed, his character never developed, nor is this necessary, for Melville may have intended himself to be thought of as the omniscient observer. If so, it is Melville, the complex artist working with imaginative material, and not Melville the man, who speaks alternately as witness and commentator on events.
The author shifts point of view by looking now into one character’s mind, then into another’s, by making general comments from time to time, by presenting scenes of dramatic action, and, when necessary, by shutting himself and the reader off from the scene, such as in the intensely dramatic meeting of Captain Vere with Billy to inform the latter of his condemnation.
Following the preface, which informs the reader that the year is 1797 (twenty-two years before Melville’s birth), the opening chapter records the speaker’s observation of an African, whose description loosely parallels Melville’s of Billy, the Handsome Sailor. The unnamed dark-skinned man suggests a black yin to Billy’s white yang and serves as an ominous foreshadowing of the dark deed which leads to the deaths of two major characters.
At the beginning of Chapter 4, the speaker excuses himself for digressing. Then, after peripheral commentary of historical significance concerning the life of Nelson, he returns to his “main road.” Three chapters before the end, he concludes his faithful retelling of Billy’s story, but is unsatisfied to leave the tale without a moral. He appends three chapters to further influence the reader’s opinion of the three principals, thereby raising Billy to the level of legend and, at the same time, calling into question the way in which society twists the truth about the simple martyr, just as seaweed twines around the jettisoned corpse.