Through the use of innumerable literary devices, Melville unified his narrative and gave meaning and order to it. Such devices include irony, symbol, foreshadowing, suspense, biblical and mythological allusion, extended metaphor, rhetorical question, poetic diction, and simile. So extensive is the use of mythic figures, stories, and analogues, that the novel is inevitably interpreted as allegory.
Melville’s prose contains the rhythm of poetry. The sentences are long, the chapters short, often producing an impression of completeness. The story develops simply, unhurriedly, yet the action rises to frequent dramatic cataclysms. By making the story short, Melville shows himself as a writer at his deepest and most poetic.
Most of the writing is exposition. The events take place sequentially, but from a retrospective point of view. The sentences, long and somber, are packed — almost too full — with information. The newspaper account about Claggart’s death seems realistic, but its distortion of fact reveals society’s lack of contact with the world of the seaman. The inclusion of a ballad — not only published in Portsmouth but written by a friend of Billy’s, a fellow foretopman — presents an alternate view. The poem is crude, but intimately connected with the fate of an ordinary sailor who is executed, then dumped overboard to spend eternity at the bottom of the ocean.
Digressions, used at strategic moments, often give pertinent background to illuminate a particular event. In his contemplation of Admiral Nelson’s career, Melville gives an insight into the character of Captain Vere, particularly his outstanding ability and inflexible nature. By his artistic inclusion of such facts, the author gives Vere’s character vividness and verisimilitude.
Overall, the novel depends on sustained irony in that it dwells on the discrepancy between the anticipated and the real. The irony involves paradox, a statement actually self-contradictory or false. For example, Billy, hanged as a felon, is immortalized as a saint, blessed at the moment of his death by the sailors’ ironic repetition of his words, “God bless Captain Vere!” In addition to irony of statement, Melville employs irony of situation — that is, a discrepancy between the expected, or fitting outcome, and the actual outcome. Claggart, a key example, attempts to defeat Billy, but in so doing, brings about his own death.
Crucial, too, to the structure and meaning is symbol. Melville, a thorough and serious Bible reader, dwells on biblical symbolism. Foremost among the symbols are those of Christ and the Crucifixion. Billy, a Christ-like figure, hesitates to defend himself before the judges. Like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Billy shares a moment with Captain Vere in the stateroom before his death.
Yet Billy is not perfect. His flaw, the stammer, suggests original sin. In spite of the defect, however, Billy’s character conveys the idea that his soul belongs to the heavenly and not the earthly world, as is apparent to the chaplain. His fate is similar to the one Jesus suffered. Under strict codes, the Mosaic Law and the Mutiny Act, the two were condemned to death. The courts that try them realize that the charges are only superficial. Billy, like Jesus, dies with a prayer upon his lips. After the hero’s death, all nature responds as the sky and sea alter their appearance. The birds cry out a “cracked requiem.” Later, the men elevate Billy to the status of a saint.