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The sequence of scenes in Billy Budd is not entirely smooth, largely due to the fact that it is an unfinished work and comes with certain editorial decisions made by conjecture. There are long, seemingly unnecessary, passages about Nelson, and short interruptions of time and venue. Melville claims that the story is no romance, yet it tends in many ways towards that nineteenth century convention; it is a sort of allegory, the characters don't develop much, and there are some supernatural-seeming coincidences. The conflict is rather simple: good versus evil and the maintenance of "order." What is remarkable about the text is the psychological turnings Melville investigates as he builds the history of the making of a sea-legend concerning a tragic Handsome Sailor.
The plot of the story is really broken roughly into thirds. The first third deals primarily with Billy Budd and his arrival on the Indomitable. The second third is devoted to Claggart and his subtle, but evil, torture of Billy. The last third of the book deals with Captain Vere and the difficulty of the situation surrounding Claggart and Billy Budd. In the ballad that appears at the end of the novel, the same divisions into three parts are again seen. The plot unfolds around the great differences of the three men. Billy is the personification of pure innocence and becomes a Christ figure. Claggart is the symbol of evil, a personification of the devil. Vere is the wise military man, dispensing order and judgment. As the commander of his ship, he becomes a God-like figure. Billy, however, is the character that holds the plot together. He is present, either in person or in thought, in almost every chapter and scene of the novel.
The plot of the story also adheres to the classical requirements of unity of time and place. Almost the entire story takes place on the sea, mostly on board the small confines of the Indomitable. Only a matter of months pass by from the time of Billy's arrival on the ship to his execution. The tale is further unified by Billy's almost constant presence in the story and by the repetition of ironies, Biblical allusions, and symbolism.