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'Benito Cereno' by Herman Melville

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‘Benito Cereno’ , written in 1855 by Herman Melville, is a short story full of suspense from its mysterious opening to its shocking conclusion. It can be difficult to decide whether this is an honest, or alternatively, prejudicial way of looking at the horrors of  18th century slavery.

Task 1: Themes and Ideas in the Book

One of the main themes within the text is race. The story was published just a few years prior to the American Civil War, so even though the story is based on real events, Melville must have been aware of the racial implications of the story he was writing. The theme of racial discrimination is shown mostly through the character of Captain Amasa Delano and his unrealised ignorant views towards blacks. On page 2401[1] we can see the most explicit example of Delano’s naivety in the two paragraphs beginning ‘There is something in the negro which…’ to ‘…just as other men to Newfoundland dogs’. The beginning of the passage asserts stereotypical views on black people which could be interpreted as being racist. It says ‘There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person. Most negroes are natural valets and hairdressers’. The use of the word ‘avocation’ to describe the job of a slave is ironically used here. Again, a similar sort of irony is used in the line ‘There is, too, a smooth tact about them in this employment’. Using the words ‘avocation’ and ‘employment’ ignorantly understates the suffering of slaves. The passage could also be interpreted as being patronizing toward the black, claiming that they as a race are particularly fit to being servants and have a ‘good humor’ that makes them pleasant to be near.

Due to the third person narrative style of the story, we as a reader can find it difficult to find a line between the opinions of Melville himself or of his character, Delano. This specific paragraph is written in a way that suggests an air of authorial intrusion;  the thoughts and opinions are not directly linked to the thoughts of Delano. So therefore, it is certainly possible that these are the opinions of Melville himself. Within the next paragraph, beginning with ‘Captain Delano’s nature was not only benign…’, we see what it is that makes the character of Delano a racist. Melville opens he extract by portraying Delano as a respectable person; he describes Delano’s ‘nature’ as being ‘familiarly and humorously’ ‘benign’. Delano believes he is a nice man, but like most white men of the time, he unknowingly isn’t. This is shown in the following lines, when it is stated that ‘Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfound dogs’. The statement is quite clearly racist; Delano is comparing ‘negroes’ to ‘Newfoundland dogs’. While equating the two seems to be intended to show Delano’s good opinion of black people, it is, to a modern audience at least, a patronizing and offensive comment. It should be noted that biographically, Melville’s true feelings towards blacks was unclear. He may be using the comment in a completely ironic form and simply mocking people who narrow-mindedly had the same sort of opinions of blacks at the time, or the comment could indeed reflect his own opinions of blacks. Because of the ambiguity of this passage, Melville’s intention with such a metaphor cannot be clearly determined in meaning.

Another main theme within the text is that of deception. Although written in third person style, the story closely follows the thoughts and feeling of the character of Delano. Delano is oblivious to the fact that the ship has been taken over by the slaves, so by the text following his descriptions of the events, we too as a reader become just as oblivious. This, after re-reading the story and knowing the actual outcome, shows how Melville has created a story where all is not what it seems. For example, Benito Cereno must trick Delano otherwise he knows Babo and the other black slaves will kill them both. He explains to Delano how he owes his ‘preservation’ to Babo, a comment in which Delano praises Babo by saying ‘“Faithful fellow!”’ and ‘“slave I cannot call him”’(Page 2380). Delano is duped into believing what he is seeing is reality; as in turn are we, the reader. Every time Delano receives a clue from the crew, we as a reader are receiving a hint that there is something erroneous with the whole situation. For example, when a sailor tries to hand Delano a knot of rope which is in turn taken away by a slave, Delano is immediately suspicious. He finds this ‘very queer’, but he dismisses his suspicions by ‘ignoring the symptoms’. By dismissing this, the deception of Delano, and indeed the reader, continues.

Task 2: Techniques used by the Writer

Within the text are several techniques that Melville uses. One technique Melville uses is a reoccurring imagery of greyness within the story, especially in the paragraph beginning ‘The morning was one peculiar to that coast…’ to ‘…Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.’ Within the passage, the word ‘grey’ is used four times, as well as the word ‘lead’, which has grey connotations. This early mentioning of grey is effective because it sets a mood for the story, as it emphasises the breakdown between black and white. The greyness is also used metaphorically in the story in the form of fog. The ship, ‘San Dominick’, appears out of dusty fog. This could symbolise the mystery and the fact that nothing is clear in ‘Benito Cereno’. It is not until the end of the story the foggy greyness parts and Delano understands the true situation.

Another technique Melville uses is the build up of suspense. We as a reader are forced to feel that things are not quite as they seems within the story, so therefore our ignorance to the true danger of the situation, and indeed Delano’s, adds towards the build up of tension. We see this, for example, from pages 2401 to 2403. In the passage Babo is shaving Cereno. When he puts the razor up to Cereno’s throat, it reads ‘Again Don Benito faintly shuddered.’ Here, we as a reader can begin to see that there is a build up of tension. This is added to because there is clearly more to what is going on than what we know.

The scene also emphasises a clever role reversal of oppression. The black slave has total control over the white ‘master’, indeed he even uses Cereno’s own Spanish flag to wipe up the blood, hence disrespecting, in a way, his nationality, as whites disrespect blacks. By the end of the story, Cereno realises that blacks have been oppressed and see’s the moral implications of slavery, a concept which is still past a seemingly unaffected Delano. We can see this when Delano asks Cereno ‘what has cast such a shadow upon you?’ to which Cereno replies ‘The negro’. This dialogue has an explicit message on the question of slavery. Cereno's haunting claim that ‘the Negro’ is a ‘shadow’ upon him raises many questions as to what the perception of blacks is within the story. Cereno now sees that blacks cannot be underestimated, and that all his life he has been underestimating them. Babo, an extremely intelligent and cunning black, succeeded in controlling Cereno and fooling Delano. It is also unclear whether the ‘black shadow’ really represents the unjust institution of slavery itself.

At the end if the story, when it is explained that Cereno dies (‘Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader’ page 2427) the text leaves it seemingly unclear which ‘leader’ he is following; his friend Alexandro Aranda who we find out had been murdered by the slaves, or Babo, who exerted such control over him.

Although Melville doesn’t use many physical items to represent symbolism within his literature, ‘Benito Cereno’ has one small exception, that being the skeleton of Alexandro Aranda, the owner of the slaves. Under the skeleton is written the words, ‘follow your leader,’ and Babo shows it to the white sailors, commenting on ‘its whiteness’(page 2419), suggesting they are bones from a white man to add an extra factor of fear. The irony and symbolism, of course, is that both blacks and whites have bones of the same colour.

Task 4: How the Text Relates to American Literature and / or Culture

Although the black slaves within the story are turn out to be murderous, cunning, and as Delano refers to them, ‘mutineers’, the story deals with a big issue, that being the oppression of slaves. The time the story was written was important historically because it was in the midst of a slavery crisis only 6 years prior to the American Civil war. It is nearly impossible to imagine that Melville did not take the question of race into consideration. Melville also lived in Massachusetts amongst the 1830s Transcendentalists, which meant he was in the centre of the abolitionist movement. Melville recognized the inevitable conflict that was created by slavery; in 1859 he wrote the poem ‘The Portent’ after the execution of John Brown, the abolitionist who murdered several slave owners. ‘Melville knew that Brown's death signalled the end of verbal negotiation for the slavery crisis’².

While Delano appears to be ignorant and racist in ‘Benito Cereno,’ Melville also draws attention to the inevitability of conflict and death in the institution of slavery. Nowhere in the story does Delano congratulate himself for defeating the slaves. He never condemns the slaves for their insurrection, though he certainly pities Cereno and he knows that the boat must be retaken. But the reader suspects that Cereno would treat any mutineers, black or white, in this manner. Also, although the slaves are apparently murderous and ‘the enemy’, we a can juxtapose the amount of lives they take to the amount of lives that were taken in real life slavery, henceforth giving them a more justifiable, moral reason for fighting for their freedom.

Due to ‘Benito Cereno’ being Melville's only work of fiction that deals directly with slavery, it can be difficult to assess whether or not Melville is a sympathizer or indeed opposed to the freedom of black slaves.  Therefore, as I mentioned before, it is unfortunate to Melville critics that the story is so frustratingly enigmatic. As critic Warner Berthoff has pointed out, ‘figuring out Melville's attitude is nearly impossible; one could fairly argue that his attitude is forgiving, patronizing, or contemptuous of blacks and/or slavery’[2].

It could easily be argued that the story is pro-slavery; the black people appear to be the antagonists, who are cunning and evil, yet are thwarted by the good natured white men. In my opinion though, the story is not one of Melville trying to condone blacks to slavery, but raising the awareness of the desperation and hardships of the slaves at the time. It also portrays a clear picture of the stereotypical racist views of the time, and indeed the relationship between the black and white people. In this sense, the story is culturally ahead of it’s time; this was nearly a hundred years before the civil rights movement in America.

Task 5: Any External Materials You May Have Found Helpful

I found that reading some of Melville’s other works was not helpful in my understanding of the text. Although other works such as ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Bartleby’ have small themes of race, ‘Benito Cereno’ is his most explicit in its message, and due to its ambiguity on the opinions of slavery and its abolishment, it is difficult to decide whether this is pro or anti-slavery. Therefore I found that biographical texts on Melville were the most helpful. For example, in Newton Arvin’s biographical section of ‘The American Men of Letters Series: Herman Melville’ we can see some echoes of comparison of Marquesans (black cannibals who captured and imprisoned Melville) to the slaves on board the ‘San Dominick’ in ‘Benito Cereno’. Arvin explains how Melville uses words such as ‘savages’, a phrase echoed within ‘Cereno’. Also, Arvin writes ‘Melville's brutally cunning slaves may have been somewhat inspired by his experiences living amongst cannibals’.

Though most critics show highly regarded praise for ‘Cereno’, Arvin seems to dislike the text somewhat. He states that it is ‘hurried’, and left in a ‘drearily prosaic prose of a judicial deposition’. He believes the ‘build up of tension and atmosphere is drearily and tediously wasted on the build up of incident upon incident’. I found the statement rather harsh; Melville builds up the tension in a way that, as C.L.R James states, ‘would make modern day suspense writers such as Raymond Chandler biting their nails’.

I found most critics believing that this is a anti-slavery text, for example C.L.R James states in ‘Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The story of Herman Melville and the world we live in’ that the character of Babo is ‘the most heroic character in Melville’s fiction. He argues that he is a ‘man of unbending will, a natural leader, an organizer of large schemes but a master of detail, ruthless against his enemies but without personal weakness, as was proved by his behaviour after he was captured’. This somewhat sympathetic view is justified in my opinion, although there is still clear evidence within the text that portrays Babo as being a merely intelligent, unforgiving murderer. James then goes on to state one of my earlier points that ‘Melville plays cat and mouse with his reader until he is ready to tell the secret’. This is definitely evident within the text due to its mysterious ‘clues’ and hints. Indeed, James goes as far to say that the story could possibly be the ‘first and best mystery of its kind in modern literature’.

I also found it quite interesting, as pointed out in the footnote of  ‘The Heath Anthology Of American Literature’, that the story is based primarily on ‘Chapter 18 of Captain Amasa Delano’s Narrative of Voyages and travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817).’ Indeed, as Arvin states in his ‘The American Men of Letters Series: Herman Melville’, the characterisation of Delano ‘appears, in most respects, to be quite correct’. This shows that the ignorant, racist views in ‘Benito Cereno’ are but that of the character of Delano, not Melville himself.

[1]  Page references given from ‘The Norton Anthology Of American Literature Volume B’ Published by Norton 2003

[2]   From ‘The Example of Melville’ by Warner Berthoff, Published 1972 by W W Norton & Co


‘The American Men Of Letters Series: Herman Melville’ by Newton Arvin, Published by Greenwood Press 1972

‘The Example of Melville’ by Warner Berthoff, Published 1972 by W W Norton & Co

‘The Heath Anthology of American Literature’ Edited by Paul Lauter, Published 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Company

‘Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story Of Herman Melville And The World We Live In’ by C.L.R. James, Published 1953 by Allison & Busby

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