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Don Benito Cereno Essay

“Benito Cereno” Herman Melville

The following entry presents criticism of Melville's short story, “Benito Cereno” (1855). See also Billy Budd Criticism, Pierre, or, The Ambiguities Criticism, and Redburn: His First Voyage Criticism.

Melville freely adapted “Benito Cereno,” his highly-regarded and ironic tale of a slave mutiny at sea, from an episode in Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817). The work was originally serialized in Putnam's Monthly in 1855 and later revised and reprinted in Melville's The Piazza Tales the following year. Ostensibly a story of mystery on the high seas, “Benito Cereno” demonstrates Melville's subtle narrative manipulation of Delano's historical account of an 1805 slave uprising. In the story, Melville presents a naïve protagonist who stumbles upon the remnants of a violent rebellion, but fails to recognize the horrors that have occurred. Considered by critics to be one of Melville's finest stories for its symbolic richness and narrative complexity, “Benito Cereno” is additionally acknowledged for its skilled thematic depiction of human depravity and moral relativism.

Plot and Major Characters

“Benito Cereno” opens aboard the Bachelor's Delight, an American sealer and merchant ship anchored near a deserted island off the southern coast of Chile. Scanning the horizon, Amasa Delano, the vessel's captain, observes a strange ship apparently in need of aid. Delano boards his whaleboat, has some supplies loaded, and makes his way to the craft, a decaying Spanish merchant vessel called the San Dominick. Once onboard, Delano sees that the crew is in a dismal state and that the ship carries a number of black slaves, many of whom, much to Delano's surprise, are not shackled. He speaks with Don Benito Cereno, the ship's grave and sickly captain, who assures him that the slaves are docile. Sending his boat back for additional supplies and new sails, Delano remains on the San Dominick and attempts to discover from the tight-lipped Cereno what has caused the currently bleak condition of his craft and crew. After some time, Cereno—who is constantly attended by Babo, his short Negro slave—explains that the San Dominick met with severe weather off Cape Horn and has endured bouts of sickness and scurvy that killed most of the Spanish crew and passengers, including Don Alexandro Aranda, the slave owner. Noting that the weather has been calm of late, Delano begins to suspect that the Spaniard may be mentally as well as physically ill. That evening, Delano dines with Cereno and Babo, and finds that he is unable to convince the Spaniard to send Babo out of the room. After dinner, Babo shaves the extremely nervous and agitated Cereno, nicking his check slightly with his blade. Later, Delano discovers that Babo has received a small cut on his check as well, which he claims was given him by Cereno. Delano's whaleboat returns and, as the American prepares to depart, Cereno, having previously refused to join him aboard the Bachelor's Delight, desperately springs into the waiting craft. A shocked Delano looks up to see Babo wielding a knife. Once back at Delano's ship, Cereno explains to Delano that the slaves had mutinied shortly after the San Dominick left port. The Americans then pursue the stolen vessel, subdue the mutineers, and set sail for Lima, where a trial is held. Babo is hanged, and Don Cereno enters a nearby monastery. He dies some three months after giving his court deposition.

Major Themes

Critics perceive in “Benito Cereno” Melville's principal concern to be with the problem of human savagery, and its specific manifestation in the institution of slavery. Scholars have forwarded a number of theories regarding this element of the tale, with most acknowledging that Melville's narrative, while complex and ambiguous, presents a critique of slavery and the systems of tyrannical oppression that lead men to commit horrible acts of depravity. A related strain in the story involves Melville's denigration of colonial expansionism and warns of the lurking dangers associated with the widespread American belief in Manifest Destiny during the mid nineteenth-century. Focusing on the figure of Amasa Delano, a number of commentators see in “Benito Cereno” Melville's complex use of narrative structure and his portrayal of the story's naïve and highly credulous protagonist, who is unable to comprehend the evils that Babo and his fellow slaves have performed upon their former captors. Commentators also see in the work a subtle critique of historical narrative as a medium of truth, given Delano's inability and unwillingness to perceive that a slave revolt has occurred aboard the San Dominick and that many of its original crew members have been slain. Thus, Melville's manipulation of Amasa Delano's historical Narrative as a text that purports itself as a factual account calls into question the notion of historical and indeed moral truth, as well as the ordinary separation between historical fact and fiction.

Critical Reception

Like most of Melville's writing, “Benito Cereno” was largely unappreciated during his lifetime and it was not until a thorough reassessment of his oeuvre was made in the early twentieth century that critics and readers began to take notice of the merits of this work. In the ensuing years, critics have praised Melville's manipulation of narrative form to create a compelling mystery that delves into the ambiguities of good and evil. Others have remarked upon the technical virtuosity of the tale, as well as Melville's skillful use of irony and the symbolic imagery of nature. Modern critics have continued to debate the matter of Melville's opinions on slavery as depicted in the story, though most concede that the author's intentions are far from racist. “Benito Cereno” is generally considered one of the most brilliantly realized pieces of short narrative fiction in nineteenth-century American literature.

1.  How do images of death and decay in Benito Cereno function in the context of the opposition of the “Old World” and the “New World”?

Students should cite several such examples. The San Dominick itself is reminiscent, for instance, of “Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones” (p. 146)—an allusion to Ezekiel 37, in which the prophet sees skeletal remains, stripped of their flesh. (In the prophet’s vision, the bones are re-clothed in flesh and restored to life; readers will have to see whether a similar resurrection occurs in Benito Cereno.) Similarly, Cereno himself is “almost worn to a skeleton” (pp. 150-151). The death imagery could represent Melville’s view of the “Old World” embodied in this commandeered Spanish vessel. It is surely not accidental that Melville’s protagonist is an upbeat, optimistic (whether warranted or not) American who is “rescuing” (so he believes) a decrepit ship of slavery (literal and metaphorical) from Europe. Like the society from which she sails, the San Dominick is a relic, characterized by “faded grandeur” (p. 147). Beyond even being merely dead, we are told that the ship “seems unreal” (p. 148). The death imagery may thus be reinforcing the early American literary tradition of celebrating the United States as the “new world” of “new life.” Of course, the replacement of Christopher Columbus’ image as the ship’s figurehead with the bleached skeleton of Don Aranda calls that easy identification into question, as does Delano’s ultimate reinforcement of the death-dealing institution of slavery.

2.  How does Benito Cereno reinforce Western stereotypes about the “noble savage”? How might it challenge these same stereotypes?

Examples of the “noble savage” motif occur at several points. For instance, as Delano looks upon the mothers with their children, he is “well pleased” and “gratified” because they fit his preconceived notions of “uncivilized women,” “equally ready to die for their infants or fight for them” (p. 175). The “noble savage” image, of course, recurs throughout much of Western literature, functioning, often unconsciously, to help Western (read: white) readers feel superior to those over whom they exercise political and social power—as in this case, the slaves who were once captive aboard the San Dominick. The “noble savage” motif allows Western readers to admire their fellow human beings without acknowledging their shared humanity. Although ostensibly an admiration and idealization of non-Westerners, the “noble savage” trope truly dehumanizes them. On the other hand, the book may also challenge the myth of the noble savage by alerting readers to the dangers of patronizing and oppressing those they regard as inferior to themselves; and, put more positively, of impressing upon readers the lengths to which the enslaved will go to claim freedom that is rightfully theirs.

3.  How does the figure of Atufal speak to theme of freedom in Benito Cereno?

We learn from Cereno that the man in chains was “king in his own land” (p. 163). Note that Cereno tells Delano this “bitterly”—no doubt because Cereno now knows what it is like to be “dethroned” in one’s “own land.” Babo volunteers a further, more detailed description of Atufal’s once-royal estate; and also that Babo was a slave in his own land—“a black man’s slave was Babo, who now is the white’s” (p. 163). This is our first hint that Atufal has been imprisoned, not truly by Cereno, but by Babo, as revenge for past wrongs. Babo is, of course, no longer a slave, because he is the mastermind of the slaves’ revolt and mutiny. Atufal also becomes the occasion to reflect on the insidious nature of slavery: with Atufal, Melville has introduced a black character who once enslaved other blacks, perhaps thus moving the text beyond simple charges of “racism.” Is slavery perpetuated by blacks against blacks any less wrong than white-perpetuated slavery? And might not Melville be making a statement, not about slavery in particular, but about evil and injustice in general—whites’ unjust enslavement of blacks; Atufal’s unjust enslavement of Babo; Babo’s unjust revenge on Atufal? Delano’s comment about Atufal’s padlock and its key—“significant symbols, truly” (p. 163)—is true on more levels than Delano recognizes; for Melville may be indicting all people as being enslaved by evil, to one degree or another, personal and systemic. Of course, Atufal’s “imprisonment” is ultimately revealed as an element of Babo’s scheme to deceive Delano—a suggestion, perhaps, that freedom is illusory unless granted to all?

4.  Examine the moment in which Delano, during Cereno’s escape attempt, realizes the truth about what has happened aboard the San Dominick. What techniques does Melville use, and how do they reinforce his thematic concern(s)?

The moments leading up to Delano’s (long-delayed!) realization of the truth are masterfully executed by Melville. Notice, for example, the repetition of the phrase “as if”: three sailors swim after Cereno “as if intent upon his rescue”; Babo leaps “as if with desperate fidelity” to Cereno; the slaves on the San Dominick appear “as if inflamed at the sight of their jeopardized captain” (p. 203). Melville’s use of what could simply be a casual phrase actually serves to reinforce the novel’s theme of how appearances can be—and, in Delano’s case, certainly have been—deceiving. And the moment of Delano’s epiphany itself is one of the dramatic and emotional highlights of the tale: “He smote Babo’s hand down, but his own heart smote him harder” (p. 204). Leaving aside the potentially racist nature of Melville’s text for the moment, readers cannot fail to observe how Delano is experiencing a crisis in this moment, a blinding insight into reality that challenges his assumptions about himself and his world. (To recognize the literary artistry that Melville employs at this, the climax of his story, in no way resolves or excuses the problematic fact that the denouement seems merely to reinforce Delano’s metaphorical “blindness,” negating whatever positive benefits this insight might have had—in fact, effectively denying that the insight ever took place.)

5.  At the end of Benito Cereno, the narrator describes Babo’s fate and Cereno’s fate, but not Captain Delano’s. What significance, if any, lies in this omission?

Babo is executed; Cereno dies; but Delano—what of Delano? We do not know. And perhaps that is because, as suggested earlier in this commentary, Delano stands as representative of the still-young American republic, faced with its own inescapable issues surrounding the evil of slavery. The text appeared a handful of years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Perhaps the narrator cannot tell us how Delano is changed by his encounter with “the Negro”—not only the literally black people who rose up for freedom on the San Dominick but also the traditionally metaphorical “blackness” of sin that infects the human heart, making such an institution as slavery possible in the first place—or whether his much-vaunted piety and optimism are challenged to the point of breaking, because the narrator does not yet know. At the close of text, Delano and the New World he represents move into an uncertain future—a story about the true realization of freedom whose final chapter even well over a century later, has yet to be written.

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