American Political Thought - Benito Cereno Analysis

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POL 411
March 29, 2012
Benito Cereno in the Context of Slavery
Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno is a story that helps to express Melville’s view on slavery. Contained within the text is an intricate story that sheds light on the ultimate underlying problems to the existence of slavery. The way that Melville builds the story in the novella through certain situations bring attention to the ideals of slavery, leadership, and American character. It is most often found that Melville is anti-slavery, however, he is not apt to necessarily conform to anyone side. Melville expresses the qualities of the slave and slavery itself throughout Benito Cereno.

The story of Benito Cereno is told in a way that the reader is unknown to the various actions taking place throughout the story, just as Captain Amasa Delano was unknowingly dealing with a ship overtaken by slaves. Herman Melville makes a connection to the underlying problems that faced slavery, which can be compared and contrasted to the ideologies of Lincoln and other prominent people during the time of the Civil War era. Lincoln makes clear through his rhetoric that he does not view blacks and whites as being equal. In Lincoln’s fourth debate with Stephen Douglas in Charleston, Illinois he expresses his view that whites and blacks are not of an equal status. Lincoln states in this debate, “I am not, nor have I ever been in favor of bringing about…the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Melville creates a similar notion in his novella with Captain Amasa Delano, a northerner, whom is not a slaveholder yet he carries inside of him some form of inherited racism. Melville details the character of Delano like that of, “…most men of good… Delano took to Negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.” From this expression a picture is painted as to the relationship Delano holds to the black man, as being purely a necessity in life through their ability to provide strength to work, much like the strength of a Newfoundland dog. This comparison of blacks to animals is made throughout that story, such as, when Delano compares Babo to a “Sheppard’s dog”. Melville creates Delano’s character as one that admires blacks, but still does not see them as being completely human. Melville may not completely hold to this notion himself, but rather he sees it important to create Delano’s character as one that has racism engrained in him.

Racism is a major theme that Melville makes clear of as being the underlying issue to the existence of slavery. Through the story Delano is duped into believing that Benito Cereno is the captain in control of the San Dominick. Towards the ending of the story it becomes clear that the slaves of the ship are actually in control of the whites, and are hoping to make their way to colonize somewhere in Africa. Melville sheds light onto the underlying problems to the existence of slavery, with that being racism. The irony Melville creates is how the once enslaved blacks are basically enslaving the whites. This creates the idea that all men can become subject to the evils of racism. Delano even makes reference to this in saying, “Ah, this slavery breeds ugly passions in man!” Delano makes this remark when Babo “accidentally” cuts Benito Cereno’s neck while shaving. In this situation Melville makes clear his position that slavery is inherently evil or brings about ‘ugly passions’. The reader in the moment is still just as unaware of the slave revolt as Delano is. After understanding that the revolt had taken place it can be seen how Babo uses this scenario to keep his power in line and continue the acting of the white men with the slaves.

Hermann Melville also incorporates a theme to that of leadership. The San Dominick’s mast read, “Follow Your Leader”, which symbolizes various happenings throughout the story. With the San Dominick secretly under the control of the...
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