Benito Cereno by Melville

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Analysis"Benito Cereno" is, like "Bartleby the Scrivener," one of Melville's most hotly debated short stories. But unlike "Bartleby," where interpretation of the story's essential meaning is the main area of interest, "Benito Cereno" owes much of its popularity among literary critics to its subject matter: slavery. "Benito" is Melville's only work of fiction that deals directly with slavery. Therefore, it is bothersome to Melville scholars that the story is so maddeningly 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. Like much of Melville's work, the popular interpretations of "Benito" have changed depending on the political and academic atmosphere of each critic. The historical incident that "Benito Cereno" is based on is very similar to the one that Steven Spielberg's film Amistad was based upon. The film's plot is entirely sympathetic to the slaves. Their masters are shown to be cruel monsters who deserved their deaths, and the slaves are portrayed as righteous freedom fighters who want nothing more than to return home. Imagine if Spielberg had tried to make a film where the black slaves are the bad guys and the slavers, heroically defending themselves with pistols and rifles against the swords and hatchets of the slaves, are the good guys. In the 1990s, when Amistad was made, such a movie would have drawn massive protests—Spielberg would have been run out of the country. But "Benito Cereno," published in 1855 (during a time of great political turmoil over the issue of slavery, six years before the Civil War), provides that very scenario: the slaves, who are portrayed as both brutal and cunning, revolt against their masters and are thwarted by the efforts of well-armed white men. However, few critics believe that "Benito Cereno" is a pro-slavery story. Few men in America had had more contact with indigenous foreigners, living in their native homes of Africa or the Polynesian Islands, than Melville. Melville's brutally cunning slaves may have been somewhat inspired by his experiences living amongst cannibals, but Melville was also a product of New England, of Massachusetts and of the Transcendentalist movement—he was in the center of abolitionist activity, and he was never known to trouble his literary friends by expressing pro-slavery attitudes. It seems highly unlikely that in "Benito Cereno" Melville was deliberately trying to portray blacks as being rightly condemned to slavery; rather, it is an intriguing exploration of the relationship between blacks and whites. The story is surprisingly modern in its contemplation of racism, more than a hundred years before the civil rights movement. The protagonist of "Benito Cereno" is not really Captain Delano—his character does not really change in the course of the story, other than his awakening to the true relationship of Cereno and the slaves. Rather, the protagonist is Cereno himself, who falls under "the shadow of the Negro" in the course of the tale, eventually leading to his death. But upon a first reading, until the very end, it seems almost certain that the story is going to be Delano's, and Cereno will be revealed to be some sort of villain. "Benito" is a story that almost demands to be read twice, after the "surprise ending" has been revealed. By re-reading the story, the reader can properly understand Cereno's behavior in any given situation. The reader understands why Cereno's eyes go glassy for a moment when Delano asks him what has happened to his ship; Cereno is trying to remember the story Babo told him. When Babo shows Cereno the bloody razor, the reader understands his terror—Babo is threatening him. Of course, none of this is revealed until the very end of Delano's involvement with Cereno. The process of reaching this understanding is slow, and sometimes painfully slow, for the reader. To...
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