What seem to be some of the purposes of Herman Melville's Benito Cereno?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The purposes of Herman Melville’s short novel Benito Cereno have been interpreted in a number of ways, including the following:

  • to expose the social, political, economic, and especially racial injustices of the era it depicts
  • to emphasize the theme that appearances are often deceptive
  • to emphasize the theme of problems in communication
  • to emphasize the profoundly destructive effects of evil
  • to promote a kind of ethical relativism by juxtaposing different perspectives on the same characters and events
  • to suggest that absolute judgments often contradict one another
  • to emphasize the ironies that often result from misperceptions
  • to suggest the ambiguous appearances of evil
  • to satirize American transcendentalism, especially its naivety
  • to condemn the shortcomings of religion
  • to suggest the ways in which the law can often fail to provide justice
  • to mock the shallowness of naïve liberal-minded persons
  • to question traditional definitions of the “savage” and the “civilized”
  • to illustrate the injustices of slavery and show their possible consequences
  • to present the ship as a complicated microcosm of society
  • to suggest the nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge
  • to reverse the roles of victimizer and victimized
  • to imply a philosophical treatment of the problem of evil
  • to suggest that beneath the orderly forms of civilization lies chaos
  • to make the reader wonder whether the work is endorsing or condemning the rebellion
  • to suggest that slavery is a system that damages both slave-holders and the enslaved
  • to suggest that all humans are capable of evil
  • to illustrate that evil is often successful because it is often deceptive
  • to show a black leader who is intelligent and courageous
  • to show the evils of slavery, no matter who is enslaved
  • to complicate simple contrasts between “good” and “evil”
  • to create, in Babo, a character reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Iago, as in the following description, which echoes the final scene of Shakepeare’s Othello:

Seeing all was over, he uttered no sound, and could not be forced to. His aspect seemed to say, since I cannot do deeds, I will not speak words.






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Benito Cereno

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