Benito Cereno Questions and Answers
by Herman Melville

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

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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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annalises | Student

Benito Cereno by Herman Melville is essentially Melville's commentary on the most controversial topic of his time, slavery and fear of revolution. The story is set back in 1799, the 1790's being the Era of Revolution following the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution. Benito Cereno was published in 1855, in a time when American slave owners were becoming increasingly fearful of slave revolt in their states and losing the "balance" of power in keeping African-Americans inferior. Herman Melville echoes the hysteria of mutiny that was overwhelming the country.

The protagonist, Amasa Delano, is good-natured and does not see the events of mutiny unfolding before his eyes until it is far too late. His character tends to place people in categories or archetypes, such as stereotyping African slaves as being jolly, unsophisticated, and happy laborers. He therefore tends to misjudge people and situations, leading to peril and misunderstanding. On a similar note, his categorization and subsequent blindness to the anger of slaves could represent a stereotypical American perspective on slavery; Wherein slave-owning Americans were blind to their mistreatment of slaves as humans and not merely property, foreshadowing slave revolt and an entire rebuilding of the United States after the Civil War.