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Ben Summary

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"Ben" is one of Lester's most complicated and challenging stories. It is narrated in the first person by a white Chicago lawyer who, through his father's legal practice, has dealings with Southern slave owners. The narrator, as a young man, abhors slavery and envisions himself doing gallant deeds to free slaves, but he soon discovers his hypocrisy and weakness; he does nothing to help slaves during his travels through slave states. The story develops his deluded confusion about race relations and the vexed subject of slavery by having him fall in love with the daughter of a tobacco plantation owner. He discovers that in order to marry her he must take over the plantation and its two hundred fifty slaves. This tears at him, at least initially.

The narrator's father is furious when he learns that his son may forgo an advantageous marriage just because he does not want to own slaves. He says, "When you actually see niggers, you'll realize what a favor we're doing them by keeping them as slaves." The narrator wrestles with his conscience, eventually resolving to go through with the marriage in spite of his doubts: "Nonetheless, as low as they were on the human scale, I couldn't shake the feeling that they, too, were human." This is an uncompromising, emotionally wrenching short story that permits none of its characters to be untainted by the moral compromises slavery entails; no character is allowed to be a hero or a villain.