Originally serialized in Putnam’s Monthly in 1855, Benito Cereno first appeared, slightly revised, in book form as the first story in Herman Melville’s Piazza Tales in 1856. It was not reprinted until 1924, when interest in Melville’s writings was revived. Since then, it has often been praised as not only one of Melville’s best fictional works but also one of the finest short novels in American literature.
Benito Cereno is Melville’s version of a true story he read in Amasa Delano’s Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817). Melville freely adapts Delano’s account to his own fictional purposes. The court depositions, which make up a considerable part of the latter half of Benito Cereno, have been shown to be close to those in Delano’s account, though Melville omitted some of the court material. In contrast, the creation of atmosphere, the building of suspense, the development of the three main characters—Delano, Cereno, and Babo—and the extended use of symbolism are among Melville’s chief contributions to the original story. Also, the thematically important conversation between Delano and Cereno at the end of Benito Cereno was added by Melville.
The remarkable third paragraph of Benito Cereno illustrates Melville’s careful combining of atmospheric detail, color symbolism, and both dramatic and thematic foreshadowing. The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything grey. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mould. The sky seemed a grey surtout. Flights of troubled grey vapours among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.
The description, with its repeated use of the color grey and the word “seemed,” is important in setting the scene for a story the action of which will be, as seen through Delano’s eyes, ambiguous and deceptive until the light of truth suddenly blazes upon the American captain’s mind. Until that time, he will be seeing both action and character through a mist. The grey is symbolically significant also because Delano’s clouded vision will cause him to misjudge both the whites and the blacks aboard the San Dominick. In the light of the final revelations of the story, the grey has a moral symbolism, too, perhaps for Melville and surely for the modern reader, since Cereno and Delano are not morally all good, nor is Babo all bad. The Spaniard is a slaver, and the American appears to condone the trade though he is not a part of it; the slave is certainly justified in seeking an escape from captivity for himself and his fellow slaves, though one cannot justify some of the atrocities consciously committed by Babo and his followers. The closing sentence of this mist-shrouded paragraph, “Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come,” not only looks forward to the mystery that so long remains veiled but also anticipates the final words of the two captains, words that partly suggest the great difference in their characters. Delano says, “You are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?” Cereno replies, “The negro.”
In reading Benito Cereno, one is caught up in the same mystery that Delano cannot penetrate, and one longs for a final release of the suspense, a solution to the strange puzzle. Melville’s hold upon the reader until the flash of illumination in the climax is maintained by his use of Delano’s consciousness as the lens through which scene, character, and action are viewed. The revelation is so long delayed because of Delano’s being the kind of man he is. His heart is benevolent, but his mind is slow to perceive through the dragging hours from his boarding the San Dominick until he is finally shocked into recognition of the truth when Babo prepares to stab Cereno with...
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