(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

“Benito Cereno” Herman Melville

The following entry presents criticism of Melville's short story, “Benito Cereno” (1855). See also Billy Budd Criticism, Pierre, or, The Ambiguities Criticism, and Redburn: His First Voyage Criticism.

Melville freely adapted “Benito Cereno,” his highly-regarded and ironic tale of a slave mutiny at sea, from an episode in Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817). The work was originally serialized in Putnam's Monthly in 1855 and later revised and reprinted in Melville's The Piazza Tales the following year. Ostensibly a story of mystery on the high seas, “Benito Cereno” demonstrates Melville's subtle narrative manipulation of Delano's historical account of an 1805 slave uprising. In the story, Melville presents a naïve protagonist who stumbles upon the remnants of a violent rebellion, but fails to recognize the horrors that have occurred. Considered by critics to be one of Melville's finest stories for its symbolic richness and narrative complexity, “Benito Cereno” is additionally acknowledged for its skilled thematic depiction of human depravity and moral relativism.

Plot and Major Characters

“Benito Cereno” opens aboard the Bachelor's Delight, an American sealer and merchant ship anchored near a deserted island off the southern coast of Chile. Scanning the horizon, Amasa Delano, the vessel's captain, observes a strange ship apparently in need of aid. Delano boards his whaleboat, has some supplies loaded, and makes his way to the craft, a decaying Spanish merchant vessel called the San Dominick. Once onboard, Delano sees that the crew is in a dismal state and that the ship carries a number of black slaves, many of whom, much to Delano's surprise, are not shackled. He speaks with Don Benito Cereno, the ship's grave and sickly captain, who assures him that the slaves are docile. Sending his boat back for additional supplies and new sails, Delano remains on the San Dominick and attempts to discover from the tight-lipped Cereno what has caused the currently bleak condition of his craft and crew. After some time, Cereno—who is constantly attended by Babo, his short Negro slave—explains that the San Dominick met with severe weather off Cape Horn and has endured bouts of sickness and scurvy that killed most of the Spanish crew and passengers, including Don Alexandro Aranda, the slave owner. Noting that the weather has been calm of late, Delano begins to suspect that the Spaniard may be mentally as well as physically ill. That evening, Delano dines with Cereno and Babo, and finds that he is unable to convince the Spaniard to send Babo out of the room. After dinner, Babo shaves the extremely nervous and agitated Cereno, nicking his check slightly with his blade. Later, Delano discovers that Babo has received a small cut on his check as well, which he claims was given him by Cereno. Delano's whaleboat returns and, as the American prepares to depart, Cereno, having previously refused to join him aboard the Bachelor's Delight, desperately springs into the waiting craft. A shocked Delano looks up to see Babo wielding a knife. Once back at Delano's ship, Cereno explains to Delano that the slaves had mutinied shortly after the San Dominick left port. The Americans then pursue the stolen vessel, subdue the mutineers, and set sail for Lima, where a trial is held. Babo is hanged, and Don Cereno enters a nearby monastery. He dies some three months after giving his court deposition.

Major Themes

Critics perceive in “Benito Cereno” Melville's principal concern to be with the problem of human savagery, and its specific manifestation in the institution of slavery. Scholars have forwarded a number of theories regarding this element of the tale, with most acknowledging that Melville's narrative, while complex and ambiguous, presents a critique of slavery and the systems of tyrannical oppression that lead men to commit horrible acts of depravity. A related strain in the story involves Melville's denigration of colonial expansionism and warns of the lurking dangers associated with the widespread American belief in Manifest Destiny during the mid nineteenth-century. Focusing on the figure of Amasa Delano, a number of commentators see in “Benito Cereno” Melville's complex use of narrative structure and his portrayal of the story's naïve and highly credulous protagonist, who is unable to comprehend the evils that Babo and his fellow slaves have performed upon their former captors. Commentators also see in the work a subtle critique of historical narrative as a medium of truth, given Delano's inability and unwillingness to perceive that a slave revolt has occurred aboard the San Dominick and that many of its original crew members have been slain. Thus, Melville's manipulation of Amasa Delano's historical Narrative as a text that purports itself as a factual account calls into question the notion of historical and indeed moral truth, as well as the ordinary separation between historical fact and fiction.

Critical Reception

Like most of Melville's writing, “Benito Cereno” was largely unappreciated during his lifetime and it was not until a thorough reassessment of his oeuvre was made in the early twentieth century that critics and readers began to take notice of the merits of this work. In the ensuing years, critics have praised Melville's manipulation of narrative form to create a compelling mystery that delves into the ambiguities of good and evil. Others have remarked upon the technical virtuosity of the tale, as well as Melville's skillful use of irony and the symbolic imagery of nature. Modern critics have continued to debate the matter of Melville's opinions on slavery as depicted in the story, though most concede that the author's intentions are far from racist. “Benito Cereno” is generally considered one of the most brilliantly realized pieces of short narrative fiction in nineteenth-century American literature.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. During a Four Months' Residence in a Valley of the Marquesas (novel) 1846

Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (novel) 1847

Mardi: And a Voyage Thither (novel) 1849

Redburn: His First Voyage (novel) 1849

White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (novel) 1850

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (novel) 1851; also published as The Whale (novel) 1851

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (novel) 1852

Israel Potter: His Fifty Years in Exile (novel) 1855

The Piazza Tales (short stories) 1856

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (novel) 1857

Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (poetry) 1866

Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (poetry) 1876

John Marr and Other Sailors (poetry) 1888

Timoleon (poetry) 1891

Billy Budd and Other Prose Pieces (novel and short stories) 1924

Allan Moore Emery (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Benito Cereno’ and Manifest Destiny,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 39, No. 1, June, 1984, pp. 48-68.

[In the following essay, Emery examines Melville's critique of American expansionism in “Benito Cereno.”]

Like most authors of the first rank, Herman Melville has commonly been considered a devotee of the timeless, one who, especially in Moby-Dick (1851), sought ultimate answers to life's eternal questions. Only during the past two decades has Melville's “topicality” come to be recognized, as critics have underlined with increasing frequency his timely interest in racial prejudice and technological progress, in English slums and...

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Jon Hauss (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Masquerades of Language in Melville's Benito Cereno,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 5-21.

[In the following essay, Hauss probes the link between language and political oppression in “Benito Cereno.”]

… the principle relic of faded grandeur was the ample oval of the shield-like stern-piece, intricately carved with the arms of Castille and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or symbolical devices; uppermost and central of which was a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked.1

This image,...

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Gloria Horsley-Meacham (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Bull of the Nile: Symbol, History, and Racial Myth in ‘Benito Cereno,’” in The New England Quarterly, Vol. LXIV, No. 2, June, 1991, pp. 225-42.

[In the following essay, Horsley-Meacham argues that while “Benito Cereno” ostensibly upholds racial myths, it contains a subversively “egalitarian and humane” element.]

Herman Melville seems an astute observer of African sensibilities when, in Moby Dick, his sharp-witted Daggoo inveighs against conventional associations with his color, declaring: “Who's afraid of black's afraid of me!”1 Yet, in a later work, “Benito Cereno,” a setting perfectly designed to explore Black ethos,...

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John Haegert (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Voicing Slavery Through Silence: Narrative Mutiny in Melville's Benito Cereno,” in Mosaic, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 21-38.

[In the following essay, Haegert studies the complex narrative structure of “Benito Cereno” and its relation to the work as anti-imperialist fiction.]

If anything can be said to dominate our cultural and historical preoccupations of recent years, it is the need for greater reticence and restraint in portraying the “alien” life of others. This pervasive concern with reticence—with the need to listen to rather than to speak for the cultural experience of other peoples—has become a staple feature of such...

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Terry J. Martin (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Idea of Nature in Benito Cereno,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 161-68.

[In the following essay, Martin discusses the allegorical qualities of nature depicted in “Benito Cereno.”]

Although many critics have analyzed specific natural images in Melville's “Benito Cereno,” no one has yet focused exclusively on the role of nature in the novella, nor looked fully at its problematic relation to Delano. Such an examination can both reveal much about Melville's artistry and enhance our understanding of the protagonist's special kind of self-delusion. Midway through the novella, Delano performs an act that is at...

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Dennis Pahl (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Gaze of History in “Benito Cereno,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 171-83.

[In the following essay, Pahl explores the ways in which Melville's historical narrative in “Benito Cereno” represents “the illusion of moral truth.”]

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” p. 256

Historiography is as much a product of the passion of forgetting as it is the product of the passion of remembering.


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William Bartley (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Creature of His Own Tasteful Hands’: Herman Melville's Benito Cereno and the ‘Empire of Might,’” in Modern Philology, Vol. 93, No. 4, May, 1996, pp. 445-67.

[In the following essay, Bartley analyzes “Benito Cereno” as a portrayal of inverted tyranny.]

But how is it with the American slave? … He is said to be happy; happy men can speak. But ask the slave what is his condition—what his state of mind—what he thinks of enslavement? and you had as well addressed your inquiries to the silent dead. There comes no voice from the enslaved. We are left to gather his feelings by imagining what ours would...

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Henry Sussman (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “At the Crossroads of the Nineteenth Century: ‘Benito Cereno’ and the Sublime,” in America's Modernisms: Revaluing the Canon, edited by Kathryne V. Lindberg and Joseph G. Kronick, Louisiana State University Press, 1996, pp. 77-100.

[In the following essay, Sussman interprets the sublime and ironic qualities of “Benito Cereno.”]

Still swept up in the whirlwind that emanates in the nineteenth century, twentieth-century readers share the predicament of Benjamin's Angelus Novus,1 even on the threshold of a millennial hyperspace in which the spatial barriers once separating social and cultural anomalies have been obliterated. The wind blowing...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bloch, Bernard B. “Babo and Babeuf: Melville's ‘Benito Cereno.’” In Melville Society Extracts, No. 96 (March 1994): 9-12.

Employs textual evidence related to naming and word play in “Benito Cereno” in order to argue that Melville presents an anti-slavery sentiment in the story.

Eaton, Mark A. “‘Lost in Their Mazes’: Framing Facts and Fictions in Benito Cereno.” InJournal of Narrative Technique 24, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 212-36.

Argues that “Benito Cereno” disputes the authority of historical narratives, citing narrative framing techniques and the story's mediation between...

(The entire section is 918 words.)