“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.
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.
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.