Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Melville repeatedly uses irony to undercut the easy assumptions of Captain Delano. Observing Babo’s constant attendance on Cereno, whom the black will not leave even for a moment, Delano comments, “Don Benito, I envy you such a friend; slave I cannot call him.” Such envy is clearly out of place, but there is ironic truth in Delano’s refusing to call Babo a slave, for Babo in fact is the master. Delano likens the ship to a monastery and the blacks to monks, analogies hardly appropriate to the situation. The American regards the black women as the pattern of docility, “pure tenderness and love”; later the reader learns that during the mutiny they were more vicious and bloodthirsty than the men.

Melville also employs irony to indicate that blackness is not a function of skin color. Babo demonstrates that blacks and whites are identical within when he mockingly shows the skeleton of Don Alexandro Aranda. To each of the Spaniards he puts the same question: Does not the whiteness of the bones prove that they belonged to a white man? The answer is no. Beneath the surface all people are alike, which means that all people are capable of the horrors committed aboard the San Dominick.

Ironic repetitions emphasize this idea. Babo’s motto, “Follow your leader,” is a warning to the Spaniards that if they refuse to comply with his orders they will share the fate of Don Alexandro. When the Americans recapture the San...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Chile. South American country off whose coast the American whaling ship Bachelor’s Rest encounters the Spanish slave ship San Dominick, whose slaves have mutinied and taken control, in the harbor of a small island. By setting his story in the southernmost extreme of the known world, Herman Melville dramatizes the racial tensions inherent in the southern United States during the same period. In an attempt to gain the confidence of Captain Amasa Delano of the Bachelor’s Rest, the rebel slaves pretend still to be prisoners and slaves.

Babo, the ostensibly devoted slave of the San Dominick’s captain appears to behave as a quintessential “Uncle Tom,” doing everything he can to meet his master’s needs. The narrator’s description of the slaves is of “natural valets and hairdressers” whose docility arises from the contentment of their limited minds. This is the same view of black slaves depicted in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published a few years before Melville’s story. However, in Benito Cereno Melville powerfully depicts this view of slaves as a fantasy, with the reality the oppressive violence and savagery of Babo and his allies, who have killed most of the Spanish crew.

In Melville’s view, this is the pragmatic reality of the Southern Hemisphere’s centuries-long involvement with slavery, and the effect upon...

(The entire section is 501 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” “Benito Cereno,” “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and Other Tales. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Collects the best in late twentieth century views of Melville’s tale, with emphasis on postmodernist approaches to the interweaving of fiction and history and to the different types of documentation represented in the narrative.

Burkholder, Robert E., ed. Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. Contains indispensable essays on Benito Cereno in relation to nineteenth century expansionism, slavery, and other topics.

Gross, Seymour, ed. A “Benito Cereno” Handbook. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1965. Still one of the most comprehensive texts for understanding Melville’s short novel. Reprints Melville’s source, a chapter in the travel narrative of the eighteenth century ship captain Amasa Delano, as well as eleven critical articles offering historical points of view and discussions of narrative mode, style, symbolism, and theme.

Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. The section on Benito Cereno is indispensable, with sections on publication history, sources and influences, relationship to Melville’s other works, a summary of criticism, and a comprehensive bibliography of related works.

Runden, John P. Melville’s “Benito Cereno”: A Text for Guided Research. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1965. An overview of responses to the story from early reviews to mid-twentieth century interpretations. Includes discussion of Melville’s source in a biography of Charles V. Text of Benito Cereno is reprinted with original pagination.