Benito Cereno: Essay Q&A

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1.  How do images of death and decay in Benito Cereno function in the context of the opposition of the “Old World” and the “New World”?

Students should cite several such examples. The San Dominick itself is reminiscent, for instance, of “Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones” (p. 146)—an allusion to Ezekiel 37, in which the prophet sees skeletal remains, stripped of their flesh. (In the prophet’s vision, the bones are re-clothed in flesh and restored to life; readers will have to see whether a similar resurrection occurs in Benito Cereno.) Similarly, Cereno himself is “almost worn to a skeleton” (pp. 150-151). The death imagery could represent Melville’s view of the “Old World” embodied in this commandeered Spanish vessel. It is surely not accidental that Melville’s protagonist is an upbeat, optimistic (whether warranted or not) American who is “rescuing” (so he believes) a decrepit ship of slavery (literal and metaphorical) from Europe. Like the society from which she sails, the San Dominick is a relic, characterized by “faded grandeur” (p. 147). Beyond even being merely dead, we are told that the ship “seems unreal” (p. 148). The death imagery may thus be reinforcing the early American literary tradition of celebrating the United States as the “new world” of “new life.” Of course, the replacement of Christopher Columbus’ image as the ship’s figurehead with the bleached skeleton of Don Aranda calls that easy identification into question, as does Delano’s ultimate reinforcement of the death-dealing institution of slavery.

2.  How does Benito Cereno reinforce Western stereotypes about the “noble savage”? How might it challenge these same stereotypes?

Examples of the “noble savage” motif occur at several points. For instance, as Delano looks upon the mothers with their children, he is “well pleased” and “gratified” because they fit his preconceived notions of “uncivilized women,” “equally ready to die for their infants or fight for them” (p. 175). The “noble savage” image, of course, recurs throughout much of Western literature, functioning, often unconsciously, to help Western (read: white) readers feel superior to those over whom they exercise political and social power—as in this case, the slaves who were once captive aboard the San Dominick. The “noble savage” motif allows Western readers to admire their fellow human beings without acknowledging their shared humanity. Although ostensibly an admiration and idealization of non-Westerners, the “noble savage” trope truly dehumanizes them. On the other hand, the book may also challenge the myth of the noble savage by alerting readers to the dangers of patronizing and oppressing those they regard as inferior to themselves; and, put more positively, of impressing upon readers the lengths to which the enslaved will go to claim freedom that is rightfully theirs.

3.  How does the figure of Atufal speak to theme of freedom in Benito Cereno?

We learn from Cereno that the man in chains was “king in his own land” (p. 163). Note that Cereno tells Delano this “bitterly”—no doubt because Cereno now knows what it is like to be “dethroned” in one’s “own land.” Babo volunteers a further, more detailed description of Atufal’s once-royal estate; and also that Babo was a slave in his own land—“a black man’s slave was Babo, who now is the white’s” (p. 163). This is our first hint that Atufal has been imprisoned, not truly by Cereno, but by Babo, as revenge for past wrongs. Babo is, of course, no longer a slave, because he is the mastermind of the slaves’ revolt and mutiny. Atufal also becomes the occasion to reflect on the insidious nature of slavery: with Atufal, Melville has introduced a black character who once enslaved other blacks, perhaps thus moving the text beyond simple charges of “racism.” Is slavery perpetuated by blacks against blacks any less wrong than white-perpetuated slavery? And might not Melville be making a statement, not about slavery in particular, but about evil and injustice in general—whites’ unjust enslavement of blacks; Atufal’s unjust enslavement of Babo; Babo’s unjust revenge on Atufal? Delano’s comment about Atufal’s padlock and its key—“significant symbols, truly” (p. 163)—is true on more levels than Delano recognizes; for Melville may be indicting all people as being enslaved by evil, to one degree or another, personal and systemic. Of course, Atufal’s “imprisonment” is ultimately revealed as an element of Babo’s scheme to deceive Delano—a suggestion, perhaps, that freedom is illusory unless granted to all?

4.  Examine the moment in which Delano, during Cereno’s escape attempt, realizes the truth about what has happened aboard the San Dominick. What techniques does Melville use, and how do they reinforce his thematic concern(s)?

The moments leading up to Delano’s (long-delayed!) realization of the truth are masterfully executed by Melville. Notice, for example, the repetition of the phrase “as if”: three sailors swim after Cereno “as if intent upon his rescue”; Babo leaps “as if with desperate fidelity” to Cereno; the slaves on the San Dominick appear “as if inflamed at the sight of their jeopardized captain” (p. 203). Melville’s use of what could simply be a casual phrase actually serves to reinforce the novel’s theme of how appearances can be—and, in Delano’s case, certainly have been—deceiving. And the moment of Delano’s epiphany itself is one of the dramatic and emotional highlights of the tale: “He smote Babo’s hand down, but his own heart smote him harder” (p. 204). Leaving aside the potentially racist nature of Melville’s text for the moment, readers cannot fail to observe how Delano is experiencing a crisis in this moment, a blinding insight into reality that challenges his assumptions about himself and his world. (To recognize the literary artistry that Melville employs at this, the climax of his story, in no way resolves or excuses the problematic fact that the denouement seems merely to reinforce Delano’s metaphorical “blindness,” negating whatever positive benefits this insight might have had—in fact, effectively denying that the insight ever took place.)

5.  At the end of Benito Cereno, the narrator describes Babo’s fate and Cereno’s fate, but not Captain Delano’s. What significance, if any, lies in this omission?

Babo is executed; Cereno dies; but Delano—what of Delano? We do not know. And perhaps that is because, as suggested earlier in this commentary, Delano stands as representative of the still-young American republic, faced with its own inescapable issues surrounding the evil of slavery. The text appeared a handful of years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Perhaps the narrator cannot tell us how Delano is changed by his encounter with “the Negro”—not only the literally black people who rose up for freedom on the San Dominick but also the traditionally metaphorical “blackness” of sin that infects the human heart, making such an institution as slavery possible in the first place—or whether his much-vaunted piety and optimism are challenged to the point of breaking, because the narrator does not yet know. At the close of text, Delano and the New World he represents move into an uncertain future—a story about the true realization of freedom whose final chapter even well over a century later, has yet to be written.

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