Benito Cereno Symbolism Essay

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...

(The entire section is 1386 words.)

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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