The Illusion of Superiority in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Benito Cereno
Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer has remarked: “Unlike our ancestors, white people never reveled in their names, they glorified in knowledge and power. But the deceiver is still the deceiver, the liar is still the liar with his knowledge and power.” Many colonial figures have pondered the unjust discrepancy between the definitions of the European identity and the native indigenous identity. Toer, among others, also addresses the issue of deception – white masters using deception both to maintain a constructed sense of superiority over the indigenous natives and to deceive themselves into disregarding the ignominy of this crime against humanity. In observing this topic, it is important to differentiate between authority – which was a very concrete sense of power the white people owned – and superiority in racial identity, which is a fictional value constructed by the white people in power themselves. The discrepancy in racial identity is discussed and portrayed in Frederick Douglass’ non-fiction work The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. In both works, the authors portray the self-discovery of the oppressed Africans and their realization of the deception of the established essentialist view of themselves. This awareness of reality is juxtaposed with the white man’s constant self-deception when faced with the humanity of the Africans, thus challenging the white readers of the time to deconstruct their impression of racial superiority. The ambiguity of race and identity is oftentimes utilized to construct an essentialist perception of a certain race – an action that oftentimes allowed races in a position of power to intentionally construct an inferiority complex to the other races in their midst. In their discourse “Racial Formations”, Michael Omi and Howard Winant state that race itself is an invented socio-historical concept that is often used as a political tool. Omi and Winant present how “Our compass for navigating race relations depends on preconceived notions of what each specific racial group looks like. Comments such as, “Funny, you don’t look black” betray an underlying image of what black should be. …. Race becomes … a way of comprehending, explaining and acting in the world.” (21-22) Omi and Winant is basically reviewing the concept of essentialism – that a certain race or people group would have stereotypical and essential properties. The reason race becomes such an effective weapon is because society’s perspective and expectations of a certain race tends to shape people’s essentialist perception of others and themselves – it has the amazingly powerful capability to change how people view and shape their identity. This is true both in European imperialism and the institution of slavery in the United States, where despite differences in the economic utilization of indigenous natives, the same issue of race superiority prevails. In both cases, this concept becomes a social chain; an African slave is suffocated by the concept that he is essentially an obedient working machine, thus prompting him to abide by those essentialist standards. The utilization of this forced identity as a political tool used by white power-wielding figures is an issue evident in literary works by colonized and enslaved writers. Throughout history the white man uses deception to establish a constructed sense of superiority over his province. Both Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville dramatize the issue and instigate action in the part of the readers to further realize and be challenged by this inconvenient truth.In both The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Benito Cereno, the white characters use race as a political tool and enforce an essentialist view of the African slaves. In both cases, this argument is portrayed through the narrator’s analysis of white masters and slaveholders. In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, this is most flagrantly evident in the masters’ mistreatment of the slaves as creatures as low as commodities or animals. The language of violence and the whip was often used, for instance to prevent a slave from stealing fruits from the garden (Douglass, 13). The white masters’ treatment of the slaves as animals dictated that they were simple-minded, sub-human and understood only the language of violence. This in turn conditioned a fearful obedience in the African slaves. Since slaves found with tar on them would be beaten for attempting to steal fruits from the garden, the slaves “became as fearful of tar as of the lash” (13) – a sentiment eerily similar to conditioned response in animals. This establishment of the African racial identity as inferior and simple minded did take its toll, as is evident in Frederick Douglasss’ alienation as the only African slave in his community to actually understand the tragedy of being “a slave for life” (34). This is juxtaposed with the experience of other slaves who had fallen victim to the white master’s social tool and had accepted their fate without questioning, as can be seen from the way Douglass stated that he envied those “fellow slaves for their stupidity.” (35) Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno echoed similar concepts, though the fictional characters’ psychological reaction is more ambiguous. In this novella, even white masters who treated Africans with vestiges of kindness are portrayed as people who still reject the notion that an African slave possesses the same potential as a human being. This is most clearly seen in the character of Delano, who despite his fondness of African slaves viewed them condescendingly as simpleminded. This can be seen from his light hearted yet patronizing remarks, most notably regarding Babo in the following passage:“There is something in the Negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person … as though God had set the whole Negro to some pleasant tune. When to all this is added the docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind, and that susceptibility of blind attachment … Captain Delano took to Negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.” (Melville, 208)On one hand, Delano treats and perceives the Africans in a manner much more humane than the slaveholders portrayed by Frederick Douglass. However, the pleasantries are accompanied by syntax and diction such as “the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind” and “blind”. These word choices parallel the subtlety of the rhetoric used by Melville, yet still manage to interrupt the positivity of the imagery presumably used to genially describe the Africans. Another disorienting notion is the simile used by Delano between taking “to Negroes” and “Newfoundland dogs.” The parallel drawn by Delano between Africans and animals are clearly degrading. Despite his kindness, he still contributes to a dehumanizing notion of racial identity and reinforces the established black identity as “limited” in mind, susceptible to “blind attachment”, gullible and completely innocuous. In techniques of varying dramatic effect, both Douglass and Melville address the issue of enforced racial identity and its powerful role in the oppression of that race. However, unlike Douglass, Melville does not portray the effect that this enforced racial identity has on the Africans nor does he show that the white man’s enforced deception ever succeeds. This is mostly due to the narrative technique used, which only allows the readers a glimpse into Delano’s stream of consciousness. Despite these differences in subtlety and structure while setting the context, both authors arrive at the same argument in which the African characters defy this stated essentialist racial identity. Although the readers are accustomed to a one-dimensional portrayal of the African race as working machines, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Benito Cereno thoroughly explore the emotional and intellectual capabilities that an African slave is capable of attaining. This stands in stark contrast with the white masters’ conjecture on the character of the African slave stated above. Once more, different techniques are employed to develop the complexity of their characters; Douglass uses rhetoric to portray his enlightenment and self-discovery, whereas Melville uses imagery and narrative techniques to describe the Africans. In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, his rebellion began when Mr. Auld chastised his wife for teaching Douglass how to read. Douglass finally realized the deception of the white man’s essentialist perspective, stating that: “These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. … I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man.” (Douglass, 29)However, with this hopeless realization came encouragement for Douglass to defy the doom of slavery. Mr. Auld stated that knowledge would make him “unmanageable … discontented and unhappy” (29). Mr. Auld’s anger subtly exhibited a fear of being threatened and troubled by Douglass’ potential for learning. This encouragement was later realized, as Douglass “finally succeeded in learning how to write” (38) after much perseverance. Beyond that, Douglass eventually also developed a mature political voice and actively contributed in abolitionist discussions. (100) He defied the essentialist expectations set by the white slaveholders that their potential was subhuman. In Benito Cereno, Melville makes a similar argument regarding the intuitive capabilities of the indigenous natives – a potential which is oftentimes disregarded by their white masters. Melville portrays Babo’s cunning and intelligence in political organization to execute a successful mutiny. Babo possesses the cunning and language skills to communicate and deceive Delano, who remains oblivious to the actual situation despite various hints by the sailors until the end. Another disconcerting imagery which impresses Babo’s strength and dominance upon the readers occurs in the conclusion: “Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, … met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites; and across the Plaza looked toward St. Bartholomew’s church, in whose vaults slept then, as now, the recovered bones of Aranda; … three months after being dismissed by the court, Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader.” (Melville, 249)The passage addresses an imagery of Babo’s continued defiance and courage in meeting “the gaze of the whites”, viewing them as equals instead of superior beings, perhaps due to Babo’s realization of his own empowerment and the white’s self-constructed superiority. Moreover, the passage again repeats “follow the leader,” a phrase carved on the mast of the ship that had been interpreted several ways in the audience’s mind. During the first observation of a satyr in a mask oppressing a man, it seems to be the manifestation of the Master’s iron fist. With the image of Babo as Benito’s faithful servant, perhaps Benito himself is the leader. Later, when the realization comes in and the mast falls revealing Aranda’s skeleton, the readers are compelled to assume this macabre imagery with Arranda as the position of “leader.” However, this passage again presents a double meaning where the readers can conclude that Benito’s “leader” is Aranda or Babo, thus placing the African slave in an authoritative position over a white man. This is reinforced by the way Benito was mentally scarred by his experience with Babo. When Delano asks him what is casting such a ghostly shadow upon him, he answers “the Negro.” Either way, through the reality of black empowerment and the illusion of white superiority, both authors disconcert the white readers and prompt them to question their perception of the indigenous natives they oppress. Both Douglass and Melville emphasize the self-deception and deliberate ignorance of the white power wielding characters when faced with the humanity of the Africans in order to challenge the readers. Although both authors address the concept of deception as part of the race struggle, each portrays them differently. In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass specifically addresses this in Mr. Covey’s personality. Apart from his ability to deceive the slaves and instill a permanent sense of fear (Douglass, 67), Mr. Covey most notably “deceived himself into the solemn belief, that he was a sincere worshipper of the most high God” (54). Through this passage, Douglass implies that Mr. Covey had to resort to self-deception to confirm that his treatment of the slaves was justified, perhaps due to his position of power or due to the lowliness of the black race. The theme of self-deception and the white man’s self-constructed superiority is also specifically addressed by Douglass when he discusses drunkenness: “The slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. … many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum. So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.” (65-66)Once more, the diction “deceived” is used significantly. Immersing the slaves in either work or drunkenness was a method used by the white slaveholders to prevent them from thinking about freedom. The white slaveholder enslaved them through labor and through physical pleasures. This echoes Toer’s quote in the beginning – the only way in which the white masters were superior was in their cunning in maintaining this constructed sense of superiority and deceiving the Africans into slavery. On the other hand, Melville uses a significantly different and subtle technique in highlighting the white man’s ignorance and self-deception. Melville uses the narrative technique and Delano’s stream of consciousness to show the readers his blindness and his inability to comprehend the situation. Despite the eeriness of the situation, Delano constantly brushes away any suspicions he may have due to his “singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable … to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man” (Melville, 163). Delano possesses specific preconceived notions regarding specific human identities. In observing Benito Cereno, it was his belief in the goodness of mankind that allows the American to continue to trust him. In observing Babo and the African slaves, it was his established perception of Africans that prevented him from being able to consider them capable of any kind of malice or important achievement – in this case, a mutiny. It was Delano’s singularly defiant commitment to his essentialist perspectives that caused him to deceive himself and blinded him from reality. As stated above, several discrepancies remain in the two portrayals. Douglass portrays a twofold concept of deception which is used by the white slaveholders against the African slaves and against themselves. He questions the inferiority of the African slaves to both sides. To the white slaveholders, he questions whether it is just to treat a fellow human being with such violence and disregard. To the other African slaves, he questions whether they are inferior or equal to their white counterparts. However, Melville singularly presents a theme of self-deception on the part of the white masters. No evidence shows that the African slaves were ever deceived into surrendering fully to the white authorities. He mainly addresses the white audience and questions whether Delano’s and their own over simplified perception of Africans is truly accurate. The works by Douglass and Melville juxtapose the ignorance of the white slaveholders and the humanity of the African slaves. The complexity of the latter’s character defamiliarizes the readers from their established essentialist view of African slaves and thus challenges the white readers to acknowledge those slaves’ humanity. Both authors pose two questions: first whether the white colonizers are of a higher humanity compared to the other races they oppress, second whether the black man’s potential implies a need for a shift in paradigm regarding slavery and racism. It is left to readers to answer these questions for themselves.Bibliography:Douglass, Frederick. Frederick Douglass: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglasss, an American Slave. New York, NY: Penquin, 1986.Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and Other Tales. New York, NY: Signet Classics, 2009.Ore, Tracy E., Michael Omi, and Howard Winant. The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Dubuque: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
Perception as Plot: A Structural Account of the Level of Action, Character, and the Narrative of Suspicion in Benito Cereno
In “The Grammar of Narrative,” a chapter in his longer work, The Poetics of Prose, Tzvetan Todorov describes the simplest, “minimal complete plot” as consisting “in the passage from one equilibrium to another. An ‘ideal’ narrative begins with a stable situation which is disturbed by some power or force. There results a state of disequilibrium; by the action of a force directed in the opposite direction, the equilibrium is re-established” (Todorov 111). From this central plot movement within the text, Todorov argues that two types of episodes in the narrative emerge, to which two correlate parts of speech (i.e., “grammar”) can be related. The episode that describes the initial state of equilibrium can be thought of as the “narrative adjective” (Todorov 111). The episode that captures the actual passage between equilibrium and disequilibrium, illustrates a fundamental action (or series of actions), and can thus be defined as the “narrative verb” (Todorov 111). If these two predicates, the adjective-description and verb-transition, comprise the “sentence” of a plot, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno is a run-on narrative with hanging clauses and successive fragments. The novella does not follow a smooth, linear plot pattern that can be charted along a steady trajectory. In fact, there seems to be a conflation in Benito Cereno of Todorov’s model of plot. If the “description” of the state of equilibrium is the narrative adjective, and the shifting from equilibrium to disequilibrium is the narrative verb (action and plot), “verb” and action exist in the realm of description, because all of the activity in the novella is filtered through Amasa Delano’s impressions. Therefore, “action” and plot in Benito Cereno are not merely the sum total of the novella’s clearly-defined “events.” Rather, “action” in Benito Cereno happens on the level of Delano’s perception, his continual efforts to render meaning from his surroundings. An analysis of Benito Cereno, with particular attention paid to moments of unreliable narration and mixed impressions, to the unstable formation of unstable character, and to scenes of high magnification and prolonged distension, will not only confirm that action occurs at the level of perception in the novella. Such an investigation will also demonstrate how Benito Cereno is a narrative that relies upon the element of suspicion (in perception) to construct the discourse, propel the story, and hold the attention of a reader beset with distrust and disbelief.Much of the activity (i.e., plot) of the first part of Benito Cereno, is focalized through the eyes of Amasa Delano, whom the reader soon learns may not be the most reliable source of information and interpretation. In addition to Delano’s descriptive gaze, there is also the voice of some other, more distant third-person narrator present in the text of Benito Cereno. This voice subtly, but palpably, imbues the story with an air of critical questioning and doubt, raising the possibility that Delano’s judgments are faulty. For example, at the very beginning of the novella, the narrator describes Delano as “a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms” (Melville 162). As a sea captain, it seems that a “singularly undistrustful good nature” would not be the most apt or favorable attitude for Delano to adopt (given the dangers he might face). As s a man charged with protecting the lives of his crewmen, it would seem that Delano should be more quick to mistrust or suspect a situation, and that waiting for “extraordinary and repeated incentives” to spark his “personal alarms,” would be a grossly ineffectual defense strategy. Therefore, this depiction of Delano suggests that perhaps what the American captain sees, or how he feels about what he sees, does not reflect or match the true nature of a particular situation. There are other important instances when the removed third-person’s comments undermine Delano’s position of authority and narrative trustworthiness. For example, upon first meeting Don Benito, Delano begins to make assessments about the Spaniard’s “character.” According to the narrator at an early moment in the text, “The Spaniard’s [Benito Cereno’s] individual unrest was, for the present, noted [by Delano] as a conspicuous feature in the ship’s general affliction” (170). However, this narrator adds, “Still, Captain Delano was not a little concerned at what he could not help taking for the time to be Don Benito’s unfriendly indifference towards himself” (170). This comment indicates that the narrator somehow knows more than Delano, that he has seen some other time beyond the present-time of the story (and thus beyond the confines of the discourse), in which the opposite of Delano’s judgment was revealed to be true. Therefore, the text is actively remarking or reflecting upon itself as a story whose details are not to be trusted, a story in which “reality” is a fluid concept sculpted by the limited, non-omniscient scope of Delano’s perceptive-lens. Nevertheless, the narrative proceeds with incidence upon incidence of extended description of precisely what and how Delano views his surroundings; surroundings, that is, which Delano himself often deems oddly curious. For example, a rather significant portion of the text is devoted to Delano’s observation of the style of dress exhibited by the passengers of the San Dominick. About Don Benito’s attire, Delano comments:The Spaniard wore a loose Chili jacket of dark velvet; white small clothes and stockings, with silver buckles at the knee and instep; ahigh-covered sombrero, of fine grass; a slender sword, silver mounted, hung from a knot in his sash – the last being an almost invariable adjunct, more for utility than ornament, of a South American’s gentleman’s dressto this hour. Excepting when his occasional nervous contortions brought about disarray, there was a certain precision in his attire curiously at variance with the unsightly disorder around; especially in the belittered Ghetto, forward of the mainmast, wholly occupied by the blacks. (176)Delano cannot make sense of the Spanish captain’s dress (a characteristic whose importance to Delano—as a quality of personal definition—is underscored by the length of the description). There is something “off” about these circumstances for Delano, who finds the “precision of [Don Benito’s] attire” to be “curiously at variance” with the ship’s setting. He does not elaborate upon the source or effects of the curious variance; he does not interpret or explicate…because he does not know. Delano merely notes the presence of this incongruity, and it is this act of observation with lack of follow-up explanation, that confers upon the text an unsettling sense of enigma and uncertainty (mirroring Delano’s own confusion). The preponderance of impressionistic-verbs such as “seemed” in the text also strengthens this enigma effect. For example, a few lines after the description of Don Benito’s dress, Delano thinks that “there seemed something so incongruous in the Spaniard’s apparel, as almost to suggest the image of an invalid courtier tottering about London streets in the time of the plague” (177). Here, again, the mystery and strangeness of the situation is (re)emphasized by the term “incongruity,” but unease and ambiguity are further suggested by the fact that Delano’s figure of comparison (and thus explanation) cannot fully contextualize the elusiveness of his observations. The “image of an invalid courtier tottering about London streets” almost captures the qualities of Don Benito’s dress that seem curious to Delano. But the “unknown” here is too great to be likened, and no familiar point of reference can provide a sufficient (analogous) explanation. Another example of this “deficiency of comparison” occurs when Delano sees a Spanish sailor place his hand into his shirt, “as if hiding something” (190). Delano cannot be certain on several counts here: it could very well be that the sailor was not acting in some covert, clandestine way (suggested by the term “as if”) or, even if he were trying to be secretive, Delano cannot identify the object which he appeared to be hiding. “What was that which so sparkled?” he asks himself, “Could it have been a jewel? But how come sailors with jewels?….” (190). Again, Delano just does not know, and both he and the reader cannot be sure if the initial vague impression is accurate and, if so, what reality lies behind the perception. Clearly, then, the element of suspicion is working in the text on both a manifest and formal level, evidenced by both the mysterious content and by the unreliability of Delano as a formal convention (the narrator, the focalizer of the story). Delano’s vacillation and mixed impressions affect (unstable) character construction as well, again demonstrating how perception is the driving narrative force and source of “plot” in Benito Cereno. Because the first section of the novella is filtered through the eyes and thoughts of Delano, the illustration of character, and thus the image or identity these characters assume for the reader, vary along the spectrum of Delano’s impressions. Delano, for example, is sometimes suspicious of Benito Cereno’s intent, developing “some ugly misgivings” (190) and a “ghostly dread” about the Spanish captain based on images and events, on “enigmas and portents” (191), he cannot understand (such as the sailor incident and apparel-confusion already discussed). Additionally, Delano’s doubts about Don Benito are spurred when the Spanish captain launches into a series of questions about the size of Delano’s crew, inciting “such return of involuntary suspicion, that the singular guilelessness of the American could not endure it” (189). “The narrated internal monologue of Delano continues, “But those questions of the Spaniard…did they not seem put with much the same object with which the burglar or assassin, by daytime, reconnoiters the walls of a house?” (192). Upon further reflection, however, Delano notes the openness with which Benito had delivered his inquisition, thinking,But, with ill purposes, to solicit such information openly of the chief person endangered, and so, in effect, setting him on his guard; how unlikely a procedure was that? Absurd, then, to suppose that those questions had been prompted by evil designs. (192)Delano here wonders whether a man with bad purpose would conduct his evil business in such a brazen way, so as to raise the suspicion of his target/victim. Deeming this idea “absurd,” he therefore concludes that Don Benito could not have possibly intended some evil scheme with his questions. Thus, Delano quickly changes his opinion about the Spaniard:The same conduct [of Benito Cereno], which, in this instance, had raised alarm, served to dispel it. In short, scarce any suspicion or uneasiness, however apparently reasonable at the time, which was not now, with equal apparent reason, dismissed. (192)This passage, by emphasizing Delano’s vacillation from one extreme of “reason” to another, pictures him as a somewhat ambivalent (or wish-washy) man, able to change his mind without much need for extended consideration or rumination. Highlighting the rapidity of Delano’s turn-over, this description further undermines the stability and reliability of the American captain’s judgments. Additionally, with Delano’s suspicions (temporarily) suspended, the character of Don Benito changes from bad to good, from villain to victim with similar speed, precisely because the image of the Spaniard derives from the source of Delano’s variable perception. Character is the product of Delano’s impressions and, therefore, proof that “plot” exists at the level of description/perception in Benito Cereno, as a description of the actant model of character will demonstrate. In the “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” section of Image Music Text, Roland Barthes discusses the legacy of Structuralism as “much concerned” with not defining “characters in terms of psychological essences,” viewing them instead as “participants” [rather than “beings”] in the narrative (Barthes 106). Structural theorists as early as Aristotle have conceived of character as subordinate to the action of the plot in a discourse, as agents or conductors of this action. This is the actant model of character (Barthes 88, attributed to Greimas). Because characters result from Delano’s impressions, they are the “agents” of his observations, and the main action in which they participate is this accretion of extended perception. The plot to which they are subordinated/by which they are defined, is the plot of perception, the individual acts serving as “functional units” (Barthes 90) to the overarching action of the novella (i.e., Delano’s struggle to perceive and render meaning, his own movement between syntagm and paradigm, between distributional and integrational ). The functional aspect of the novella’s events, those instances which might at first seem like the true “action” of the narrative, is evidenced by the frustrating stasis that pervades the narrative, highlighted specifically by scenes of heightened magnification and increased distension. In Benito Cereno, so much is happening around Delano, yet so little progress or forward movement seems to follow. The description of Don Benito’s attire already cited, is one example of how the “space” of the narrative is abundantly filled, but the trajectory of time barely advanced (a disproportionate relationship between time elapsed over the discourse, and time elapsed within the story). Another interesting scene of heightened magnification occurs when Delano encounters a Spanish sailor knotting several strands of rope:Captain Delano crossed over to him, and stood in silence surveying the knot; his mind, by a not uncongenial transition, passing from its own entanglements to those of the hemp. For intricacy, such a knot he had never seen in an American ship, nor indeed any other. The old man looked like an Egyptian priest, making Gordian knots for the temple of Ammon. The knot seemed a combination of double-bowline-knot, treble-crown-knot, back-handed-well-knot, knot¬¬-in-and-out-knot, and jamming-knot.At last, puzzled to comprehend the meaning of such a knot, Captain Delano addressed the knotter: –‘What are you knotting there, my man?’‘The knot,’ was the brief reply, without looking up.‘So it seems; but what is it for?’‘For someone else to undo,’ muttered back the old man, plying his fingers harder than ever, the knot being now nearly complete. (Melville 202) What is actually happening in this scene, on the level of individual events? If one looks to the particular verbs to answer this question, it would appear that this is a scene about Delano “crossing” over to the sailor, “standing” and “surveying” him, “seeing” the varied knots, “asking” the knotter some questions to which the sailor cryptically “replies/mutters.” The scene continues:While Captain Delano stood watching him, suddenly the old man threw the knot towards him, saying in broken English – the first heard in the ship – something to this effect: ‘Undo it, cut it, quick.’ It was said lowly, but with such condensation and rapidity, that the long, slow words in Spanish, which had preceded and followed, almost operated as covers to the brief English between. For a moment, knot in hand, and knot in the head, Captain Delano stood mute; while, without further heeding him, the old man was now intent upon other ropes.And with this brief line, the scene ends. Why, then, the high, intense focus on the knot-maker, if Delano is simply going to move onto to another part of the ship? The repetition of the word “knot,” and the fact that the sailor’s later words are spoken in English, “the first heard in the ship,” are cues signaling some kind of importance to this passage. However, the fact that Delano turns his attention elsewhere so quickly, renders the action of the scene inconsequential. The high magnification seems incongruous for the importance in confers upon a scene that does not merit the close treatment, in terms of the individual events depicted. If these actions were so crucial, the narrator-in-Delano would surely linger longer, or other characters would be affected. But this scene, on this level of action, seems episodic, unrelated, pointless and thus frustrating. The key, of course, is to realize that the primary action, to which the knot-making and talking and sudden throwing are functions, is the establishment of a thread of suspicion via the plot of Delano’s perception. More is happening in this episode that a strange sailor crafting interesting knots, offering vague answers and then performing a random outburst in English. These verb units constitute the adjective description, which itself illustrates or embodies the larger verbal action of Delano’s perceiving/meaning-making process (and this is how Todorov’s models of narrative adjective and narrative verb are fused into one grammatical device in Benito Cereno: description is action). The extended scenes of description and high magnification, therefore, emphasize how perception is more important, is more integral to the novella’s action, than the individual “verb predicates” themselves. Such scenes also highlight the profundity and influence of Delano’s fallible perception. One might argue that because these scenes are so long and the only version of the “events” that the reader is offered, they might work to convince the reader that, in fact, these scenes reflect the reality of the story. However, because of the layers of suspicion working in a passage such as the one above (the disconnect between degree of magnification and ostensible level of significance; the word repetition; the cryptic answers; Delano’s confusion), the reader is doubtful as to whether the actions being described and the “truth” of the story (the “what is really going on”) are part of the same “reality.” The extended scenes, then, give more space in which this suspicion can grow, and—if perception is action—for the action of the story to unfold in a way that challenges a reader’s expectation of time and security in a narrative. Additionally, there is very little closure after these episodes, evidenced by the way the knot-making scene ends so abruptly. This unsettling lack of resolution contributes to the overall lack of restoration of equilibrium; or, rather, of an understanding of where equilibrium ends and disequilibrium begins (and thus where “plot” and “story” actually commence). In this way, due to the rapidity and condensation of the episodes (not unlike the English words of the knot-maker, which also rouse suspicion), the reader has no choice but to temporarily believe Delano and move onto the next scene (the reader ultimately has to keep up with the narrative). However, the seed of suspicion has been sown and continues to develop in the compressed gaps, to fester in the tiny spaces and lack of explication, between the novella’s individual functions. Does Benito Cereno indeed present a plot of perception and suspicion, or are these merely threads working at the level of the discourse? Delano’s impressions tie together the seemingly unrelated events in the narrative – the words on the page result from his struggle to find meaning in his midst. However, the importance of perception and suspicion to both to the discourse and story of Benito Cereno, is evidenced in the break between the first part of the novella and the deposition portion. This separation in narrative provides another way of discussing Delano’s ongoing perception-process: that is, to view him as a character whose naiveté and biases enable the story to unfurl. If Benito Cereno is a novella about a slave rebellion aboard a Spanish ship and the American captain from whom the danger is hidden, then the rouse at the heart of the story depends upon Delano performing the role of a perceiving being. The events that take place– the mysterious incidents, the verbal exchanges between characters – these are all actions that are constructed to make Delano think certain things and believe certain lies. Granted, in the deposition, the reader learns that several of the San Dominick’s crew members, during Delano’s visit, attempted “to convey hints to him of the true state of affairs” (i.e., of the slave mutiny) (252). In this light, the knot-maker’s vague responses and then sudden outburst of “Undo it, cut it, quick” (202) are actions that take on a different meaning and greater importance. But why, then, is the knot-maker passage presented before/without the deposition explanation? Why the emphasis on Delano’s uncertainty, on his being “puzzled to comprehend” his surroundings? The discourse and story of Benito Cereno (what I am arguing is in fact the novella’s plot) are concerned less with the facts disclosed at the end. The plot, the transition between equilibrium and disequilibrium, relies on the shifts in Delano’s perception. It is a plot in constant flux. Where equilibrium begins and ends, and where disequilibrium enters to transgress/incite the narrative, is an unsteady dynamic, because the status or existence of the “beginning state” is rendered ambiguous by Delano’s unreliable narration. In this way, Benito Cereno is also a story (with a plot) of suspicion, because it is this constant questioning and doubt both on the part of the reader and the figure of Delano, that inform and propel the narrative. In this way, Delano is also a reader of the discourse in which he is implicated, actively trying to make sense of his “text” (i.e., his surroundings). But, these interpretations carry an undertone of confusion and doubt, reflecting assessments even Delano sometimes questions. Therefore, the reader “proper” is placed in this very interesting position of trusting Delano because of an inherited tradition of reliable narration, of using his impressions as stepping-stones to traverse the landscape of the discourse—but also, of somehow reconciling the suspicion his perceptions arouse. Benito Cereno, thus, is itself a story about reading and writing, about constructing meaning across the text when the syntagm can no longer be accepted without question. It is the story of the reader as active producer, rather than passive consumer, of the narrative. Works CitedAristotle. Poetics, trans. S.H. Butcher. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961, 61-66.Barthes, Roland. “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Health. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1978, 80-124.Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno” in Billy Budd and Other Stories. New York: Penguin Classics, 1986, 161–258.Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Grammar of Narrative” in The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978, 108–119.Works Consulted Barthes, Roland. “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Health. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1978.Macherey, Pierre. A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall. London and New York, Routledge, 2006.Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folk Tale, 2nd ed. by Vladimir Propp. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.
The Demise of the 19th Century American Liberal: Representations in ”Benito Cereno” and Our Nig
For the abolitionists and intellectual opponents of slavery during the 19th century, fruitless sympathy from the “enlightened” liberals of northern states was simply not enough. In the literary works “Benito Cereno” and Our Nig, authors Herman Meville and Harriet E. Wilson argue that sentimental sympathy towards racial injustices does not necessarily translate into social amelioration. In both accounts, Melville and Wilson employ characters with embedded stereotypes to demonstrate how such preconceptions can deter liberals from realizing the complexities of life. Naïve benevolence skewed reality, they claim, and thus was a detriment to the cause. Melville and Wilson both approach the slavery issue as fundamentally wrong—this is a given—however, they are slow to credit liberals solely for “having their heart in the right place.” Unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose sentimental novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a deliberate attempt to make readers “feel” the right way about slavery, Melville and Wilson argue that the sentimental liberal response to slavery was as flawed as the system itself. “Benito Cereno” and Our Nig are works that attack liberal condescension and pity in order to make a statement that such an approach to the issue of slavery—or any social cause for that matter—was inherently futile. In “Benito Cereno,” the liberal hero Captain Delano is moved by the plight of the San Dominick slave ship, and thus departs his own vessel to provide aid to the gravely malnourished crew. Though Melville repeatedly describes the man as good natured and just, his morally upright intentions never translate into appropriate actions. While aboard the San Dominick, Delano observes a number of occurrences that should lead him to believe that a slave revolt occurred on the ship. His condescending and naïve stereotypes about the Blacks on the ship block him from being critical, as he cannot fathom the slaves are the source of the problem. Describing the relationship between Benito Cereno and Babo, Delano says:Sometimes the negro gave his master his arm, or took his handkerchief out of his pocket for him; performing these and similar offices with that affectionate zeal which transmutes into something filial or fraternal acts in themselves but menial; and which has gained for the negro the repute of making the most pleasing body-servant in the world; one, too, whom a master need be on no stiffly superior terms with, but may treat with familiar trust; less a servant than a devoted companion. (169) Delano’s belief that slaves like Babo were content, if not happy, with their predicament severely skewed the reality of the situation. He would later find out that Babo was controlling the weakened Cereno—not to mention threatening his life. But Delano’s naiveté never allows him to adequately consider any of his suspicions. Throughout “Benito Cereno,” he talks himself out of such theories before looking far enough into the situation to realize its reality.[I]f I could only be certain that, in my uneasiness, my senses did not deceive me, then—Here, passing from one suspicious thing to another, his mind revolved the strange questions put to him concerning his ship. (190) The paradox of Delano and other enlightened liberals of time was that the very benevolence that he believed might better the lives of others was actually leading him astray from the realities of the world—and hurting the cause of those he tried to help. Wilson presented a similar situation through some of the characters in Our Nig. In the book, Miss Marsh, Mr. Bellmont, Jack and James are all introduced as liberal heroes in the same vein as Delano. Though these figures were sympathetic to Frado and the cruelties she suffered at the hands of Mary and Mrs. Bellmont, their kindness never does any tangible good for the mistreated servant girl. In the following passage, Mr. Bellmont demonstrates justice and kindness toward Frado, but quickly exits the scene and leaves her at the hands of Mrs. Bellmont and Mary.‘How do we know but she has told the truth? I shall not punish her,’ he replied, and left the house, as he usually did when a tempest threatened to envelop him. No sooner was he out of sight than Mrs. B. and Mary commenced beating her inhumanly; then propping her mouth open with a piece of wood, shut her up in a dark room, without any supper. (33-34) The defense of Frado, followed by the subsequent lack of any real-life solution to her problems, forms a recurring pattern throughout Our Nig. Wilson argues that the sympathies of northern liberals does nothing to improve the situation of Blacks like Frado, and thus they should reassess their approach to the injustices. Emotional support, she argues, cannot be a credible means of achieving tangible social change. Melville and Wilson both took issue with the liberal sentimentalist approach to social change—and today’s social critics might regard many Americans as people of “intent” rather than “action.” Social liberals might agree that poverty and AIDS are bad, and that world hunger is a grave issue, however few actually take steps beyond sympathizing with the efforts of others. Historically, social change has only come about when people put their intentions into action—a political trend with roots tracing back to the 19th century.
The Importance of Setting in Melville’s “Benito Cereno”
Setting is an essential component of any story, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Herman Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno”, a tale of bizarre mystery, curious suspense, and ultimately surprise. In composing his story, the author emphasizes setting in an effort to add breadth to the text, using foreshadowing and a series of symbols to develop the climax of the story. The historical setting serves the social context of the novella.Initially, the author gives the story an enigmatic tone: “everything was mute and calm; everything gray…the sky seemed gray surtout” (131). Not only does the portrayal of gray conditions impart a physical impression of a dull, foreboding day, but it is a comment on impending ambiguity. If black and white represent absolute truth, the gray intermediate between these two colors represents uncertainty and vagueness. This precursor to mystery becomes increasingly apparent when the author describes the shadows present that day as “Foreshadowing deeper shadows to come” (131). The uncertain setting and foreshadowing are further emphasized by the appearance of the San Dominick and the detailed, symbol-laden description of her appearance given by Captain Delano. This paragraph is used by the author to foreshadow the events that take place aboard the ship, through a series of symbols and allusions. The tops of the ship are described by Delano as “ruinous aviaries” (133) containing a “white noddy” (133). This image of a caged white bird brings to mind the white captain of the San Dominick, Don Benito Cereno, who is being held captive on his own ship by Babo and the rest of the slave cargo. The “lethargic somnambulistic character” (133) of the bird further reinforces this comparison to Benito, who is himself described as a “pale invalid” (151) and directly characterized as a “somnambulist” (140). Furthermore, the description of the bird as “being frequently caught at sea” (133) references the ease with which Cereno was taken prisoner by Babo. The comparison of the ship’s forecastle to an “ancient turret, long ago taken by assault, and then left to decay” (133) signifies the manner in which the ship was conquered by force and left to fall into “slovenly neglect” (131).Melville introduces the historical setting and context of the novel by continuing the American’s description of the Spanish vessel as a colonial relic, drawing attention to its decrepit appearance: “in it’s time, a very fine vessel” (133). Set in the year 1799, a period during which the colonial empires were in slow decline, Melville draws attention to the “Faded Grandeur…of the shield-like stern piece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon” (134). Castile and Leon, a Spanish region whose Castle and Lion standard appears on the flag of Spain, serve as Melville’s representation of imperial autocracy and rule. The formerly grand and presently faded condition of the arms are a comment on the eve of the Age of Empires. This premise is furthered by the author’s comparison of Cereno’s manner to “his imperial countryman’s, Charles V, just previous to the anchoritish retirement of that monarch from the throne” (137). Charles V, the 16th-century King of Castile and formerly powerful Hapsburg Emperor, who saw his power decline to the point of abdication, makes a poignant parallel to the events taking place in the European Empire. Don Benito and his ship represent the decline of the Spanish Empire. As a Spaniard, Don Benito’s erosion of power as captain of the San Dominick can be compared to the decline of Charles V. The portrayal of the infirm empire introduces Melville’s commentary on the slave trade, a lucrative business in the European Empire, one made possible by the European division and domination of Africa. As “Benito Cereno” was written in 1855 Massachusetts, the epicenter of the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement, Melville was certainly aware of this fiercely debated national issue. By portraying the San Dominick as a structure crumbling in tandem with the increasing autonomy experienced by the slaves, Melville draws an analogy between the abolishment of slavery and the fall of the European Empire. However, by setting the story on a Spanish vessel stationed off the Chilean coast 56 years earlier, Melville distances himself from his observations on slavery. Furthermore, by portraying Delano as American, Melville furthers the story’s colonial setting, setting it during a time in which America was only 23 years removed from its British colonial roots. By describing the American ship as a self-sufficient provider of plenty, Melville asserts his belief that America is enjoying her independence. The name “Bachelors Delight” suggests that the upstart nation-state is affirming her superiority over the outmoded and outclassed Empire, represented by the San Dominick.With the description of the “symbolical devices”(134) on the stern of the ship, the author alludes to the ship’s uncertain power structure: Melville refers to “a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked” (134). Allusions to who truly has control over the ship are interspersed throughout the narrative. However, it is established early on that Delano possesses a “singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable except on extraordinary and repeated incentives…to indulge in personal alarms any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man” (131). This trait ensures that Melville can expand the uncertainty of the setting for readers while leaving Delano oblivious. Initially, the power dynamic aboard the ship appears to Delano to be that of the Spanish master and the “faithful attendant” (138) Babo servicing his captain’s every need. However, when Delano questions Cereno about his luckless voyage, “Don Benito faltered, then…vacantly stared at his visitor” (140). To the unassuming American Cereno is simply affected by his maladies, when in reality the nervous captive is unable to recall his contrived story. The assiduous Babo prompts Cereno: “His mind wanders. He was thinking of the plague the followed the gales” (141). Remaining on the ship, Delano is puzzled by “instances of insubordination” (145) amongst the slave population; when a black boy strikes a white boy, Cereno dismisses the incident as “merely the sport of the lad” (145). Later, Delano meets “two blacks, to all appearances accidentally incommoded by on of the sailors, [who] violently pushed him aside” (157). Benito feigns a coughing fit in order to conceal the fact that he witnessed this incident. His lack of discipline would aroused Delano’s suspicion and inconveniently uncovered the ruse. Delano is also suspicious of the odd behavior of the sailors, who cast glances his way with “lurking significance” (153) and with a “sort of meaning” (158). All of these factors combine to propagate a setting of incertitude and mystery. This puzzling setting continues when a sailor tying “Gordian knots” (163) tosses Delano a knot, urging him to “undo it, cut it, quick” (163). The sailor alludes to the knot of Gordia, the cutting of which granted Alexander the Great the power to build an empire. The sailor tells Delano that he has the potential to regain power on the ship; however, the sailor’s plea and Delano’s potential for power are both tossed aside with the knot. The incident is inexplicably dismissed, in keeping with the ship’s bizarre setting. Ultimately, the true master-servant orientation is dramatically revealed when Babo suggests a shave for his “master” as punishment for a second slip of Cereno’s tongue: The Negro searched among the razors, as for the sharpest…he then made a gesture as if to begin, but midway stood suspended for an instant, one hand elevating the razor, the other professionally dabbling among the bubbling suds on the Spaniards lank neck. Not unaffected by the sight of the gleaming steel, Don Benito nervously shuddered; his usual ghastliness was heightened by the lather. (173) This scene is the culmination of the techniques used by Melville to reveal the arrangement of power aboard the ship. Babo’s “insist[ence]” on a shave is an obvious method to emphasize his power over Cereno; because Babo is assured of Delano’s ignorance, the terrified Cereno is obliged to submit. As Babo holds the sinister blade in one hand and clutches the writhing Spaniard’s neck with the other, the masks are removed from the figures carved on the stern. Babo is thus revealed as master, and Cereno as his powerless subjugate. The setting of the ship is confirmed by Cereno’s defection; the crew of the Bachelor’s Delight violently wrest control of the San Dominick from the hands of the slaves.By emphasizing the role of the setting in “Benito Cereno”, Melville effectively adds depth to his story. Developing the setting of the San Dominick using the techniques of foreshadowing and symbolism enable Melville to maintain the reader’s curiosity and heighten the climax and conclusion. By using a historical setting, the author is able to not only extend the range of the story, but also to express his personal convictions. The scattering of symbols throughout the text provide a unifying theme that acts separately on the historical element present in the novella.
The Barber’s Mastery in Melville’s Benito Cereno
Before the truth surrounding the strange fate of Benito Cereno becomes apparent, Herman Melville effects an intriguing juxtaposition between Don Benito and Babo while the latter adheres to the toilette of his “master.” Captain Delano, while watching this masquerade of owner and slave, congratulates the slave on his mastery of the razor, brush and comb without realizing Babo’s deadly control over the weakened captain. Melville describes the barber’s scene in the cuddy with utmost care and illustrates Babo’s role as an impromptu gentleman’s valet with intricate detail. Though Melville reaches a climax in the narrative with the slave revolt, the reader is yet unaware of a mutinous plot or dangerous threat while Babo attends to the needs of Don Benito. In this passage, however, Melville foreshadows the treacherous by proffering agency unto Babo and leaving the fragile Don Benito in a realm of dependence and fear. Without divulging the premise of the climax, the hegemonic relationship of Babo and his feigned master is overtly demonstrated by Melville’s dramatic details, yet left unexplained until the actual rendering of the slave revolt. By placing the master and slave in traditional roles while inverting the actual control of master over slave, Melville enshrouds the scene with unease by placing Babo into a sphere unaccustomed by his race. Throughout the entire narrative, Babo often speaks for Don Benito, supports him physically and emotionally, and, most importantly, deftly plays the act of a subjugated man. Captain Delano does not doubt the legitimacy of Babo because Melville so convincingly places the slave into the position of dutiful servant and humble inferior. Moreover, when Babo begins his toilette of Don Benito, the narrator comments profusely on the slave’s capacity for “avocations about one’s person” (73). He continues, “most Negroes are natural valets and hairdressers, taking to the comb and brush congenially as to the castanets, and flourishing them apparently with almost equal satisfaction” (73). Since the narrator places Babo in such a “natural” position for a Negro, the reader, as well as the character of Delano, is duped into believing that Babo could not possibly harbor alternative motives. Babo’s attention to the detail of his master’s person, illustrates a stereotypical sphere acceptable for the slave – to break free from that role would require the greatest of imagination on the part of Captain Delano and of the reader. Melville’s description of Babo’s ease with the razor and scissors simply places him within the capacity allotted for a typical slave. Melville tricks the reader by catering to the stereotype of the slave and thus allows the “natural valet” to break free from the slave mould and become the intellectual impetus behind the revolt.Melville draws Delano into the slave convention so far as to write about Babo and the race as a whole, “[They had] a certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture, as though God had set the whole Negro to some pleasant tune” (73). Retrospectively, these words echo with menace. Babo, instead of following the “pleasant tune” of his race as described by Melville, shifts from the position of slave to that of master. Rather than by manifest force, Babo exerts mastery over Don Benito throughout the narrative while he is fulfilling the role of slave on the surface for the comfort of Captain Delano. As Babo shaves Don Benito, Melville’s description of the typical slave avocation, “the docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind” (73) implies the exact opposite of the puissant, intelligent Babo. Captain Delano, falling into the trap of believing in the “docility” of Babo, goes so far as to recall his past experiences in America, sitting in his doorway, watching the movement of the Negroes outside and thinking to himself about how he took to the race as man does to a Newfoundland dog. Melville’s description of Delano’s contentment proximal to what evolves into the formidable figure of Babo, illustrates the author’s use of convention as a literary device. By maintaining a stereotype, Melville draws the reader into a trap of tranquility regarding Babo – a trap that is only realized towards the plot’s crisis. Though Melville maintains Negro slave cliches during the barber scene, he nevertheless creates an unconventional power relationship between Babo and Don Benito as the former attends to his duties as valet. Babo’s grooming actions cause Don Benito inexplicable fear; Captain Delano however, never for an instant, gives the slave the agency of inducing fear in his master. When a bit of blood is drawn, Melville writes of Delano’s interpretation, “Poor fellow, thought Captain Delano, so nervous he can’t even bear the sight of barber’s blood; and this unstrung, sick man, is it credible that I should have imagined he meant to spill all my blood, who can’t endure the sight of one little drop of his own?” (75). Though Don Benito is clearly reacting to some horrible fear or attack of nerves, Delano chastises himself for thinking that the Spanish captain is a murderer, never interpreting the signs as an implication of Babo’s control over his own master. Since Delano’s vision of Babo is that of conscientious, dog-like devotion to Don Benito, the letting of blood during the shaving accident and Benito’s ensuing nerves, points to interpretations other than Babo’s actual command over the situation. Through language, Melville hints at the actual dominion of the slave; however, Delano only once considers the situation to be somewhat odd. Melville writes, “the idea flashed across him that possibly master and man, for some unknown purpose, were acting out, both in word and deed, nay, to the tremor of Don Benito’s limbs, some juggling play before him” (76). After this “flash” of doubt however, Delano disregards his feeling and simply interprets the situation as odd due to the quaint heraldic shaving cloth draped over the body of Don Benito. After this moment of doubt, Melville again alludes to a perverse power-play as Babo finishes shaving his master: “He sat so pale and rigid now that the Negro seemed a Nubian sculptor finishing off a white statue head” (76). Nothing could be more apparent than the sculptor-marble/master-object parallel in this description – Babo’s command of Don Benito – yet Melville still confounds Delano and the reader by the supposed blood-thirsty intent of the weak Don Benito. In one sentence, Melville demonstrates the power and agency of the slave over the master in a strange inversion of positions. The “Nubian sculptor” has utter control over the rigid white man and, though Babo never once overtly swerves from the path of perfect servitude, exerts complete control over Don Benito during the entire interaction. After Babo finishes his work on Don Benito, Melville again writes subtly about the control of the slave over his master. Paralleling the metaphor of the sculptor, Melville writes, “all this being done, backing off a little space, and pausing with an expression of subdued self-complacency, the servant for a moment surveyed his master, as, in toilette at least, the creature of his own tasteful hands” (77). The words “at least” signify Babo’s control over Don Benito beyond that of the toilette, though Delano “playfully complimented” (77) him after he ceased his cutting and trimming. Figuratively, the character of Don Benito resides in the “tasteful hands” of Babo. The slave, unbeknownst to the American, has complete command of the situation on the ship. However, through this act of master and slave, Melville hides the true interactions of the pair under the guise of a conventional slave duty. Only once does Delano consider the charade to be eccentric; and, when he does look upon the scene with distrust, he feels a threat from the Spanish captain rather than the dutiful slave. By placing Babo in the common role of a slave, Melville creates an astonishing climax when Babo unmasks his true position as pilot of the slave revolt. As he strops the razor along the “smooth, oily skin of his open palm,” Melville contains Babo in a role that befits him as a Negro slave. The minutiae concerning the shaving and cutting, places Babo painstakingly into the prevailing character of a slave, and, by adhering to the accepted character, Babo’s intellectual capacity to lead a mutiny is all the more surprising. Melville feeds upon the predominant ideas of the day concerning slavery and uses those stereotypes in the barber scene to further propagate Babo’s typical character. Yet Melville, in turn, takes the slave conventions and uses them as a literary tool to create an non-conformist character of color that breaches convention and attempts to murder the master that he so tenderly cared for. The paradoxical relationship between the two men during the shaving scene tricks both the American captain and the reader into believing that Babo simply maintains the hackneyed images of other slaves of the day. By creating an acceptable slave image of Babo, Melville can create within the slave a concealed character that subverts his own trite role. While Delano watches the scene in the cuddy, Babo plays the perfect valet. However, as Melville describes the slave holding the razor “suspended for an instant” (74) above the terrified Don Benito, the reader receives one glimpse into the physical control of slave over master. By utilizing the cliched master-slave relationship, Melville actually inverts the positions of Don Benito and Babo so that the latter eventually exerts his mastery through violence and action.
Racial Stereotypes in Benito Cereno
Originating in race-based African chattel slavery, racial stereotypes have plagued American history. Antebellum stereotypes characterized African Americans as inferior and unevolved, which perpetuated the opinion of most white Americans that African Americans were suited to servitude, as they were seen as incapable of learning and being civilized. The stereotypes propagated by slavery, Minstrel Shows, and later books and films found their place in a variety of well-known pieces, including Bishop Whipple’s Southern, which preserved repugnant stereotypes. However, antebellum author Herman Melville employed these racial stereotypes in Benito Cereno in a seemingly innovative way; he utilizes stereotypes of African Americans to critique 19th century racial discourse by calling into question the validity of rigid racial boundaries, and suggesting the danger of viewing a race as a monolithic body.
Benito Cereno, a novella set in 1799 – in the midst of the age of slavery – details the thoughts and feelings of Massachusettsan Captain Amasa Delano amidst a puzzling encounter on a slave ship. Often referred to as “the American” (Melville 121), Delano is the captain of a whaling ship, the Bachelor’s Delight. While his ship is docked off the coast of Chile, Delano comes in contact with a “strange sail” (Melville 109), which readers soon learn is a Spanish slave ship in the midst of a rebellion. Once on board, Delano begins to witness events he considers odd and inexplicable due to his acceptance of racial stereotypes. For instance, he observes a group of six slaves clashing their hatchets with a “barbarous din” (Melville 119), whom he describes as “unsophisticated Africans” (Melville 120). In addition to calling their behavior unorthodox, Delano describes these men as equal to barbarians. This description paints a picture of Africans as lazy, ignorant, and uncivilized, all of which are considered the opposite of what it means to be American. Ultimately, Delano’s perception of slaves as being uncivilized brings to light the conviction of early Americans that slaves and minority ethnic groups were the ‘other.’ From this point forward one could begin to consider Delano as an American lens or viewpoint, as he is beginning to exhibit views consistent with the majority of his contemporary Americans.
Moreover, Delano continues to judge situations based on his acceptance of racial stereotypes. As he observes a group of slave mothers breastfeeding their children on the deck of the ship, he remarks, “like most uncivilized women, they seemed … [as] Unsophisticated as leopardesses; [as] loving as doves” (Melville 175). The undertones of racism become clear as Delano compares these women to undomesticated animals. Moreover, the juxtaposition enunciates Delano’s paradoxical view of African women. Indeed, various sources on antebellum culture, such as Gettysburg College’s digital archive on slave communities, suggest that white men were drawn to the “exotic charms” of female slaves, and their perceived lack of modesty appeared to signal a compromised sense of morality, as well as a heightened sex drive, which white men often felt entitled to exploit. (Slave Communities) These stereotypes are evident in Benito Cereno, as Delano observes them while exposing their breasts, all while he describes them as comparable to wildlife. Truly, his view that African women are exotic and picturesque, but still subordinate due to their race, exhibits an overwhelmingly baffling view of these women, by suggesting they are seductive and appealing, but unworthy of respect, due to their race. Ultimately, Delano’s conflicting account reveals his contradictory interpretation of slave women, from which the text begins to question the importance of race as a means for judgement of character by considering their femininity in addition to race.
By the side of Captain Benito Cereno and behind the events of the whole day is Babo, a slave who understands and manipulates the stereotypes many people apply to him to conceal the ongoing slave revolt. Described by Delano as “less a servant than a devoted companion,” (Melville 124), Babo initially appears to be the dedicated African slave assistant of Don Benito Cereno. Delano perceives the intimacy of their relationship when Babo goes as far as to speak for Cereno, claiming that, “His mind wanders. He was thinking of the plague that followed the gales” (Melville 132). Later, Delano witnesses Babo shaving the captain’s face. While watching Babo serve Cereno, Delano posits “there is something in the Negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person” (Melville 200). This sentence clearly illustrates Delano’s belief that African Americans are inferior to whites and specifically suited to serving the superior race. Furthermore, he goes on to state that African Americans possess a “certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture; as though God had set the whole Negro to some pleasant tune” (Melville 200). Delano’s statement not only reveals his racist attitude, but also his insensibility to the feelings of Babo. This statement enforces the idea that an entire ethnic group not only has an inherent purpose to serve, but also that they enjoy serving. Without a doubt, this racial stereotype denies a large group of people agency by implying their natural position on Earth is to please not themselves, but the men that have captured, tortured, and exploited them for centuries. Ultimately, by revealing Delano’s obliviousness to the reality of the situation, the text asks the reader to not only consider people as more than their race, but also begins to suggest the danger of believing an entire race is “harmonious” (Melville 200) and incapable of independent thought.
Interestingly, Melville’s choice to include variations of stereotypes that characterize slaves as ignorant, lazy, and uncivilized contrasts starkly with the reality of the story; the slaves are capable of much more than pleasing the white man. Ironically, Babo has been playing into these racial stereotypes and acting accordingly to avoid suspicion from Delano. In fact, Babo has been leading a clandestine operation, in which he cunningly strings Delano along to believe that Cereno controls the ship, when in reality, the slaves have seized power. Because Cereno must be supervised by his captor, Babo, and pretend he controls the vessel while wielding no real power, the increasingly odd events of the day begin to make sense once a “flash of revelation” (Melville 238) sweeps across Delano’s mind, and he finally understands the situation at hand. One could argue that Delano fails to understand the charade due to his “undistrustful good-nature” (Melville 110), but given the explicit racial stereotypes included throughout the course of the story, it is clear that Delano would never consider that an African would be able to control a ship, especially since this job usually belonged to an educated white man, such as himself. In other words, Delano cannot fathom the idea of a so-called inferior race appearing as his equal. The irony of his obliviousness not only debunks the dreadful stereotypes peppered throughout the story, but also criticizes the sense of racial superiority, as well as the necessity of race in significant judgements. By including these racial stereotypes only to question them, Melville offers a thought-provoking critique of American racial relations. By representing people whom were considered too ignorant, lazy, and pathetic to be capable of pulling off an intricate and seemingly well thought out plan, Melville calls the reader to question the validity of stereotyping – an invitation that would have shaken his contemporary readers to the core.
It is important to understand that Melville utilizes common stereotypes in an unprecedented way to critique racial relations, rather than perpetuate them. One can understand his disapproval of existing racial stereotypes through his choice to stray away from including a white character who saves the day. Melville’s choice to move away from this standard is most profound, not only given the situation, but most significantly the time period; antebellum literature rarely gave slaves agency, and even landmark works, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin include the success of a slave as contingent upon a white character. As a result, Melville artfully crafts a story addressing the validity of racial stereotypes, which also calls the reader to question the danger of denying a race agency and consequently viewing a race as a monolithic body, all of which were far ahead of Melville’s time. Without explicitly pronouncing a stance on the principle of racial discrimination and the legitimacy of mainstream stereotypes, Melville communicates to the reader that considering a person’s ethnicity above their outward character and actions can mask intentions and ultimately adversely affect the outcome of a situation.
Chihos, Victoria. “The Role of Women in Slave Communities.” Slave Communities, Gettysburg College Department of History, www.gettysburg.edu/~tshannon/hist106web/slave%20communities/atlantic_world/gender.htm. Accessed 21 Sept. 2017
Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” The Piazza Tales, edited by Dave Maddock, Josephine Paolucci, and Joshua Hutchinson. Gutenberg Press, 2014, pp. 109-271.