The Importance of Setting in Melville’s “Benito Cereno”

March 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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