Benito Cereno, written by Herman Melville, is a novella that centers on Captain Delano, an American who stumbles upon a Spanish slave ship in distress. Before the arrival of the captain, a clever and desperate slave named Babo plotted and carried out a successful mutiny. The roles of master and servant switch, but unfortunately, Captain Delano is oblivious to the shift in power throughout the entire work.
If the reader were to take the story literally, he or she would inevitably profile the slaves as an obvious evil and the sailors as mere victims of a malicious situation; however, there is never a clear, definitive line to categorize either group or to rationalize the actions all of the characters make. Shakespeare once wrote that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. ” While readers may have a predisposition to believe otherwise, Shakespeare’s words are certainly something to keep in mind.
Melville’s writing is a great example of how perception or the lack thereof creates conflict and begs us to question how reliable reality really is. Through symbolism and carefully crafted points of view, the reader journeys through the gray area to discover the limitations that the idea of good and evil impose on the awareness of humans. In literature, the way something is written can say even more than the words themselves. . Benito Cereno is written in three distinct parts: the narrative, the deposition, and a short conclusion.
Herman Melville knew that in order to convey the message he wanted in a way that did not hinder suspense, he would have to write in third-person limited. This style of writing follows the point of view of a single character while simultaneously allowing the narrator to take notice of information that the main character is not aware of. For this reason, there are sections that are akin to first-person point of view and others that are closer to third-person omniscient.
This mixture allows for an intentional release of details and gives the narrator the power to break away from Delano in order to gain objectivity when commenting on the events of the story. There are a few great examples of purposeful commentary within the first couple of pages that efficiently capture symbolism via imagery; most notably, the third paragraph contains an account of the morning that the title character’s ship, the San Dominick, is sighted. Melville begins by depicting the setting as ‘peculiar’ (37). Immediately the reader knows there is something amiss.
This sense of uncertainty is developed through the use of symbolism and imagery brought about by the color gray. There is both negativity and ambiguity associated with the color that furthers the strange atmosphere of that morning. There are three main features that Melville comments on: he begins by discussing the sea, which “was sleeked at the surface like waved lead” (37); he moves on to examine the sky, which “seemed a gray mantle” (37); lastly, he takes note of the “gray fowl” and “gray vapors”, which are connected through their actions.
Both the birds and the mist “skimmed low and fitfully over the waters as swallows over meadows before storms” (37). Melville’s diction is vital to this example of imagery. For instance, the scene is described as ‘mute’. This not only conveys that everything is silent but also incapable of uttering a sound. This could likewise embody the voices of the Spanish that are stripped from them when they become prisoners. Save for the fowl and vapors, everything is frozen in place. This is prominent in the sea.
Still water is calm water but that level of calm so close to shore is eerie Melville expands on the grayness by saying the sea is made of lead, which is a dark gray mineral known for its softness and ability to leave a mark on the surfaces it encounters. It is quite poisonous as well and this could foreshadow an unknown dangerous element. Since Melville purposefully chose the word lead, it is safe to assume that he is also foreshadowing how great of an impact the events of the ay will have on the characters.
This assumption is confirmed at the end of the paragraph when it is established that there are “shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come” (37). This quote further supports the notion that something has gone awry on the San Dominick. A shadow is void of light and engulfs things around it in darkness. The skies, sea, and surrounding grayness are physical representations of the secrets guarded on board the ship.
Another indication of calculated phrasing is the use of the word mantle to depict vast grayness of the sky. A mantle is a type of shawl wrapped around a deceased individual, which implies that everything under the sky is in one way or another associated with death. If that was the case, then the grayness mentioned previously would more than likely indicate death to fall upon someone in the narrative. Melville added the word ‘seemed to employ an element of doubt.
This keeps the reader on their toes and has them wondering whether or not the omen would come true. As seen throughout the story, when Melville says something ‘seems to be one thing, it very well could turn out to be something entirely different. This is due to varying perceptions and differences created through bias. This choice of words also hints at the role reversal between slave and master that is revealed on the ship as the narrative draws to a close. 3 OF 3