About Benito Cereno


Under the tutelage of Hawthorne, Melville developed Benito Cereno, one of his most compelling works, which Putnam's magazine ran in three installments in the October, November, and December issues in 1855, only three years after Harriet Beecher Stowe produced Uncle Tom's Cabin, a moralistic novel which incited abolitionist sympathies throughout the United States. Counter to Stowe's pro-black melodrama, Melville's novella, a mystery or suspense thriller, possesses some of the characteristics of a roman a clef, or "key novel," a work of fiction which disguises the names of real people and events. Viewed from the eyes of Don Benito Cereno, a callow aristocrat oblivious to the black race's yearning for freedom, the novel's complex examination of the relationship between conqueror and conquered stresses the white captain's obsession with the black race, which overwhelms and destroys him within three months of his deliverance.

The metaphysical elements of Melville's work, particularly his emphasis on rhetorical questions and inversion, is often detrimental to clarity of diction and flow of language. For example:

The whites, too, by nature, were the shrewder race. A man with some evil design, would he not be likely to speak well of that stupidity which was blind to his depravity, and malign that intelligence from which it might not be hidden? Not unlikely, perhaps. But if the whites had dark secrets con-cerning Don Benito, could then Don Benito be any way in complicity with the blacks? But they were too stupid. Besides, who ever heard of a white so far a renegade as to apostatize from his very species almost, by leaguing in against it with negroes?

Some critics find this work too long and seriously hampered by a contrived retelling of events through a truncated legal deposition in the last segment. For others, the work commands respect for its incisive examination of the corrupting influence of slavery. One admirer, Robert Lowell, based one of his plays in the trilogy The Old Glory (1965) on the novel; the other two plays are based on stories of Hawthorne.

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