Benito Cereno Essay, Research Paper
One cannot read Benito Cereno without thinking about slavery. Even though it is not the main issue in the story, it is a powerful means by with the true message of the story is conveyed. According to Kaplan, it is used as a method to exemplify the darkest of evils, and at the same time shows its interactions with the whitest of goods. Melville uses Benito Cereno simply as an actual reality upon which he built his story of evil and good. The color of a person’s skin is overlooked in favor of the examining the color of a person’s soul, whether they are colored in the black of evil or in the whiteness of good.
The main reason that Melville uses slavery as a method for conveying his issue is very evident if one examines the period in which the story is written. The short story collection was published in 1856, the “hottest decade of anti-slavery struggle prior to the Civil War”(Kaplan 38). With the large number of slave revolts, such as the Amistad of the Creole, the mutiny of slaves became the lingering fear in the back of everyone’s mind, and a very possible occurrence. Melville used everyday social issues that are quite possible and on everyone’s mind in order to bring his ideas to life. Although this was the primary concern at the time, Melville’s story was not written in the same fashion as the other topics that dealt only within the framework of the slavery issue, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or any of the other various pro-slavery stories meant to rebut it. One cannot assume that simply because he wrote about slavery, that it is really about slavery; the content of a story and its bare plot do not automatically provide its interpretation. While Benito Cereno was about slavery one the surface, it only uses the issues to display the extreme cases of good versus evil.
We experience this good and evil through Delano, not only is he the narrator, he is a representation of the reader. He is meant to be simple and sometime stupid, but the reasons for that are also the source for many arguments. He is not stupid because he is too blind to see the motiveless malignity in Babo and his tribe, or because he is blind to the heroic struggles of the slaves for freedom (Kaplan 40). The true reason for Delano’s Character is that he was a person of an undistrustful good nature who could not bring himself to realize that men are evil. He trusted, and that clouds his judgement and intelligence. Even when the self-preservation instincts of fear form in his mind, his trusting nature dismisses them because he believes that he is safe. These false assumptions lead to his eventual and almost fatal discovery that “Babo is the embodiment of malign evil and Cereno is goodness maligned” (Kaplan 40). In order for him, and the reader, to come to this conclusion, they must put out of their mind the other incorrect thoughts that have clouded their judgement and begin to understand that evil is a very present force in the world. He must not think that the slaves are happy, simple beings that are loving and tender, much like a pet dog or cat. He must realize that behind the gentle masks lie ferocious pirates that will kill without regard, a fact that Cereno is already well aware of. Once Delano realized the inherent evil present, he and Cereno were joined by a common thread: both of the men were almost completely devoured by the darkness of evil that is present aboard the San Dominick.
Cereno is the manifestation of good, but he has been driven to the edge of death by his experiences with the darkness. His experience is fatal only because he trusted in the slaves that they would behave in an acceptable manner. He learned the hard way about the evils of the world. The illusions that he had of a good world with good people are destroyed with the epitome of evil and eventually the resulted not only in the demise of his ideals, but also his own death.
The cause of the demise is the blackness of evil, which is embodied in Babo. He is the evil ringleader of a tribe of evil dark animals; his name is derived from the baboon for he too is a primitive beast, as are his whole tribe. Melville uses much animal imagery when he speaks of the slaves; the women are leopardesses, does with fawns as children, and before the attack on Delano’s ship, the are cawing crows (Kaplan 43).
This concept of black is evil and white is good is in direct opposite of Melville’s previous novel, Moby Dick. In Benito Cereno, black only equals blacker and white equals whiter. The only really application of this theme of color is in Cereno and Babo themselves, other than that it is used only as a method to build up false leads that lead up to an unexpected ending. The blackness is misinterpreted by Delano and is used incorrectly when describing Cereno. He speaks of the “dark Spaniard who sulks in dark vapors” (Kaplan 44). There is no reverse-symbolism used in Benito Cereno similar to Moby Dick, this will never reappear in Melville’s writings again. Black simply means the blackness of evil in Benito Cereno.
The last words of the dying Cereno, “The Negro”, clearly show the meaning of black. Whether it is read as the Spanish abstract for blackness or darkness, or as the English noun with abstract meanings, or any other variety of ways it can be interpreted, the meaning is still the same. The reason for Cereno to utter “The Negro” as his last words results from the misunderstanding of Delano. He thinks that the gloom of Cereno is caused by the American’s views of him, but in all reality, the cause is still Babo. These last words were not as an admission of defeat, because Babo did not win any battle except in a malign sense. It is because he now knows that evil exists and it is manifested in Babo.
The story of Benito Cereno teaches the reader a very important lesson about human nature, that there are essentially evil forces in the world. If one overlooks these forces or denies their existence, terrible consequences will follow. Just as Delano nearly suffered because his irrational ideas of a perfect world blinded him to the reality, so too will the reader unless they are aware that there is always an evil force present in the world. The purpose of this awareness is so that one may avoid this evil or try to remove it and replace it with goodness, because evil is a powerful force that will try to destroy any goodness that is present