Benito Cereno by Herman Melville Essay

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Benito Cereno by Herman Melville


Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" is a rather fascinating short story that utilizes a surprising ending that helps to elucidate a number of aspects about the tale are enigmatic and perhaps even confusing for the reader. In short, it is only once Cereno gives his deposition at the conclusion of the story, which is subsequent to his warning Captain Delano about the planned attack of the slaves on the former's ship against the latter's, that the delicious sense of irony that spans throughout the course of "Benito Cereno" is revealed. A thorough analysis of this story, aided by the clarity of hindsight, shows that the irony which the plot hinges upon is typified by the relationship between Cereno, who seems to be the ship's captain and leader, and Babo, who seems to be the former's slave. In actuality, however, Babo has Cereno under his power and the African is the master while the European is his slave in Babo's bid to return to Senegal. The irony of this situation and of the relationship between these two men is essential to the story's surprise ending, and is one of the most powerful aspects of "Benito Cereno."

One of the ways that Melville uitilzes this ironic relationship as the basis of the plot in this story is as the central means of explaining to Captain Delano -- and thereby to the reader -- what allegedly took place on board the San Dominick. Cereno explains these fictitious circumstances to Delano with an authority that the reader believes is his as the ship's master. However, a closer look at the following passage demonstrates that this authority is not necessarily his.

…there was a sudden fainting attack of his cough, brought on, no doubt, by his mental distress. His servant sustained him, and drawing a cordial from his pocket placed it to his lips. He a little revived. But unwilling to leave him unsupported while yet imperfectly restored, the black with one arm still encircled his master, at the same time keeping his eye fixed on his face, as if to watch for the first sign of complete restoration, or relapse, as the event might prove (Melville 1856).

This passage indicates that, ironically enough, it is Babo who is actually in control of the ship's captain, as his looming presence which "encircled" Cereno is there to ensure that the latter does not reveal the actual circumstances of the ragged condition of the San Dominick. What is integral to this interpretation of this passage is Melville's usage of Delano as the narrator of this story. It is Delano who tells the reader that the sudden coughing spell that is triggered while Cereno recounts this tale is due to the latter's "mental distress." Had Delano been a more incisive narrator the irony of the relationship between Babo and Cereno would have become manifest to the reader a lot sooner. However, Delano is more credulous than incisive, and Melville utilizes this aspect of his narration to belie the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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APA Format

Benito Cereno by Herman Melville.  (2012, April 12).  Retrieved January 18, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Benito Cereno by Herman Melville."  12 April 2012.  Web.  18 January 2020. <>.

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"Benito Cereno by Herman Melville."  April 12, 2012.  Accessed January 18, 2020.