Benito Cereno  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Benito Cereno is a novella or short novel by Herman Melville. It was first serialized in Putnam's Monthly in 1855 and later included in slightly revised version in his collection The Piazza Tales (1856). The novella centers on a slave rebellion on board a Spanish merchant ship in 1799 and because of its ambiguity has been read by some as racist and pro-slavery and by others as anti-racist and abolitionist text (Newman 1986). Earlier critics, however, had seen Benito Cereno as a tale that primarily explores human depravity and does not reflect upon race at all (for example Feltenstein 1947). Melville's most recent biographer, Andrew Delbanco, emphasizes the topicality of "Benito Cereno" in a post-9/11 world: "In our own time of terror and torture, Benito Cereno has emerged as the most salient of Melville's works: a tale of desperate men in the grip of a vengeful fury that those whom they hate cannot begin to understand" (230).

The primary source for the plot, as well as some of the text, was Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, chapter 18 (1817) (McCall 2002, 34), though Benito Cereno contains crucial changes and expansions that make it a very different text. The most transformative change lies in the narrator, or rather in the way in which the tale is told: The crucial information that the slave rebellion, in which all the senior Spanish seamen bar the captain Don Benito Cereno have been murdered, is withheld from the reader. The Spanish sailors, and specifically Cereno, are forced to play along in a theatrical performance for the benefit of the American Amasa Delano who initially approaches the dilapidated Spanish ship to offer his assistance. The narrator takes the point of view of Delano throughout the first and longest part of the narrative and therefore remains limited to what Delano sees (or thinks he sees). Delano represents a version of New England innocence, which has also been read as strategy to ensure colonial power over both Spain and Africans in the "New World" (cf. Sundquist 1993). Babo, who plays the faithful body servant to the Spanish captain (representing European aristocracy and decadence), is the master-mind behind both the revolt and the subsequent subterfuge. The enslaved Africans have ruthlessly killed their "owner", Alexandro Aranda, and other key officers on the ship to force the captain and the remaining crew to take them back to Africa. To some earlier critics, Babo represented evil, but more recent criticism has moved to reading Babo as the heroic leader of a slave rebellion, whose tragic failure does not diminish the genius of the rebels. In an inversion of contemporary racial stereotypes, Babo is portrayed as a physically weak man of great intellect, his head (impaled on a spike at the end of the story) a "hive of subtlety" (McCall 2002, 102). In contrast, the supposedly civilized American Delano is duped by Babo and his comrades for the duration of the novella, only ultimately defeating him and rescuing the distraught Cereno through brute strength.


Robert Lowell, "Benito Cereno" (1964, Part of the trilogy "The Old Glory")

Yusef Komunyakaa, "Captain Amasa Delano's Dilemma" (in American Poetry Review, 1996)

Jay Bushman, "goodcaptain" (2007, experiment in online storytelling)

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Benito Cereno" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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