Benito Cereno

Benito Cereno - Herman Melville I've read both Moby Dick and Billy Budd, but of the Melville works I've read, it's this novella I find most impressive. There's none of the windy digressions in Moby Dick or the heavy-handed allegory of Billy Budd or The Confidence-man here. This is as close as I've found in Melville to taut, subtle writing. If I have any criticism it is that it comes dangerously close to the "idiot plot." (For this to work, one of the characters has to act like an idiot.) From here on end though, to explain what I did find awesome in this, I have to discuss spoilers. And they are spoilers. I had heard of this story, of what this was about. This is one of Melville's more famous works. And I wish I hadn't known--it's best I think to come at this story without knowledge, and I wouldn't read any introduction beforehand. Spoiler below: In a way, I wonder if it is a spoiler, because not only was the situation obvious to me but Melville signals from the start his point of view character, Captain Amasa Delano, is not to be trusted. Early on he describes him as "singularly undistrustful." This is set in 1797 during the Atlantic slave trade. The captain of an American ship, Delano, comes aboard a Spanish ship captained by Benito Cereno. From the first Delano notices that not only are the blacks on deck, who greatly outnumber the whites, unshackled, but that they are sharpening weapons. Huge clues keep coming that Captain Cereno is captive and that there has been a slave revolt on board, but Delano remains clueless. The whole novella is one of the most starkly unreliable narratives I've ever read. But here's what I find interesting. Throughout the narrative many racial, in fact very racist, comments are made. But not only are we signaled the narrator is, well, an idiot, but many of the events of the novella flat out contradict those racist assumptions--for instance docility and stupidity--for the black slaves not only successfully revolted, they're fooling Delano despite what's right before his eyes. So, it made me wonder. Just what does Melville believe? And what does he want us to take away from this story? Given the time this was written (1855) my assumption would have been that Melville's sympathies were with the white crew, and that he'd certainly expect that's how his readers would see things. But so much in this novella subverts that easy assumption. And that I do find awesome. Even amazing given the year this was written.