Two elements that separate Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave are intent and directness of themes. Both employ each to achieve different goals despite the similarities in narrative material. While both texts contend with the slave trade and feature a slave rebellion at sea – one successful and one not – there is a difference in how the surrounding characters and leaders of those rebellions, Babo in Benito Cereno and Madison Washington in The Heroic Slave, are depicted.
It feels as if Douglass, presumably because he intended the text to be consumed by white readers who would hopefully identify with the honorable abolitionist Mr. Listwell, deliberately presents his themes at face-value to accomplish a specific goal. He employs the directness of the narrative in order to guide his readers (who may be indifferent southerners quite like Mr. Listwell before he meets Madison) towards becoming more sympathetic towards abolition themselves.
For example, the clarity and directness of the writing when Listwell observes Madison Washington (who has a name that an amalgamation of two of the founding fathers and is characterized as the embodiment of inner-strength and liberty) allows a reader of the text to feel as if it were them witnessing Washington orating on his enslavement in the woods before his escape. Hopefully leading them to have the same thoughts that Listwell has after Madison leaves: “From this hour I am an abolitionist. I have seen enough and heard enough, and I shall go to my home in Ohio resolved to atone for my past indifference to this ill-starred race” (9).
Melville, on the other hand, is much less clear regarding what his characters are meant to represent. I think this is because the narrative does not have in implicit motive or goal like The Heroic Slave does, and is more interested in presenting a sensationalized story. While events like the death of Benito Cereno after his world view is shattered by the mutiny can be taken as a comment on how fragile extremely racist power structures and those that enforce them truly are, I think the narrative is more concerned with presenting the rebels (fighting only for their freedom) as dangerous tricksters who should not be underestimated (ex. “Here Babo, changing his previous grin of mere animal humor into an intelligent smile, not ungratefully eyed his master” (Melville)).
While Benito Cereno is not explicitly pro-slavery, the themes are not direct enough for the text to the characterized as anti-slavery. While the leaders of both rebellions (Babo and Washington) are presented as exceptional and intelligent people, Melville presents that intelligence as something to be feared while Douglass presents it as a great virtue. Benito Cereno depicts black resistance and the fight for freedom as something that should be feared by a white readership as opposed to Douglass’s The Heroic Slave which leaves little room for moral ambiguity and presents it as something noble and just.