142 “Evil” Versus “Good”: A Difference in Slave Characters

Lydia Finch

The “indirection” in Melville’s work stems from mystery and leaves much room for argument about what the author’s intent was. In reading Benito Cereno, I found myself siding with Benito in the end- he’s a victim of the “evil slaves” on the slave ship. That is the picture this story paints, but it isn’t exactly direct about it throughout the piece. In the first half of the story, Babo and everyone on board is painted as a victim of circumstance, even if Delano finds suspicion in it. By the end of it, one could argue that the real victim is Babo, or that the real victim is Benito. Babo is a victim of the slave trade. He was taken from his home and forced into a life he never asked for. Benito, on the other hand, is a victim of abuse. His friend was tortured and killed while he was taken prisoner of ruthless people. It’s very arguable who the “bad guy” is in this story. 

Douglass, on the other hand, is blatant about the intent of his work, leaving very little room for arguments. This is what makes his work “more direct in articulating his themes.” From the get-go, Madison Washington is painted as a heroic and brave figure, who is an underdog in a system that hates him. Repeatedly, Douglass points out the hypocrisy of America. “In a country boasting of it’s liberty, independence, and high civilization! Humanity converted into merchandise…” (Douglass, 34). From beginning to end, if Madison sheds blood, steals, or in general, does something immoral, it is for a moral reason. As it is well put on page 48, he had only “done that which you applaud your fathers for doing, and if we are murders, so were they.”

Despite having such vastly different slave characters, both stories paint slave rebellion characters as extremely intense. Babo is intensely “evil” while Madison is intensely heroic. Each of the stories also, whether the authors meant to or not, delve into how gray the area of “good versus bad” is. Frankly, these two stories give such different depictions of slave rebellion literature that the best thing I can glean from them is that slave rebellion narratives were different from author to author.

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