111 Inception of the Human Heart in Melville’s “Benito Cereno”

Joshua Bartsch, Tianna Currier, and Toni O'Keefe

“Benito Cereno” heavily addresses the uncanny. Throughout the text there is a sense of strangeness as if something is just not quite right, even as it appears to be “normal.” When the Spanish ship is creeping into the harbor, the text describes these “[s]hadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come” (163). The entire story is unsettling in this way. Benito Cereno begins as a “stranger” and then progresses into someone with strange qualities and unsettling emotional characteristics. For instance, “[t]here was something so hollow in the Spaniard’s manner” (195). The text then describes this hollowness and a sense of some unknown relationship between master and man. Throughout the story the reader is fooled into believing that all of the necessary information is being provided by the narrator, and yet that sense of something uncanny lying beneath the surface is always present.

Another prevalent theme found in Melville’s “Benito Cereno” is racial identity. This text is riddled with references to the race of the characters. Early on in the story Captain Delano is described as having a “benevolent heart [and a] more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception…” (163). These are applied to Captain Delano’s character in such a way that suggests that these characteristics are predominantly American qualities. Throughout the story, Captain Delano sees Benito Cereno’s actions and mannerisms as strange. “By way of keeping his mind out of mischief till the boat should arrive, he tried to occupy it with turning over and over, in a purely speculative sort of way, lesser peculiarities of the captain and crew” (189). Captain Delano credits Don Benito’s strangeness to the fact that he is a Spaniard. Captain Delano sees Benito Cereno as different from himself and therefore considered strange. Both Benito Cereno and Captain Delano see themselves as above the slaves on the San Dominick. They both value the slaves as property and view them as just cargo on the ship. ”… ‘this ship, well officered and well manned, with several cabin passengers—some fifty Spaniards in all—sailed from Buenos Ayres bound to Lima, with a general cargo, hardware, Paraguay tea and the like—and,’ pointing forward, ‘that parcel of negroes, now not more than a hundred and fifty, as you see, but then numbering over three hundred souls,’” (170). Captain Delano and Don Benito both value themselves above the slaves and see them as unable to be considered human due to their lack of status in society. Racial identity unexpectedly plays a little role in amping up the American identity and instead, draws the focus to the characters of other races, thus expanding literature beyond the nation.

Lastly, a theme that is present within “Benito Cereno” is revolution. Here we can see Melville use the comparison between the different groups–enslaved peoples, Spaniards, and white Americans–to reinforce this sense of global community. Melville uses the event of a revolution aboard the San Dominick to show the rising conflict within the real and ever growing global community. Melville writes that “[a]lthough in the act of revolt the negroes made themselves masters of the hatchway, six or seven wounded went through it to the cockpit, without any hindrance on their part” (208). Here we see that, with the specific word usage of “masters,” Melville is reversing the power dynamic: the slaves “make themselves” the “masters.”

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Inception of the Human Heart in Melville's "Benito Cereno" by Joshua Bartsch, Tianna Currier, and Toni O'Keefe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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