Herman Melville uses irony in Benito Cereno by not fully revealing Babo’s intentions, thereby leaving the reader guessing. Douglass differs from Melville in such a way that Madison’s goals and intentions are clear throughout the story and even though the end results are both in a revolt, the characters’ futures come to an opposite conclusion.
Melville portrays Babo as a character that many readers may not come to like, because of how sneaky and mysterious he is throughout the text. There is some evidence that shows that Babo has something deeper going on when he does not let Delano speak to Benito without his (Babo) presence. Once Delano goes to talk to Cereno, “he [hears] another footstep, keeping in time with his. From the opposite door, a salver in hand, the servant was likewise advancing” (200). Before this, Babo is on top of the deck, which makes Delano believe there is no way he is able to catch up to him, but, next thing he knows, Babo is one step ahead of him. The mystery of this part of the text is that the reader is alongside Delano in an unawareness that something is going on with Babo, despite the fact this is one of the first clear signs Babo is far from Cereno’s faithful servant.
The fact that Melville doesn’t show what is really happening with Babo is ironic because it can play into what Delano and most likely the readers are feeling. In contrast, Douglass puts forth Madison’s feelings and intentions word-for-word. Indeed, Madison’s intentions are clear throughout the book, but the reader sees a sharp difference between Babo and Madison when the revolt happens; Madison states that “we do not thirst for your blood, we demand only our rightful freedom” (49). The reader knows at this point that all Madison wants for himself and others is freedom, and that even though he’ll do anything it takes, he doesn’t believe there needs to be violence. Babo orchestrates violence by having his men kill purposefully, despite not doing any of the killing himself. Many people die in Benito Cereno, including Babo, but in The Heroic Slave only a couple people die and Madison is able to leave with his freedom.
Reading these texts back-to-back allows me to see that writing can be a tremendous influence on how an audience sees a group of people or a person a certain way. Most people, including myself, initially thought that Babo was evil. In reality, he wanted the very same as Madison: to be free. If Melville wrote the exact same way Douglass did, there more than likely would not have been as much obvious violence or Babo’s intentions may have been displayed in a more clear manner as Madison’s were. Both Babo and Madison want freedom and they are both put through many awful things none of us can imagine. These two texts will continue to open my eyes as I read more about slave rebellion and black resistance, because it shifted my perspective. As Melville so ironically put at the end of his writing: “So far may even the best men err, in judging the conduct of one with the recesses of who condition he is not acquainted” (216-217). In short, don’t judge something or someone you don’t understand!