149 Melville Versus Douglass: The Trickster against the Sympathetic Heart

Danielle Murphy

Melville’s and Douglass’s different approaches to their writing significantly changes the effect on their audiences.

Melville, through dramatic irony, exploits his readers’ desire to trust the narrator and uses the shock of discovering the truth to comment about slavery and rebellion. The reader goes through the story with the same ignorance as its protagonist, Captain Delano, with the plot unfolding in real time for both Delano and the reader. In this way, Melville unites Delano and the reader in a partnership of sorts; most of the information in the story is relayed to the reader alongside Delano.

Through this partnership, Melville simultaneously creates a sense of unease while diverting suspicion from the perpetrator, Babo. Delano becomes increasingly wary of Benito Cereno, describing him as “a pale invalid…For even to the degree of simulating mortal disease, the craft of some tricksters had been known to attain. To think that, under the aspect of infantile weakness, the most savage energies might be couched” (Melville). Delano considers the possibility that Benito’s illness was a ruse to cover potentially sinister intentions. Delano projects his fear onto Benito, thus aligning the reader’s suspicions with his own. In actuality, as both the reader and Delano later learn, this statement applies more to Babo than Benito, as Babo pretended to be a mindless, dedicated servant to hide the slave rebellion from Delano. This is clear in retrospect, but Delano is successfully duped.

Melville’s indirection wields readers’ assumptions against them. The ending was very surprising to me and made me want to go back and read the whole story again to find out what I missed. All along, Babo convinced me he was a good guy, only to betray my expectations. Melville leaves the reader feeling deceived—just as Delano was deceived—and it was all the fault of that tricky, lying, murderous slave Babo. Benito Cereno’s unique form is specifically designed to villainize black slaves and generate fear of them.

In contrast, Douglass is clear from the beginning to gain reader’s sympathy for Madison. All character’s intentions are explained. All parties—Mr. Listwell, Madison, other characters, and the reader—are unified; no one tries to deceive anyone else, and the reader gets to follow the story from beginning to middle to end without serious interruptions or plot twists like those employed by Melville. Douglass’s text is designed to be tame, friendly, and welcoming, and the story told within it is similarly comforting.

This is seen when Madison shows up at the Listwell’s house, seeking shelter, Mrs. Listwell “revived the fire, and was diligently preparing supper; for she, not less than her husband, felt for the sorrows of the oppressed and hunted ones of the earth, and was always glad of an opportunity to do them service” (Douglass). Douglass tries to generate sympathy for slaves by describing them as “the oppressed and hunted ones of the earth,” a stark contrast to Melville’s villainous, deceitful Babo. Similarly, the Listwells are depicted as good, kind people because of their abolitionist status. Douglass encourages sympathy for Madison—a poor, mistreated soul—and encourages his readers to act in the spirit of Mr. Listwell.

These two texts show how depictions of black rebellion have been used to both villainize slaves and sympathize with them. Benito Cereno and The Heroic Slave show the two sides of the slavery debate and highlight the shifting attitudes towards slavery in the 1800’s.

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