Benito Cereno and The Heroic Slave may be two novels about slave ships, but they couldn’t represent enslavement any differently. While both can be used to illuminate the cruelty and dehumanization of slavery, Benito Cereno uses irony to appeal to its readers, while The Heroic Slave uses a direct appeal to heroism to entice readers.
The irony in Melville’s Benito Cereno is that, even though he is enslaved, it is difficult for the reader to disentangle the feeling that Babo is a villain. As readers, we tend to empathize with the protagonist of the story – in Benito Cereno’s case, this is Delano. We see Babo as a threat to the protagonist, a white American who has crossed onto an overtaken ship, and seeks to return it to its “rightful owner,” Benito. The story is heroic and compelling, and it is easy to ignore the obvious fact: that Babo and the other enslaved captives on the ship merely want to go home.
Douglass’s The Heroic Slave is a much more direct appeal to the cause of abolitionists. In The Heroic Slave, Washington is clearly the protagonist. In the beginning of the text we get this description of Washington: “His whole appearance betokened Herculean strength; yet there was nothing savage or forbidding in his aspect.” From the get-go, the reader is made to compare Madison to Hercules, and is warned not to see him as savage in any way. This is a direct appeal to white people to humanize Washington by comparing him to a well-known, mythological white hero, and to take Washington as they would “one of their own.” Beyond the description of Washington, we see him also move throughout the story as a hero, and liberate the other enslaved captives on the ship through the aid of a white man and his own ingenuity and resistance.
The different approaches that these two novels take is important when considering their impact on readers during the era they were written. While Benito Cereno can be taken as a covert criticism of slavery due to the way it criminalizes Babo for wanting to escape enslavement, the surface of the novel seems to sympathize with the idea that he is a villain by fighting for freedom. Even though there is a dual message, does that duality matter if the reader uses it solely to defend the dehumanization of people of color? That’s not to say The Heroic Slave isn’t problematic, as it assumes that there needs to be a direct connection to whiteness in order to humanize an enslaved person of color wanting freedom. Overall, these two novels show the loops that authors and readers needed to go through to sympathize with their fellow man just because their skin color may be different than theirs. And while this may have been a necessary “middle-ground” when transitioning away from slavery and oppression of people of color, it shows that what we may consider to be “pro-Abolitionist” literature may be more problematic than it seems.