Benito Cereno

What is the purpose of the deposition and what is learned from it? Do you think that it adds to or detracts from the plot?

in benito cereno

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The deposition marks a decisive shift in tone. Gone is the poetic language, the complex symbolic texture of the tale. Instead, we have the appearance of a bona fide testimony. But, again, this is only an appearance. The testimony tells one side of the tale - Cereno's - and pretends that this account passes for the whole truth. Some feel that it does, but perhaps there is another tale lurking between the lines of "Benito Cereno." Perhaps the deposition's insistence on tying things up ever so nicely is a mask, concealing the uncertainty at the heart of the tale.

The deposition contains a great deal of information that reflects back on the rest of the narrative, small details that enrich the tale even further. For instance, there is the suggestion of cannibalism in the disposal of Aranda's body. We also learn that the original figurehead of the San Dominick was of "Christopher Colon" - that is, Christopher Columbus. This image aligns "Benito Cereno" as a kind of counter-narrative to the Edenic imagery often identified with accounts of racial encounters in America. The San Dominick is a "New World" of sorts, and Delano a guileless explorer of it. Race is not nearly as simple as his prejudice leads him to expect. Perhaps Melville wants to suggest that the reader, like Delano, is an explorer in a familiar territory, hopefully learning more than Delano does about the feebleness of racial stereotypes. After all, Melville wrote "Benito Cereno" while America prepared to fight the Civil War, struggling with itself and its own racist imagination.

Following the deposition, there is a brief but very important exchange between Cereno and Delano. Cereno lies dying of the memory of his ordeal on the San Dominick, and Delano says, "The past is passed; why moralize upon it?" Delano has not been fazed; his opinions hold fast. Perhaps he simply loathes blacks now, instead of simply loving them - certainly his basic character is unaltered. The moral implications of his own beliefs are beyond him.

Cereno, on the other hand, knows very well the implications of his experience. When Delano asks him, "What has cast such a shadow upon you?" and Cereno replies, "The negro," he is not referring merely to Babo. The whole complex difficulty of slavery and mastery weigh on Cereno; he has seen the horror upon which his civilization peacefully slumbers; he knows that beneath the grinning facade of a servant there is hidden a Babo, capable of genius in his passion to be free. The final, wonderful image of the tale - Babo's head fitted on a pike, still capable of casting a shadow over Cereno's life - is perhaps the most truthful mask of all: the eloquence of the silenced suffering of a race, unheard by Delano, but deafeningly loud to those, like Cereno, who have ears with which to hear it.

The deposition adds to the plot.