Benito Cereno

What is Melville's attitude about slavery, as subtly brought out in the story?

in benito cereno

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Melville published "Benito Cereno" in 1856; the United States would be at Civil War within four years. The tale represents one of Melville's several contributions to the impassioned debate surrounding slavery during his era. It is not enough to say that Melville was simply opposed to slavery: more than that, Melville understood the larger implications of slavery, and the moral degradation that slavery visited upon all races and all participants.

Ironically enough, Melville put the thesis statement of his take on slavery in the mouth of the most foolish character in "Benito Cereno", Captain Delano. Delano says, "Ah, this slavery breeds ugly passions in man!" And of course he is right. The brutality of slavery leads to the counter-brutality of the slave revolt, which eventually leads to the counter-counter-brutality of the capture of the San Dominick by Delano's men. But it is not enough merely to acknowledge that slavery unleashes such behavior. By putting the condemnation in Delano's mouth, Melville underscores the observation that it is not enough to think slavery wrong: one must recognize the root of the problem, which is racism.

Delano, after all, is thoroughly racist. His concern for Cereno's apparent mistreatment of Babo, which prompts his condemnation of slavery, stems from his own belief that Babo is an ideal black servant- solicitous, submissive, happy, menial. Racism, more than slavery, breeds ugly passions in men, as Delano himself demonstrates at the end of the tale, when he participates enthusiastically in the re-capture of the slaves on board the San Dominick.

As alarming as it may seem today, Melville's era saw the debates surrounding slavery and those surrounding the races as essentially separate. Nearly everyone, Northerners as well as Southerners, subscribed to the opinion that blacks were inferior to whites. Melville, wise beyond his time, shows in "Benito Cereno" how the feeling of racial superiority (or, even more generally, the feeling of superiority of any kind) catalyzes the "ugly passions" that seem, to "liberal" nincompoops like Delano, to stem from slavery itself.