Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius once said, “Life is neither good or evil, but only a place for good and evil.” In Benito Cereno, a short story by Herman Melville, slaves have taken over a Spanish ship, San Dominick. In the literal reading, the slaves are portrayed as evil, while the sailors are portrayed as victims. This quote relates to the novella because throughout the story there is never a clear line that justifies the characters behaviors and identifying which are good and which are evil, meaning that each side has characteristics of both good and evil. A common symbol that occurs in the story is the use of the word "gray". Herman Melville uses gray as a symbol to portray the theme of good vs. evil. Melville is trying to get across the point that there is not a set rules of good and evil, but that everyone has a little of both in themselves.
In this novella, slaves were torn from their homes so they could be sold for profit for the Spaniards. The reader is not aware that the slaves have taken over the ship in a rebellion, until the end of the story. In an initial reading, one might believe that the slaves were horrible people who killed sailors and held the captain under threat. The slaves can be portrayed as evil because of the actions they took. Their dark skin color can also be related to evil because dark colors and darkness are usually associated with evilness. After dissecting the text, a reader can sympathize with the slaves, as they were just trying to get back what was theirs, freedom. Babo, the main leader of the revolt, explained to Delano after one of his masters coughing fit, “these fits do not last long; master will soon be himself” (7). The deeper meaning of what Babo said is that the slaves don’t mean harm. The “fits” he was referring to could mean the rebellion of the ship. By saying they don’t last long, Babo means that he doesn’t want the revolt to go on forever, he just wants to go back to his home as quickly as possible. Babo doesn’t want to hurt Don Cereno, which is shown by “master will soon be himself.” Himself, meaning back to the way he was before the slaves rebelled. Babo and the rest of the slaves are not trying to be as malicious as they can, all they want is for their lives to go back to normal. The deeper meaning of this quote also proves to the fact that the slaves cannot be either good or bad, but a mix of both. They may be good people, just with bad actions. Because of the initial reaction to the slaves, and after digesting the facts, there is no clear answer as to whether the slaves are the victims or the criminals. Benito Cereno and his crew, after finding out that they were being held captive, are portrayed as victims. But after the reader realizes that the sailors tore the slaves from their families in the first place, they aren’t as innocent. Their light skin color can be connected to pureness and goodness. In this story, the roles of good and bad may be flipped. There is never a clear distinction of which side is which, and that one side has to be either one or the other. Melville is trying to prove the point that it is not always good vs evil. There may be gray areas in between, and it is up to the reader to figure out when and where.
On the first page of the story, the words relating to grayness are used eight times. Throughout the rest of the story, this number is much larger. The first page of the story is also used to describe the San Dominick in the distance. By using gray and terms relating to gray, it foreshadows the events to come on the boat. “Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come” (1). This quote in itself is proof that something wrong is occurring on the boat. Shadows are gray or black in color, and can be used to hide something. The boat is hiding a secret, all while surrounded by shadows and gray skies and clouds. “Shadows present” means that as of right now on the boat, there is a shadow around the topic of who is good and who is a villain. By using gray all throughout the story, Melville alludes to the fact that the whole situation is a gray area. There is not one side of evil and one of good, but a mix of both on each sides. Melville tries to get his point across through the use of grayness in the story.
In the court document section, Benito Cereno and Captain Delano have a conversation. Delano is asking Cereno why he is still nervous and dwelling on the past events. Delano exclaims, “But the past is passed; why moralize upon it? Forget it. See, yon bright sun has forgotten it all, and the blue sea, and the blue sky; these have turned over new leaves” (50). This conversation takes place after the slaves are arrested and the situation is dissected. Previously, everything was described as gray. Now, Delano is referring to a “bright sun”, “blue sea” and “blue sky”. After the events on the ship, the grayness has finally cleared out. Later, Captain Delano asks Cereno “what has cast such a shadow upon you?” (50). Benito replies, “the negro” (50). This is an important part of the story. Delano is trying to explain to the captain that the horrors are now over with, the sky has cleared up, and things are bright again. Cereno feels as if he is trapped under the shadows and darkness of the events on the boat. He can’t decipher who is good and who is bad anymore, leaving him still stuck in the shadows. Melville uses this conversation to prove that even though there may be gray areas in a good vs evil situation, there are still the effects of the shadows as a whole.
Throughout the story of Benito Cereno, there is use of grayness everywhere. Herman Melville believes that it is not always a good vs evil situation, but that sometimes good people do bad things, resulting in a gray area between the two. Melville portrays this through the actions of the slaves and the sailors. By using terms that have to do with grayness, he also shows that grayness can be anywhere. Lastly, no matter how much gray there is, there are always effects of the situation, which he portrays through the character of Benito Cereno and how he is still affected even after Babo is killed.