American Literature 01
14 April 2015
Benito Cereno Articles
In Dan Manheim’s “Melville’s Benito Cereno,” he discusses the importance of language authority, personal virtue, and spiritual belief in intervention. The authority of language determines who is in control on the slave ship. While the Captain Benito says that he is in charge, his lack of conviction and command of his stories of the history of the ship cause Delano to question the reality Benito is imposing. The personal virtue of the captains depends on their ability to maintain and secure authority on the ships. If their power only reaches to the end of their swords, then their reality is based on the dependence of ideology of force. Even when Delano insists on the protection of God, he still relies and pushes the image of his own self-worth and importance to the rescuing of the ship. Divine motive is the reason behind the history of the ship and the awful things it has witnessed. Benito reveals that only God knows why those things happened, and that all human power disappears before the will of Providence.
Manheim’s interpretation of the importance of language and perceived authority is essential to interpreting Benito Cereno. The concept of language dictating authority is evident through Babo’s increasing power and Benito’s lack of control. Benito’s power only reaches to the end of his sword, which is compromised by those who do not fear it. Manheim discredits the amount of power Melville gives to divine power. However, at this time that was the considered reason for all events and happenings, evil or good. The belief of God and His protection is one of the main reasons that Benito lost his authority, because of his understanding that because he was a believer he was given power. The slaves aboard the ship believed in no such God and only themselves, causing them to act in terms of survival and the ability to thrive.
Nicola Nixon discusses the social trend of Cereno’s “dandyish” refinement, through act and dress. Cereno’s overdressed body with ornate clothing contrasted with the nakedness of the slaves signifies social and political complexity. His choice of words pairs with his overall excess, consolidating his class distinction and obsession with genteel refinement. Babo uses this persona Cereno encapsulates to persuade Delano of the ship’s situation, distracting from his own nakedness and dark skin. Nixon states that by making Cereno a dandy, Melville focuses on America’s fascination with social castes and an extreme representation of the upper-caste. By leaving out the African slaves, the average American creates a caste system that is malicious and evil that only can be attributed to the free and not the enslaved.
Nixon’s focus on the stark contrast between Cereno and Babo’s clothing was understandable yet sometimes confusingly complex. Cereno’s representation of America’s obsession with achievement and success results in an overwhelming character. Babo’s lack of clothing and dark skin, as well as his eventual fate, are representative of the lack of caste movement African-Americans had in the United States, enslaved or free. While the freedom of achievement is considered a birthright to Caucasian Americans, it is also their sin the evil of slavery and the treatment of African-Americans. This political mapping of race differences by Melville characterized the privileged, overwhelming Americans and the mistreated, enslaved Africans.
Manheim, Dan. “Melville’s BENITO CERENO.” Explicator 63.3 (2005): Literary Reference Center. Web. 13 April 2015.
Nixon, Nicola. “Men and Coats; Or, The Politics of the Dandiacal Body in Melville’s Benito Cereno.” PMLA Vol. 114, No. 3 (May 1999). MLA. Web. 13 April 2015.
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