Saturday, April 9, 2011

Herman Melville, "Benito Cereno"

--An image of Melville, who had a brief career as a sailor previous to becoming an author.

--This story takes off from a real historical event, but spins it in a slightly different direction. Told from the perspective of the American captain Amasa Delano, it is a story about slavery and racial violence, but the story's point about these subjects is not necessarily those put forward by Delano himself (as he proves to be not the most observant man). What do you take to be the lesson or point of this story?

--"Follow Your Leader" is the motto that carries multiple meanings here, invoking Aranda, Babo, and maybe even the Spanish who first "discovered" the Americas (and brought African slavery to the continent as well). What do you think is its meaning?


  1. I think that the motto "Follow Your Leader" definitely serves as an ironic part of the story since the revolted slaves hang Alexander Aranda's body right above it. It's their way of warning the other Spaniards not to interfere with the slave's motives but also to tell them "hey this is what you get for enslaving us". It's also interesting because Cereno is following Babo, his "leader" (since he's in control of Cereno and the other Spaniards) when really Cereno should be leader who is followed.

    I think the overall point of the story is that it's a different take on the slaves being brought by ship to a different country. It's a story where it didn't necessarily work out for the Spanish who were supposed to deliver them, and I think its much more enjoyable to read. Of course, it makes sense that its more enjoyable to read about the 'bad guys' getting what they deserve; but it seems that we've read so many narratives where the conditions of slaves, while being shipped to another country, are so harsh and realistic, and those can be very saddening to read. I know that that's the harsh reality of what slavery was back then, but it's refreshing to read another point of view.

  2. Well, I'm not sure what the message or "point" of the story is, but I will admit that I enjoyed reading it. I found it a bit funny and very refreshing. It's nice to read a story once in a while about slavery that isn't so ridiculously melancholy and repressive. I mean I know that is what slavery was, but I certainly get tired of reading about it in the same way over and over. So, even though the ending was sill rather brutal, it didn't ruin the story for me. The slaves pretty much kicked ass this time around, and I was happy to read about it.

    I also think that the motto "follow your leader" is sort of a red herring in this story. I don't think going in many people would believe Babo to be the leader because he is a slave, yet he was the one calling the shots.

  3. I think that the point or moral to this story is just simply that slavery is bad. I feel like this is an anti-slavery story because of how Melville creates this character Babo who is more intelligent and more clever than the two white guys Delano and Cereno. Delano is constantly noticing things that seem odd but instead of following his intuition and getting to the bottom of things he just brushes it aside and nearly gets himself and Cereno killed. Also the fact that Cereno dies at the end of the story seems like maybe once he saw how intelligent these people really were he couldn't forgive himself for treating them like they weren't even human. Maybe Melville was trying to say that eventually many slave holders could fall to this same realization.

  4. I believe the point of the story is to illustrate the "bowels" of a transatlantic emigrant ship, more than to uncover anything we haven't already heard in terms of anti-slavery sentiment. Despite the negative connotation, the slave trade worked and existed for a period of time without question. Though its condescending structure, immoral nature, and eventual ineptitude, led many ship owners to find themselves in an inefficient condition over time. A great passage reads, "San Dominick had been battle-dored about by contrary winds, inveigled by currents, or grown weedy in calms. Like a man lost in woods, more than once she doubled upon her own track," as if to show the confusion even those in power suffered more often than not. The story works toward a humanistic perspective, perhaps not only looking at its oppressive values, but at the responsibility of someone like Captain Delano, who despite his position as "master", may've found it hard not to keep a certain level of appreciation for his subordinates.