Benito Cereno

Benito Cereno Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Herman Melville's Benito Cereno. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Herman Melville

Herman Melville developed an early interest in literature and writing but spent much of his youth working to support his family, who lived in poverty after the death of Melville’s father. In the 1840s, Melville worked on merchant and whaling ships in the Pacific Ocean. Through these travels, Melville became sensitive to the plight of indigenous people oppressed by colonialism. His adventures during these journeys—including Melville’s capture by a group of cannibalistic people and his participation in a mutiny—served as the foundation for his first novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). These unconventional works elicited both scandal and admiration, subsequently allowing Melville to devote himself to writing. In his following works, Melville developed a deep interest in moral issues, such as racial injustice and the human capacity for violence. In a covert manner, he explored such issues in his masterpiece Moby Dick; or, The Whale in 1851. Although Moby Dick is undoubtedly Melville’s most famous work today, at the time of its publication it attracted little interest. Over the next few years, Melville became increasingly reclusive and published pessimistic short stories about human greed and hypocrisy, such as Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) and Benito Cereno (1855). In the 1860s, Melville turned toward poetry instead of fiction, but this did not bring him much literary recognition. Although Melville’s fame soon vanished in his lifetime, leading him to die in near anonymity, he is now considered one of the greatest American writers in history.
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Historical Context of Benito Cereno

In Benito Cereno, Melville references historical events that give credibility to his depiction of revolting slaves. He makes implicit reference to the slave revolution in Haiti, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, which ultimately led to the freeing of slaves and the country’s independence in 1804. Instead of setting the story in 1855 (the date of its publication), Melville sets it in 1799, in the middle of the Haitian revolution. He also renames Cereno’s ship (called Tryal in the original historical narrative) San Dominick, a reference to “Saint-Domingue, “the French colonial name for Haiti. These subtle references give urgency to the narrative of Benito Cereno, gloomily suggesting that, just as happened in Haiti, it is possible that the U.S. will one day experience the violence of a large-scale slave revolt. At the time of Melville’s writing, the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) sought to repeal the Missouri Compromise, which divided the country into the American North, where slavery was illegal, and the slave-owning in the South. The Kansas-Nebraska Act launched a nation-wide debate about whether or not slavery should be allowed in Kansas. Melville’s understanding that slave societies breed violence was confirmed by the period known as “Bleeding Kansas” (1854-1861), in which pro- and anti-slavery activists opposed each other through violent conflict. It is during this period that famous anti-slavery activist John Brown took part in a massacre at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas. Five years later, it is the American Civil War (1861-65) that will determine the fate of slavery in the U.S. in the way that Melville already anticipated—through hatred, terror, and violence.

Other Books Related to Benito Cereno

Benito Cereno is based on an 1817 memoir by Captain Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. In this memoir, Captain Delano describes discovering a ship on which a slave revolt has taken place. Although Melville uses this anecdote as inspiration, he modifies many of the original story’s details to fit the moral and social message he wishes to convey. In particular, Melville introduces many elements that enhance the ambiguity of the relationship between leader and follower, oppressor and oppressed. Melville invents details, such as the shaving scene between Babo and Cereno, the character of the chained Atufal, and the scene of the knot. All these fictional episodes highlight the symbolic meaning of Benito Cereno, in which Melville denounces the ambiguous nature of human perception and the complexity of human violence—issues that are evident in his other works, such as his famous novel Moby-Dick. Published a few years after Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beacher Stowe (1852)—a novel that was later criticized for promoting harmful stereotypes about black people—Benito Cereno criticizes the kind of attitude that undergirds Stowe’s works and many Northern abolitionists’ views. By depicting a central character, Captain Delano, who criticizes slavery while maintaining a racist attitude, Melville shows that even seemingly well-intentioned Northerners are not morally perfect but, rather, participate in the moral oppression and degrading of black people. A few years before Benito Cereno, abolitionist Frederick Douglass published a short story, The Heroic Slave (1852), about the largest slave revolt in U.S. history, in which slaves were freed by successfully sailing a ship to the Bahamas. Set in entirely different historical circumstances, The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (one of Melville’s acquaintances) explores similar themes as Benito Cereno: the potentially oppressive nature of human law, the meaning of sin, and the possibility of moral redemption.
Key Facts about Benito Cereno
  • Full Title: Benito Cereno
  • When Written: 1854-55
  • Where Written: New York City, NY
  • When Published: First serialized in 1855, published as a book in 1856.
  • Literary Period: Romantic Period
  • Genre: Novella, parable
  • Setting: The Pacific Ocean between Chile and Peru in 1799
  • Climax: After Babo tries to kill Cereno, Delano finally understands that a slave revolt has taken place on the San Dominick.
  • Antagonist: Plot-wise, Delano and Cereno’s most dangerous enemy is Babo, the leader of the slave rebellion. More generally, by highlighting the evil consequences that slavery can lead to, Herman Melville identifies slavery, violence, and structural injustice as the greatest threats to society.
  • Point of View: Third-person narrator, mostly following the point of view of Captain Amasa Delano

Extra Credit for Benito Cereno

The Difficulty of Interpretation. Although Benito Cereno contains clear ironic statements about protagonist Captain Delano’s racist views, the ambiguity at the heart of the short story led to a variety of critical interpretations. Critics have debated whether the revolting slaves should be seen as an embodiment of evil or as admirable revolutionaries—and, more generally, whether the story is pro- or anti-racist. Such debates only reinforce Melville’s understanding that human perception is limited and influenced by each reader or observer’s individual biases.

A Revolutionary Mind. Herman Melville was very proud of the fact that both of his grandfathers played an important part in the American Revolutionary War, which led to the country’s independence. In line with Melville’s fascination with this revolution, the idea that violent rebellion can put an end to servitude and oppression is one of the foundational themes in Benito Cereno.