Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself are two very different texts, both dealing with aspects of slavery in the early 19th century. The first is a work of fiction, told from a third person perspective whereas the latter: an autobiography, following the author’s life from childhood to his state of affairs at the time of writing. The narrative structures in both these novels are significant within their own texts but are also interesting to compare because of the way they both portray the theme of slavery.
The narrative perspective of Benito Cereno is that of Captain Amasa Delano, of the Bachelor’s Delight. However, he is not the protagonist of the tale, but merely a naive spectator of the events that mainly concern the eponymous Benito Cereno. His naivety is parallel to that of the first time reader. There is a mystery on board the San Dominick, one that is both obvious and yet so well hidden that it is difficult to figure out.
For first time readers, this mystery is so frustrating because it seems obvious that there is something gone amiss on board the San Dominick but Delano, dismisses them so as to throw off readers from probing the truth.
When Delano boards the San Dominick to help the crew, he notices “Don Benito’s unfriendly indifference towards himself1” and his “sour and gloomy disdain”. This is a strange reaction to Delano’s company, which should be greeted as a form of rescue.
However, Delano attributes this indifference to the “effects of sickness2” and dismisses it. As a consequence, readers of Benito Cereno assume Delano’s excuse as their own and also dismiss such a trivial observation. But Delano is good at making these “trivial observations” but instead of connecting them and drawing a conclusion, he rejects them as soon as it is noted.
In the same page as the previous observation, he also notices the intimacy of Cereno and Babo. His first impression of Babo is that he is “less a servant than a devoted companion3” to Cereno, often holding out his arm or handing him a handkerchief to help his “master”. It is this impression that has really sheltered Delano from the truth, because his perspective of the important relationship of Cereno and Babo is the foundation of excuses for everything else that occurs on the ship.
Delano is truly naive in that he cannot conceive any real evil to occur on the ship. Melville narrates the story from a third person perspective, therefore creating a distance from the narrative perspective of Delano, but often, the narration agrees with Delano. However, at times, the narration takes a step back from Delano and observes his point of view (which is at times, accurate) but dismisses his interpretation of the events. One scene where this occurs is when Babo shaves Cereno. Delano witnesses this scene and observes:
Altogether the scene was somewhat peculiar, at least to Captain Delano, nor, as he saw the two thus postured, could he resist the vagary, that in the black he saw a headsman, and in the white, a man at the block. 4 The narrator, though separate from Delano, is sympathetic to his perspective. However, to understand the true point of view of the narrator, particularly in the above passage, is difficult. Here, Delano sees the scene for what it truly is – menacing and threatening. The rebellion is essentially, revealed in this trivial description.
There is then, a sense that Delano and the narrator counters each other in order to maintain a state of naivety for the readers. Usually, the narration seems to be aware of the suspicious nature of the San Dominick, which is apparent through the revealing description throughout the novel. But if Delano starts suspecting something suspicious, the narrator turns and attributes it to Delano’s own perspective. So, in the above passage the scene according to the narrator is not strange, but Delano thinks that it is “somewhat peculiar”.
Melville is being really smart here by never corroborating the narrator with Delano’s perspective, which therefore throws readers off, making it difficult for readers to grasp what is happening until Melville finally reveals the twist. The point of Delano as narrative perspective is to relate to him. In an obvious way, readers relate to him insofar as his interpretation of the mystery and assume his judgments as our own. However, the narrator holds Delano up as a “model of justice and legality5”.
His rescuing of the crew members at the end, the recapturing of the rebel slave and the court case at the end all contributes to this idea that Delano is the representative of an ideal American in the 18th-19th century. Indeed, his actions are what were required of an American citizen under the Fugitive Slave Act of 18506. His “heroic” act of recapturing the rebel slaves is legitimately supported by the law. The heroism of Delano is further supported by excusing his delay in reacting because “had it been otherwise… some of my interferences might have ended unhappily enough7”.
Thus, his naivety is justified because if he had realised sooner, Babo would have killed both captains instantly. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, it is still a lame excuse for the tedious amount of time it takes for him to realise. But this too, can be likened to the state of America at the time. Melville’s ambiguity in Benito Cereno is confusing especially to the topic of slavery. Whether it supports slavery or not is so difficult to comprehend. Delano is portrayed as a model for recapturing the slaves but the slaves are just revolting against the cruel system of slavery which gives them justification.
The separation between Delano and the narrator is important because it gives room for this ambiguity and such as it is, never reveals what Melville truly believes. However, the point of pro- or anti-slavery is not an issue when analysing the significance of Delano’s perspective and representation. If Delano is a representative of America, then it is because Delano’s naivety mirrors that of America in the 18th-19th century. America’s incapability to recognise evil when it is displayed so obviously is similar to that of Delano’s gullibility.
However, Delano’s slow process of realisation could be what Benito Cereno is trying to achieve – America’s own realisation of the true evils of slavery. There is the sense that Melville is constantly trying to give us more hints, but with Delano dismissing the clues, it is very difficult for most first time readers to realise what is really happening until the end, when Melville chooses to reveal the twist. Therefore, most first time readers can be likened to Delano in that they too, are also tricked and are victims of Babo’s elaborate performance.
Because there is a distance from the narration and the narrative perspective of Delano, there exists a different character in the form of the narration – one of whom can be truly parallel to the second time reader. The second time reader can read the narration and understand why Delano can think the way he does about certain things but also have the insight of the actual occurrences on the ship. This is why Melville’s novel is such a hugely effective – it is a text that needs to read twice so that readers can truly understand why it is that Cereno is the way that he is.
On first reading, the narrative perspective of Delano seems to be guiding readers to a conclusion where Cereno has joined forces with the slaves of the San Dominick and is embarking on a villainous attempt to overthrow Delano. However, it is actually Cereno who is the victim, but this is not understood until reading the text again. The significance of Delano’s perspective is then, integral to the mystery of the text. As a work of fiction, Benito Cereno was written in order to engender profit.
This is a creative piece of writing by Melville in order to entertain the reader and to sell. This is unlike Narrative, as the novel is a way for Douglass to tell his own story and account of the true aspects of slavery as one of the first ex-slaves to write his own autobiography. However, that is not to say that Douglass’ text does not involve aspects of creativity and manufacture. Autobiographies are often victims of selective memory, or creative imagination in order to create more sympathy and a better reading experience for the reader.
In order to write an autobiography, the author inadvertently exercises memory and shapes it in a specific way so that the history no longer is impartial or neutral, but one that is manipulated by the author’s inspiration8. In Douglass’ case, this unintentional influence is littered throughout the text because the point of his novel is not to sell to make a profit, but to highlight the cruelty of slavery in hope that it will contribute to the abolitionist cause. For example, the scene in which Douglass witnesses his first introduction to the cruelty of slavery (i. e.
Aunt Hester’s whipping) is written with elaborate and particularly moving diction with the intention of creating an evocative scene: “The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest9” – the rhythmic flow of the sentence and the evocative language he uses is poignantly expressed and readers can’t help but to feel outrage at the cruelty of the master. His rich use of language and his ability to articulate it is undeniable, but he humbles himself by stating: “I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it10”.
This simple statement is both true but also a device of creativity. Because words cannot reveal the true extent of the horror, the profound emotions, associated with witnessing such a scene from a small age. Therefore, the imagination of the reader is intensified and is thus a clever writing technique that Douglass uses effectively. Even though Narrative is written in first person narrative, there is a difference between Douglass the protagonist and Douglass the narrator.
Douglass as the narrator is reflecting on his life as it was and there are times when it is easy to see the difference between the naive protagonist and the experienced narrator. For example, when he recounts the songs of the slaves, he states: I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. 11 Douglass as the protagonist often plays a slighter role at the beginning but his importance increases as he gradually becomes the Douglass who is writing the narrative.
Therefore, though he does not at that point understand the songs because he is within the circle itself and observing it as young Douglass, he can, as Douglass the narrator, truly understand the meanings of those songs. This raises an interesting point of comparison between the two novels. The way in which Douglass approaches this particular point about the perception of slave songs is comparable to the way in which Melville, or actually, Delano, perceives Babo’s relationship to Cereno.
In Benito Cereno, Delano sometimes sees “affection12” in Babo’s face for Cereno. This resembles the misconception that many slave owners believed about the happiness of slaves. It was speciously believed that the singing of songs whilst working showed that they were content with their situation. Douglass, on the other hand, believes that it was “a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains13”. Delano’s erroneous belief of Babo’s servitude is one that is similar to that of the larger part of Americans on the whole.
It is not that Delano is being consciously racist in thinking or believing this view, but it is the culture of America at that time to have this constitutional attitude towards slavery. Douglass, in writing his narrative, is trying to teach the public what he’s learnt himself through his own experiences. There is always a sense of progress from the inexperienced Douglass to the Douglass who is writing the narrative. It is as if he is projecting himself to his early childhood and living his life once again.
This device, helped by certain phrases (“I have now reached the a period of my life when I can give dates14”), provide the readers with a similar sense of projection – as if the readers themselves are being transported back in time to witness his accounts first-hand. This is a powerful tool of sympathy, which Douglass employs with effectual success. Both Douglass and Melville employ the use of a naive character in terms of narrative perspective. This has the effect of distorting the events at the time of occurrence by relating their own limited judgments.
However, their naivety slowly transforms into a realisation of their own faults. With Delano, his naivety is required to maintain the mystery on board the San Dominick but it also serves as a mirror of America. Delano, so gullible and naive to the evils of slavery, finally realises his faulty belief system and can act to rectify it. This is an easy conclusion to make but it is really confusing as the “evils of slavery” is actually caused by the slaves themselves in Benito Cereno, but that in turn is caused by the evils of slavery as an institution.
Melville’s novel is a very difficult novel to conclude. Delano is doing a heroic act, according to America, in recapturing the slaves but he is essentially, depriving them of their freedom. But Delano’s significance in his naivety is important; if Melville chose to narrate the story beginning with the mutiny on board the San Dominick, the story would not be as effective, the implications of the text would be overshadowed and overall, the reading experience – the revelation and understanding would be non existent.
Douglass’ story is like Melville’s insofar as his character cannot truly recognise the significance of certain events until he reflects on them at a much later date. Douglass’ character however, is perhaps not as frustrating as Delano’s is because Douglass’ young self is an empathetic and understandable character. His character can recognise the evils of slavery, not because he is a part of it, but because it is also in his nature to understand the cruelty of the institution.
Delano’s character does not have this inherent understanding unlike Douglass, who realises it even as a naive character – though he can only reflect and analyse it once he is out of the system himself. Perhaps it can be said that both authors’ novels serve a didactic purpose in trying to teach America the true nature of slavery by revealing the inhumane aspect of it and portraying its cruelty. However, Melville’s ambiguity is so difficult to understand, that maybe, it’s safer to say only Douglass’ story achieves this aim.