Herman Melville

A Critical Reader’s Guide to Herman Melville

“The thing about reading Melville is it’s hard to know if you are reading too deeply, or if you’re extremely in depth reading is just scratching the surface.”

-Courtney Rosboro

Melville published “Benito Cereno” during the fall of 1855 in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine.  It was originally written in serial form.  The reception of this short story was not as immense as one might expect.  In fact, Melville did not gain much literary recognition until well into the twentieth century.  At the beginning of the 19th century, reviews began to appear regarding the unreliable narrative in fictional tales.  However, because the concept of critical reading was still new, readers of “Benito Cereno” could not understand its complexity.  A rise in the reading public did occur in the 19th century, but people were still learning how to interpret texts effectively.  One scholar writes, “there simply was no interpretive framework at the time for reading anything by Melville – including “Benito Cereno” – as controversial political fiction, much less a specific indictment of slavery, racism, or imperialism” (Goldstein 93-4).  Melville’s works were too complicated for a youthful reading nation.  The demands of a critical reader are extreme when interpreting Melville, and especially when deciphering “Benito Cereno”.  Melville masks his beliefs behind confusing plots and untrustworthy narrators that make the reader question as Courtney did, whether or not they are deciphering the text sufficiently.

The Unreliable Narrator

Herman Melville subverts his true commentary by using an unreliable narrator, whose satirical and ironic tone often confuses the reader. “Benito Cereno’s” narrator, comments only on the experiences of Captain Amasa Delano. Captain Delano leads the reader on a while goose chase.  He repeatedly observes irregularities, but dismisses them on a whim.  The reader is left frustrated and confused by Delano’s deliberate suppression of his intuition.

“But those questions of the Spaniard.  There, indeed, one might pause.  Did they not seem put with much the same object with which the burglar or assassin, by day-time, reconnoiters the walls of a house…Absurd, then, to suppose that those questions had been prompted by evil designs” (Melville 2423).

In this passage, Delano’s native intuition warns him that something peculiar is happening on board the ship.  He feels as though Benito Cereno is interrogating him, or trying to uncover some mystery.  And yet moments later, his reasoning gets the better of him and his original perceptions are suppressed.

Angel Karnezis writes, “Captain Delano doesn’t give nearly enough credibility to what is happening right before his eyes.  Emerson says,’[man must] feel all confidence in himself, and to defer never to popular cry.  He and he only knows the world.  The world of any moment is the merest appearance’ (Emerson 1146).  There are many instances where Captain Delano observes peculiar behavior between Don Benito and Babo, between Babo and Atufal, and among the Spanish sailors, yet he always persuades himself out of thinking it peculiar.”

She also writes, “Captain Delano settles on believing in Don Benito because he does not want to think evil of him.  In this sense, Delano is naïve.  The captain doesn’t rely upon his intuition because…rejecting his instincts maintains the illusion that everything is just fine.  Delano fears the truth.”

The reader is repeatedly forced to question the character of Captain Delano.  Are his intuitive responses correct or should we listen to his moments of reasoning?  Is his reasoning sound or merely the workings of a naïve mind?

Captain Delano is the perfect tool for Melville.  Delano gives the reader a completely unbiased account of the proceedings so that he or she is able to interpret the story on their own.  The reader unfolds the mystery.  “Benito Cereno” forces the reader to think critically about whom he or she can trust.  Because the narrator gives the reader a completely unbiased account, through the ramblings of Delano, he or she must uncover the truth without assistance.

Slave Depictions

Courtney also saw similar contradictions in the slave depictions, which left her contemplative about Melville’s true opinion of slavery and the slave.

“…especially the conspicuous figures of four elderly grizzled negroes, their heads like black, doddered willow tops, who in venerable contrast to the tumult below them, were couched sphynx-like… (Melville 2408).

She writes, “The inverse historical references are more apparent but still subdued in his descriptions and analogies regarding the Black people aboard the Spanish ship. He goes back and forth between highlighting the Blacks and paralleling them to sphinxes, the Nile, and kings, and describing them as animals. Usually, these dualities are about physical descriptions. They occur so often that the reader has to accept them as intentional and relevant to the story

This style and language had to have been deeply influenced by Phyllis Wheatly. But, if he is echoing Wheatley, who’s poetry was a celebration of Blackness masked as a condemnation of it, can we therein link Melville to the same celebration?”

Readers of Benito Cereno must be conscious of these many contradictions.  Who is Melville favoring, the slave or the master, the African or the Westerner?  A critical reader must be aware of these subtle nuances so as to understand the true meaning of his text.

Melville’s Subverted Meaning

If we were to take “Benito Cereno” at face value, it could be a taken as a novel that confirms Western ideologies and supports the institution of slavery.  But upon closer reading, Melville does not attempt to placate the masses, but to challenge their beliefs in a very subtle way.  Melville once called slavery “man’s foulest crime” (Baym 941).  This short story supports this belief, but does not do so blatantly.  19th century America is mocked for its institutions, but in a way that does not sound the alarm.  Melville did not want to alienate and harangue readers, but to give them a new perspective.  “Benito Cereno” gave them that chance.

Angel believes that Melville reveals his true values through the character of Captain Delano.  She writes,

“Captain Delano is a product of Western culture, trapped by obscure ideals.  Although he may seem to be a brave sailor in his pursuit to help the ship in distress, Delano is a coward in his inability to face reality, in his naïve optimism, and in his failure to trust himself.  He “defers to the popular cry” of slavery and racism, and never embraces his own insight…Melville ends the story in this way as the final satirical ploy of Delano’s character, mocking the spineless Delano and Western culture itself.”

Courtney similarly believes that Melville “was beyond progressive, and light-years past cutting edge.”


Courtney writes, “In the beginning I knew that Melville was leading me to something fascinating. The contradictions and oddities were too telling. Still, I had no idea that the entire story was taking place in the midst of an extremely masterfully calculated slave revolt.”

“…the idea flashed across him, that possibly master and man, for some unknown purpose, were acting out, both in word and deed, nay, to the very tremor of Don Benito’s limbs, some juggling play before him. (Melville 2437)”

Even the best critical reader’s will have a difficult time interpreting “Benito Cereno”.  It is meant to confuse and alert, so that the reader forms original opinions and gains new insights.  At the end of this short story, one gets the sense that all the events are merely staged.  Melville’s “Benito Cereno” is a grand performance that continually leaves the reader guessing.  It is no wonder that a new reading public would have a difficult time appreciating and understanding this text in the mid-nineteenth century.  It is highly complex and desires to be read by a very critical audience.  Modern readers are more adept at deciphering Melville’s text because of their better reading abilities and distance from the prejudices of slavery.  Perhaps, Melville would have been proud to see that his work made such an influence on American history.

Related Websites

Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Perspectives in American Literature

Herman Melville – Classroom Issues and Strategies

Works Cited

Baym, Nina, Robert S. Levine and Arnold Krupat, eds.  The Norton Anthology of American Literature:  Volume B: 1820-1865.  7th ed.  New York:  W.W.  Norton and Company, 2007.  Print.

Melville, Herman.  “Benito Cereno.”  Baym.  2405-2461.  Print.

Goldstein, Phillip.  New Directions in American Reception Study.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2008.  Print.

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