Herman Melville

Meet the Undead:

Herman Melville (1819-1891). Though best revered for such works as Moby Dick and Billy Budd, his novella, Benito Cereno, is also notable, for its contribution to the Gothic genre. The text is rife with Gothic elements, such as its gloomy imagery, ironic plot, and exploration of darkness and mystery aboard the San Dominick. Melville’s narrative of murder and chilling deception makes it an essential text in the history of the American Gothic.

The Writing on the Castle Walls:

Benito Cereno

“The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mold. The sky seemed a gray surtout. Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.” (Melville, 2405)

This depiction of the oncoming San Dominick is a great portrayal of a classic Gothic setting. There is a lot of alliteration and dark imagery that makes the ship appear ominous.  The gray vapors that lick the bottom of the boat attach a supernatural element to the oncoming Benito Cereno. The smelter’s mold resembles hell, coinciding with imagery of coal, fire, and soot. The allusions to the color gray, storms, and shadows act as metonyms, which grant the story with a gloomy countenance. These descriptions also make it seem as if the boat is consuming any reality that is in its path, as the water before it succumbs to the gray vapors. Here, Melville also institutes a fantastic example of foreshadowing, stating, “Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come”. These moments of foreshadowing are common and crucial elements in forming an uncomfortable and unsettled narrative that guides the reader. And the warning is taken to heart, for it turns out that the San Dominick is quite as mystifying as it appears.

“To Captain Delano’s imagination, now again not wholly at rest, there was something so hollow in the Spaniard’s manner, with apparently some reciprocal hollowness in the servant’s dusky comment of silence, that 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. Neither did the suspicion of collusion lack apparent support, from the fact of those whispered conferences before mentioned. But then, what could be the object of enacting this play of barber before him?” (Melville, 2437)

I found this particular passage very interesting, mainly in the form it was written and the techniques infused. This passage parallels with Edgar Allen Poe’ “The Tell-Tale Heart” in it’s misuse of punctuation and erratic narrative. Captain Delano’s thought process is strung out in numerous sentences separated by commas, urging the reader to move on. The lack of proper punctuation also makes the rhythm of the inner monologue faster, instilling a nervous mood upon the protagonist.   The passage is very psychological in it’s depiction of Delano’s suspicious imagination. This point within the narrative hints the reader to the irony present throughout the entirety of the story, that Babo may in fact be holding Benito Cereno hostage. The mysterious effect of this inner monologue is a typical aspect found in Gothic fiction. Often times, the spontaneous use of erratic narrative can cause the reader to distrust the protagonist and is used to create a sense of distrust in what is being told. Here the reader wonders whether Delano is being ignorant of the possibility that Cereno’s servant is the true “master” of the ship. The irony present ultimately leads to Delano’s use of rhetoric. Rhetoric is another prominent feature within Gothic fiction, that is used to hint to the reader that the narrator is struggling with their own doubt. The rhetoric invites the reader to question the antics of the characters within the scene, casting a mysterious tone that is a critical element of Gothic fiction.

“But by this time the cable of the San Dominick had been cut; and the fag-end, in lashing out, whipped away the canvas shroud about the beak, suddenly revealing, as the bleached hull swung round towards the open ocean, death for the figure-head, in a human skeleton; chalky comment on the chalked words below, ‘Follow your leader.’

At the sight, Don Benito, covering his face, wailed out: ‘Tis he, Aranda! My murdered, unburied friend!’” (Melville, 2447)

Murder is possibly the most common component of Gothic fiction. Ghosts, death, and the mortally wounded characters are always welcome within the Gothic narrative. Here, Melville presents his audience with his Gothic travel narrative, in presenting the “previous” captain of San Dominick dead as a skeleton. The irony of the plaque that read, “Follow your leader” is finally revealed as Delano realizes that Babo has pirated the San Dominick. Death is presented as the catalyst in Delano’s realization. In looking at this section from a psychoanalytic perspective, Delano seems to be witnessing “The Uncanny”. The  uncanny is a Freudian term that defines irony where it is least expected. It is a way to describe something that is familiar, yet oddly foreign at the same time. This uncomfortable familiarity is what is gained through Babo’s character. Delano is only able to perceive Babo as a slave, or servant, thus he is blinded of Babo’s deception by his own racial ignorance. When Babo breaks from his role, as “servant” Delano still isn’t able to understand that he is being decieved.  Delano ultimately relates the uncanny in finding an oddly familiar aspect in the way Babo treats his “master”, Benito Cereno. Babo is able to overcome his role as slave, and become a villain and a leader. This horrific moment within the conclusion of the text was significant in depicting the murder of Captain Aranda as  undeniable proof to Babo’s scheme.

Further Reading:

Justin D. Edwards

This web page contains information on the psychoanlaytics present in Benito Cereno. Attempts to classify Benito Cereno as a Gothic travel story because of its use of “The Uncanny” through Freudian study.

Gothic Passages: Racial Ambiguity and the American Gothic

Multimedia Link:

Check out this quirky reproduction of the final scene in Benito Cereno!

Last scene of Benito Cereno… acted out with playing cards!

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