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In “The Grammar of Narrative,” a chapter in his longer work, The Poetics of Prose, Tzvetan Todorov describes the simplest, “minimal complete plot” as consisting “in the passage from one equilibrium to another. An ‘ideal’ narrative begins with a stable situation which is disturbed by some power or force. There results a state of disequilibrium; by the action of a force directed in the opposite direction, the equilibrium is re-established” (Todorov 111). From this central plot movement within the text, Todorov argues that two types of episodes in the narrative emerge, to which two correlate parts of speech (i.e., “grammar”) can be related. The episode that describes the initial state of equilibrium can be thought of as the “narrative adjective” (Todorov 111). The episode that captures the actual passage between equilibrium and disequilibrium, illustrates a fundamental action (or series of actions), and can thus be defined as the “narrative verb” (Todorov 111).
If these two predicates, the adjective-description and verb-transition, comprise the
“sentence” of a plot, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno is a run-on narrative with hanging clauses and successive fragments. The novella does not follow a smooth, linear plot pattern that can be charted along a steady trajectory. In fact, there seems to be a conflation in Benito Cereno of Todorov’s model of plot. If the “description” of the state of equilibrium is the narrative adjective, and the shifting from equilibrium to disequilibrium is the narrative verb (action and plot), “verb” and action exist in the realm of description, because all of the activity in the novella is filtered through Amasa Delano’s impressions. Therefore, “action” and plot in Benito Cereno are not merely the sum total of the novella’s clearly-defined “events.” Rather, “action” in Benito Cereno happens on the level of Delano’s perception, his continual efforts to render meaning from his surroundings. An analysis of Benito Cereno, with particular attention paid to moments of unreliable narration and mixed impressions, to the unstable formation of unstable character, and to scenes of high magnification and prolonged distension, will not only confirm that action occurs at the level of perception in the novella. Such an investigation will also demonstrate how Benito Cereno is a narrative that relies upon the element of suspicion (in perception) to construct the discourse, propel the story, and hold the attention of a reader beset with distrust and disbelief.
Much of the activity (i.e., plot) of the first part of Benito Cereno, is focalized through the eyes of Amasa Delano, whom the reader soon learns may not be the most reliable source of information and interpretation. In addition to Delano’s descriptive gaze, there is also the voice of some other, more distant third-person narrator present in the text of Benito Cereno. This voice subtly, but palpably, imbues the story with an air of critical questioning and doubt, raising the possibility that Delano’s judgments are faulty. For example, at the very beginning of the novella, the narrator describes Delano as “a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms” (Melville 162). As a sea captain, it seems that a “singularly undistrustful good nature” would not be the most apt or favorable attitude for Delano to adopt (given the dangers he might face). As s a man charged with protecting the lives of his crewmen, it would seem that Delano should be more quick to mistrust or suspect a situation, and that waiting for “extraordinary and repeated incentives” to spark his “personal alarms,” would be a grossly ineffectual defense strategy. Therefore, this depiction of Delano suggests that perhaps what the American captain sees, or how he feels about what he sees, does not reflect or match the true nature of a particular situation.
There are other important instances when the removed third-person’s comments undermine Delano’s position of authority and narrative trustworthiness. For example, upon first meeting Don Benito, Delano begins to make assessments about the Spaniard’s “character.” According to the narrator at an early moment in the text, “The Spaniard’s [Benito Cereno’s] individual unrest was, for the present, noted [by Delano] as a conspicuous feature in the ship’s general affliction” (170). However, this narrator adds, “Still, Captain Delano was not a little concerned at what he could not help taking for the time to be Don Benito’s unfriendly indifference towards himself” (170). This comment indicates that the narrator somehow knows more than Delano, that he has seen some other time beyond the present-time of the story (and thus beyond the confines of the discourse), in which the opposite of Delano’s judgment was revealed to be true. Therefore, the text is actively remarking or reflecting upon itself as a story whose details are not to be trusted, a story in which “reality” is a fluid concept sculpted by the limited, non-omniscient scope of Delano’s perceptive-lens.
Nevertheless, the narrative proceeds with incidence upon incidence of extended description of precisely what and how Delano views his surroundings; surroundings, that is, which Delano himself often deems oddly curious. For example, a rather significant portion of the text is devoted to Delano’s observation of the style of dress exhibited by the passengers of the San Dominick. About Don Benito’s attire, Delano comments:
The Spaniard wore a loose Chili jacket of dark velvet; white small
clothes and stockings, with silver buckles at the knee and instep; a
high-covered sombrero, of fine grass; a slender sword, silver mounted,
hung from a knot in his sash – the last being an almost invariable adjunct,
more for utility than ornament, of a South American’s gentleman’s dress
to this hour. Excepting when his occasional nervous contortions brought
about disarray, there was a certain precision in his attire curiously at
variance with the unsightly disorder around; especially in the belittered
Ghetto, forward of the mainmast, wholly occupied by the blacks. (176)
Delano cannot make sense of the Spanish captain’s dress (a characteristic whose importance to Delano—as a quality of personal definition—is underscored by the length of the description). There is something “off” about these circumstances for Delano, who finds the “precision of [Don Benito’s] attire” to be “curiously at variance” with the ship’s setting. He does not elaborate upon the source or effects of the curious variance; he does not interpret or explicate…because he does not know. Delano merely notes the presence of this incongruity, and it is this act of observation with lack of follow-up explanation, that confers upon the text an unsettling sense of enigma and uncertainty (mirroring Delano’s own confusion). The preponderance of impressionistic-verbs such as “seemed” in the text also strengthens this enigma effect. For example, a few lines after the description of Don Benito’s dress, Delano thinks that “there seemed something so incongruous in the Spaniard’s apparel, as almost to suggest the image of an invalid courtier tottering about London streets in the time of the plague” (177). Here, again, the mystery and strangeness of the situation is (re)emphasized by the term “incongruity,” but unease and ambiguity are further suggested by the fact that Delano’s figure of comparison (and thus explanation) cannot fully contextualize the elusiveness of his observations. The “image of an invalid courtier tottering about London streets” almost captures the qualities of Don Benito’s dress that seem curious to Delano. But the “unknown” here is too great to be likened, and no familiar point of reference can provide a sufficient (analogous) explanation. Another example of this “deficiency of comparison” occurs when Delano sees a Spanish sailor place his hand into his shirt, “as if hiding something” (190). Delano cannot be certain on several counts here: it could very well be that the sailor was not acting in some covert, clandestine way (suggested by the term “as if”) or, even if he were trying to be secretive, Delano cannot identify the object which he appeared to be hiding. “What was that which so sparkled?” he asks himself, “Could it have been a jewel? But how come sailors with jewels?….” (190). Again, Delano just does not know, and both he and the reader cannot be sure if the initial vague impression is accurate and, if so, what reality lies behind the perception. Clearly, then, the element of suspicion is working in the text on both a manifest and formal level, evidenced by both the mysterious content and by the unreliability of Delano as a formal convention (the narrator, the focalizer of the story). Delano’s vacillation and mixed impressions affect (unstable) character construction as well, again demonstrating how perception is the driving narrative force and source of “plot” in Benito Cereno.
Because the first section of the novella is filtered through the eyes and thoughts of Delano, the illustration of character, and thus the image or identity these characters assume for the reader, vary along the spectrum of Delano’s impressions. Delano, for example, is sometimes suspicious of Benito Cereno’s intent, developing “some ugly misgivings” (190) and a “ghostly dread” about the Spanish captain based on images and events, on “enigmas and portents” (191), he cannot understand (such as the sailor incident and apparel-confusion already discussed). Additionally, Delano’s doubts about Don Benito are spurred when the Spanish captain launches into a series of questions about the size of Delano’s crew, inciting “such return of involuntary suspicion, that the singular guilelessness of the American could not endure it” (189). “The narrated internal monologue of Delano continues, “But those questions of the Spaniard…did they not seem put with much the same object with which the burglar or assassin, by daytime, reconnoiters the walls of a house?” (192). Upon further reflection, however, Delano notes the openness with which Benito had delivered his inquisition, thinking,
But, with ill purposes, to solicit such information openly of the
chief person endangered, and so, in effect, setting him on his guard;
how unlikely a procedure was that? Absurd, then, to suppose that those
questions had been prompted by evil designs. (192)
Delano here wonders whether a man with bad purpose would conduct his evil business in such a brazen way, so as to raise the suspicion of his target/victim. Deeming this idea “absurd,” he therefore concludes that Don Benito could not have possibly intended some evil scheme with his questions. Thus, Delano quickly changes his opinion about the Spaniard:
The same conduct [of Benito Cereno], which, in this instance, had
raised alarm, served to dispel it. In short, scarce any suspicion or
uneasiness, however apparently reasonable at the time, which was
not now, with equal apparent reason, dismissed. (192)
This passage, by emphasizing Delano’s vacillation from one extreme of “reason” to another, pictures him as a somewhat ambivalent (or wish-washy) man, able to change his mind without much need for extended consideration or rumination. Highlighting the rapidity of Delano’s turn-over, this description further undermines the stability and reliability of the American captain’s judgments. Additionally, with Delano’s suspicions (temporarily) suspended, the character of Don Benito changes from bad to good, from villain to victim with similar speed, precisely because the image of the Spaniard derives from the source of Delano’s variable perception. Character is the product of Delano’s impressions and, therefore, proof that “plot” exists at the level of description/perception in Benito Cereno, as a description of the actant model of character will demonstrate.
In the “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” section of Image Music Text, Roland Barthes discusses the legacy of Structuralism as “much concerned” with not defining “characters in terms of psychological essences,” viewing them instead as “participants” [rather than “beings”] in the narrative (Barthes 106). Structural theorists as early as Aristotle have conceived of character as subordinate to the action of the plot in a discourse, as agents or conductors of this action. This is the actant model of character (Barthes 88, attributed to Greimas). Because characters result from Delano’s impressions, they are the “agents” of his observations, and the main action in which they participate is this accretion of extended perception. The plot to which they are subordinated/by which they are defined, is the plot of perception, the individual acts serving as “functional units” (Barthes 90) to the overarching action of the novella (i.e., Delano’s struggle to perceive and render meaning, his own movement between syntagm and paradigm, between distributional and integrational ). The functional aspect of the novella’s events, those instances which might at first seem like the true “action” of the narrative, is evidenced by the frustrating stasis that pervades the narrative, highlighted specifically by scenes of heightened magnification and increased distension.
In Benito Cereno, so much is happening around Delano, yet so little progress or forward movement seems to follow. The description of Don Benito’s attire already cited, is one example of how the “space” of the narrative is abundantly filled, but the trajectory of time barely advanced (a disproportionate relationship between time elapsed over the discourse, and time elapsed within the story). Another interesting scene of heightened magnification occurs when Delano encounters a Spanish sailor knotting several strands of rope:
Captain Delano crossed over to him, and stood in silence surveying the knot; his
mind, by a not uncongenial transition, passing from its own entanglements to those
of the hemp. For intricacy, such a knot he had never seen in an American ship,
nor indeed any other. The old man looked like an Egyptian priest, making Gordian
knots for the temple of Ammon. The knot seemed a combination of double-bowline-knot,
treble-crown-knot, back-handed-well-knot, knot¬¬-in-and-out-knot, and jamming-knot.
At last, puzzled to comprehend the meaning of such a knot, Captain Delano addressed the knotter: —
‘What are you knotting there, my man?’
‘The knot,’ was the brief reply, without looking up.
‘So it seems; but what is it for?’
‘For someone else to undo,’ muttered back the old man, plying his fingers
harder than ever, the knot being now nearly complete. (Melville 202)
What is actually happening in this scene, on the level of individual events? If one looks to the particular verbs to answer this question, it would appear that this is a scene about Delano “crossing” over to the sailor, “standing” and “surveying” him, “seeing” the varied knots, “asking” the knotter some questions to which the sailor cryptically “replies/mutters.” The scene continues:
While Captain Delano stood watching him, suddenly the old man threw the knot
towards him, saying in broken English – the first heard in the ship – something to
this effect: ‘Undo it, cut it, quick.’ It was said lowly, but with such condensation
and rapidity, that the long, slow words in Spanish, which had preceded and followed,
almost operated as covers to the brief English between.
For a moment, knot in hand, and knot in the head, Captain Delano stood mute; while,
without further heeding him, the old man was now intent upon other ropes.
And with this brief line, the scene ends. Why, then, the high, intense focus on the knot-maker, if Delano is simply going to move onto to another part of the ship? The repetition of the word “knot,” and the fact that the sailor’s later words are spoken in English, “the first heard in the ship,” are cues signaling some kind of importance to this passage. However, the fact that Delano turns his attention elsewhere so quickly, renders the action of the scene inconsequential. The high magnification seems incongruous for the importance in confers upon a scene that does not merit the close treatment, in terms of the individual events depicted. If these actions were so crucial, the narrator-in-Delano would surely linger longer, or other characters would be affected. But this scene, on this level of action, seems episodic, unrelated, pointless and thus frustrating.
The key, of course, is to realize that the primary action, to which the knot-making and talking and sudden throwing are functions, is the establishment of a thread of suspicion via the plot of Delano’s perception. More is happening in this episode that a strange sailor crafting interesting knots, offering vague answers and then performing a random outburst in English. These verb units constitute the adjective description, which itself illustrates or embodies the larger verbal action of Delano’s perceiving/meaning-making process (and this is how Todorov’s models of narrative adjective and narrative verb are fused into one grammatical device in Benito Cereno: description is action). The extended scenes of description and high magnification, therefore, emphasize how perception is more important, is more integral to the novella’s action, than the individual “verb predicates” themselves.
Such scenes also highlight the profundity and influence of Delano’s fallible perception. One might argue that because these scenes are so long and the only version of the “events” that the reader is offered, they might work to convince the reader that, in fact, these scenes reflect the reality of the story. However, because of the layers of suspicion working in a passage such as the one above (the disconnect between degree of magnification and ostensible level of significance; the word repetition; the cryptic answers; Delano’s confusion), the reader is doubtful as to whether the actions being described and the “truth” of the story (the “what is really going on”) are part of the same “reality.” The extended scenes, then, give more space in which this suspicion can grow, and—if perception is action—for the action of the story to unfold in a way that challenges a reader’s expectation of time and security in a narrative. Additionally, there is very little closure after these episodes, evidenced by the way the knot-making scene ends so abruptly. This unsettling lack of resolution contributes to the overall lack of restoration of equilibrium; or, rather, of an understanding of where equilibrium ends and disequilibrium begins (and thus where “plot” and “story” actually commence). In this way, due to the rapidity and condensation of the episodes (not unlike the English words of the knot-maker, which also rouse suspicion), the reader has no choice but to temporarily believe Delano and move onto the next scene (the reader ultimately has to keep up with the narrative). However, the seed of suspicion has been sown and continues to develop in the compressed gaps, to fester in the tiny spaces and lack of explication, between the novella’s individual functions.
Does Benito Cereno indeed present a plot of perception and suspicion, or are these merely threads working at the level of the discourse? Delano’s impressions tie together the seemingly unrelated events in the narrative – the words on the page result from his struggle to find meaning in his midst. However, the importance of perception and suspicion to both to the discourse and story of Benito Cereno, is evidenced in the break between the first part of the novella and the deposition portion. This separation in narrative provides another way of discussing Delano’s ongoing perception-process: that is, to view him as a character whose naiveté and biases enable the story to unfurl. If Benito Cereno is a novella about a slave rebellion aboard a Spanish ship and the American captain from whom the danger is hidden, then the rouse at the heart of the story depends upon Delano performing the role of a perceiving being. The events that take place– the mysterious incidents, the verbal exchanges between characters – these are all actions that are constructed to make Delano think certain things and believe certain lies. Granted, in the deposition, the reader learns that several of the San Dominick’s crew members, during Delano’s visit, attempted “to convey hints to him of the true state of affairs” (i.e., of the slave mutiny) (252). In this light, the knot-maker’s vague responses and then sudden outburst of “Undo it, cut it, quick” (202) are actions that take on a different meaning and greater importance. But why, then, is the knot-maker passage presented before/without the deposition explanation? Why the emphasis on Delano’s uncertainty, on his being “puzzled to comprehend” his surroundings? The discourse and story of Benito Cereno (what I am arguing is in fact the novella’s plot) are concerned less with the facts disclosed at the end. The plot, the transition between equilibrium and disequilibrium, relies on the shifts in Delano’s perception. It is a plot in constant flux. Where equilibrium begins and ends, and where disequilibrium enters to transgress/incite the narrative, is an unsteady dynamic, because the status or existence of the “beginning state” is rendered ambiguous by Delano’s unreliable narration. In this way, Benito Cereno is also a story (with a plot) of suspicion, because it is this constant questioning and doubt both on the part of the reader and the figure of Delano, that inform and propel the narrative.
In this way, Delano is also a reader of the discourse in which he is implicated, actively trying to make sense of his “text” (i.e., his surroundings). But, these interpretations carry an undertone of confusion and doubt, reflecting assessments even Delano sometimes questions. Therefore, the reader “proper” is placed in this very interesting position of trusting Delano because of an inherited tradition of reliable narration, of using his impressions as stepping-stones to traverse the landscape of the discourse—but also, of somehow reconciling the suspicion his perceptions arouse. Benito Cereno, thus, is itself a story about reading and writing, about constructing meaning across the text when the syntagm can no longer be accepted without question. It is the story of the reader as active producer, rather than passive consumer, of the narrative.
Aristotle. Poetics, trans. S.H. Butcher. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961, 61-66.
Barthes, Roland. “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” in Image, Music, Text, trans.
Stephen Health. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1978, 80-124.
Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno” in Billy Budd and Other Stories. New York: Penguin Classics,
Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Grammar of Narrative” in The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard.
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978, 108–119.
Barthes, Roland. “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” in Image, Music, Text, trans.
Stephen Health. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1978.
Macherey, Pierre. A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall. London and New York,
Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folk Tale, 2nd ed. by Vladimir Propp. Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1968.
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