Slavery in Melville's Benito Cereno

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About this sample

About this sample


Words: 641 |

Page: 1|

4 min read

Published: Jun 13, 2024

Words: 641|Page: 1|4 min read

Published: Jun 13, 2024

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Body Paragraph 1
  3. Body Paragraph 2
  4. Body Paragraph 3
  5. Conclusion


Herman Melville's novella Benito Cereno offers a complex and layered exploration of slavery, race, and human nature. Published in 1855, the narrative is set against the backdrop of a slave revolt aboard a Spanish ship and is narrated by an American captain, Amasa Delano. Through the lens of Delano's observations and experiences, Melville presents a powerful critique of the institution of slavery and the racial attitudes that underpin it. The novella's intricate plot and rich symbolism compel readers to confront the moral ambiguities and human costs associated with slavery. This essay examines how Melville uses character development, narrative structure, and symbolic elements to critique slavery and expose the deep-seated prejudices of the era.

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Body Paragraph 1

Character development is central to Melville's critique of slavery in Benito Cereno. The characters of Captain Delano and Benito Cereno serve as foils, highlighting contrasting attitudes towards slavery and race. Delano's naivety and implicit racism are evident in his paternalistic view of the African slaves, whom he perceives as naturally submissive and inferior. Despite numerous signs of unrest and danger, Delano remains oblivious to the true situation on the ship, showcasing his deep-seated prejudices and blind trust in the supposed moral superiority of his race. In contrast, Benito Cereno, the Spanish captain, embodies the moral and physical decay wrought by the institution of slavery. His deteriorating health and psychological distress symbolize the corrosive effects of slavery on both the oppressors and the oppressed. Through these characters, Melville critiques the dehumanizing nature of slavery and the moral blindness it engenders in those who uphold it.

Body Paragraph 2

Melville's narrative structure in Benito Cereno further underscores his critique of slavery. The novella is constructed as a suspenseful mystery, with Delano's perspective gradually revealing the true nature of the events aboard the San Dominick. This narrative technique effectively immerses the reader in Delano's initial ignorance and subsequent realization, mirroring the broader societal awakening to the horrors of slavery. The shifting perspectives and fragmented revelations create a sense of disorientation and uncertainty, reflecting the complexities and moral ambiguities inherent in the institution of slavery. By employing this narrative strategy, Melville not only engages the reader but also underscores the difficulty of discerning truth and justice in a world tainted by slavery and racial prejudice.

Body Paragraph 3

Symbolism plays a crucial role in Melville's critique of slavery in Benito Cereno. The figurehead of the San Dominick, covered with canvas and inscribed with the ominous words "Follow your leader," serves as a powerful symbol of the hidden truths and moral decay associated with slavery. This imagery foreshadows the eventual revelation of the slave revolt and the violent struggle for freedom. Additionally, the stark contrast between light and darkness throughout the novella symbolizes the tension between ignorance and enlightenment. Delano's initial perception of the ship as a "benign" and "sunlit" place is shattered as he uncovers the dark reality of the slaves' plight. This use of light and darkness underscores the theme of moral blindness and the necessity of confronting uncomfortable truths. Through these symbolic elements, Melville emphasizes the insidious nature of slavery and the imperative for societal introspection and reform.

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In Benito Cereno, Herman Melville masterfully employs character development, narrative structure, and symbolism to critique the institution of slavery and expose the prejudices that sustain it. Through the contrasting characters of Delano and Cereno, Melville highlights the moral blindness and dehumanizing effects of slavery. The suspenseful and fragmented narrative structure immerses the reader in the complexities and ambiguities of the slave revolt, mirroring the broader societal struggle to confront the realities of slavery. Finally, the rich symbolism of the figurehead and the interplay of light and darkness underscore the moral decay and hidden truths associated with the institution of slavery. As a literary work, Benito Cereno remains a powerful and relevant commentary on the enduring legacy of slavery and the necessity of moral and societal introspection.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

Slavery in Melville’s Benito Cereno. (2024, Jun 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
“Slavery in Melville’s Benito Cereno.” GradesFixer, 14 Jun. 2024,
Slavery in Melville’s Benito Cereno. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Jul. 2024].
Slavery in Melville’s Benito Cereno [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2024 Jun 14 [cited 2024 Jul 15]. Available from:
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