When inquiring about the comparisons and contrasts between Melvilles Benito Cereno and Frederick Douglasss Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Written by Himself, the following question almost inevitably arises: Can a work of fiction and an autobiography be compared at all? Indeed, the structure of the two stories differs greatly. Whereas Douglasss Narrative adapts a typical pattern of autobiographies, i.e. a chronological order of birth, childhood memories, events that helped shape the narrator etc., Benito Cereno is based on a peculiar three-layered foundation of a central story recounting the main events, a deposition delineating the events prior to the first part, and an ending. There are other contrasting aspects of the stories that call for attention. Most significantly Benito Cereno ultimately portrays slaves as evil and Babo as the mind behind the cunning plan that deceives Captain Delano. The reason for this one-sided representation is naturally the fact that we experience the story from Delanos point of view. In the beginning, we perceive Babo as the typical docile, helpful, and faithful servant so often portrayed in other slave characters such as Stowes Uncle Tom and Jim in Twains Huckleberry Finn. Babo is more than just a slave; he is a faithful fellow, a friend that cannot be called slave .
And despite all the underlying hints of a slave insurrection, Delano does not grasp their meaning. Examples are the slaves treatment of the Spanish sailors and the hatchet polishers , but in Delanos narrow-minded world, only the white man is capable of conceiving plans of evil. And when he and the reader too finally sees the mask torn away, flourishing hatchets and knives, in ferocious piratical revolt, he is embarrassed and with infinite pity he [withdraws] his hold from Don Benito . From this moment on, Babo is a malign devil and Melville removes speech from Babos mouth. This strengthen our opinion of Babo as evil even more, for how can we sympathise with him without hearing his version of the story? Apparently, Melville proposes no other alternative for the reader than to sympathise with the white slave owner Don Benito, whom Babo so ingeniously deceives. This is fundamentally different in Douglasss narrative. It is written in the first person singular and offers the reader a very subjective angle.
Often, man resorts to story-telling as a way of reconciling with a formidable incident in the past. By re-telling the story to another party, he comes to accept that this is a reality to be faced. He realizes that acceptance, rather than denial, is the best way of going about this trouble. Aside from the rehabilitating ability of story-telling with its contributory effect in dealing with a painful ...
The result is a deep felt sympathy for Douglasss situation. When he writes, Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute! , the suffering of the slave Frederick Douglass becomes real; something we can grasp, feel, and almost touch. Mr. Covey is the worst example but all slave owners are portrayed as uncongenial oppressors of freedom. Even Master Hugh in Baltimore, who is compassionate and bestows Douglass with as much freedom as possible, is criticised by Douglass . This is significantly different from Benito Cereno.
Here the slave owner is portrayed as the puppet of the slaves a highly unusual approach and even though Babo is free in some sense, he is still dependent on Don Benito on his road to freedom. Just as the scenery enshrouding the San Dominick is unclear and grey, so is the question of who the slave really is. The text also suggests this ambiguity, for example when it is described how Don Benitos falling stature is supported by Babo , or the way Babo has control over the conversation with Delano . In Douglasss Narrative there is no doubt about the relation between slave and slave owner, although Douglass, after the fight with Mr. Covey, resolves that the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact, he still remained a slave in form . Where Benito Cereno works with highly symbolic terms, Douglasss Narrative is straightforward and plain when it comes to interpretation .
In the passage of the Narrative of Fredrick Douglass, the author masterfully conveys two complimentary tones of liberation and fear. The tones transition by the use of diction and detail. The passage is written entirely in first person, since we are witnessing the struggles of Fredrick Douglass through his eyes. Through his diction, we are able to feel the triumph that comes with freedom along ...
Jonathan Arac argues that Douglasss goal was much less to recover the language and experience of slavery than to end them. Perhaps Douglasss Narrative was not a literate masterpiece, but it was a gust of fresh air for abolitionists and an example for his brethren. Douglasss fight with Mr. Covey is the turning point in Douglasss career as a slave, and in the aforementioned passage lies also the key to understanding the connection between the Narrative and Benito Cereno. Give me liberty or give me death, Patrick Henry said , and it may well be stated that this became Douglasss mantra. In the 1855 revision of his Narrative Douglass changed the above-mentioned passage.
It ends with this: I had reached the point where I was not afraid to die. This spirit made me a freeman in fact, while I remained a slave in form. When a slave cannot be flogged he is more than half free. While slaves prefer their lives, with flogging, to instant death, they will always find Christians enough to accommodate that preference. Martyrdom. That could very well have been the outcome of Douglasss resolution.
And indeed Babo became one. In an allegorical sense, the uprising of the slaves on board San Dominick equals Douglasss struggle with Covey. Babo inhales freedom, and though he is a slave in form when Delano boards the ship, he is never a slave in fact. With this in mind, Babos reckless jump for freedom into Delanos boat makes sense; he prefers instant death to life in the chains of slavery. It seems justifiable then that if Benito Cereno had been written from Babos point of view, the same passage might have occurred. So Babo is sacrificed on the altar of martyrdom and Douglass gains his freedom.
Apparently, this is as contrasting as can be but again, in an allegorical sense, there is a similarity. For although Babo suffers a literary death, he is the one with the last laugh. Don Benito enters a monastery and dies shortly after as a weakened and beaten man, while Babos head [on a spear] meets, unabashed, the gaze of the whites. Slave rebellions are the common topic of the two stories. Melville plays with the anxiety whites had of such and Douglass of its possibility to elevate slaves out of their misery. If paraphrased, the end of chapter X in Douglasss Narrative serves as a perfect illustration of this: Douglass describes his Master Hugh seizing the money Douglass had earned; not because he [Hugh] earned it, – not because he had any hand in earning it but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up.
The Piano Lesson: union of slave legacy with black American self identityIn The Piano Lesson1, August Wilson has captured the black experience comprehensively. The main question he has asked is about the past of the Afro-Americans. This past includes years of slavery and degradation. According to Wilson , the main concern, which black Americans have to address is, what they should do with their ...
Exchange money with liberty and Babos right to revolution as that of the grim-visaged pirate upon the high seas, becomes as right as the white mans enslavement of blacks. In understanding this, Babo turns into a true hero albeit a literate one on a level with Nat Turner, Madison Washington and others. His quest for freedom and his struggle to achieve it deserves to be remembered, just as Douglass is remembered today. Bibliography Arac, Jonathan, Narrative Forms in The Cambridge History of American Literature, Sarcvan Bercovitch, ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995; 1996 pp 6xx-7xx Douglass, Frederick Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Written by Himself in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Nina Baym [et al.], ed., New York: Norton, 4th ed., shorter, 1995, pp 885-916 Melville, Herman Benito Cereno in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Nina Baym [et al.], ed., New York: Norton, 5th ed., shorter, 1999, pp 1134-90 Sundquist, Eric J. The literature of Expansion and Race in The Cambridge History of American Literature, Sarcvan Bercovitch, ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995; 1996, pp 2xx-326 – – – . To Wake the Nations Race in the Making of American Literature.
Boston: Harvard University Press, 1993 Yellin, Jean Fagan Black Masks: Melvilles Benito Cereno in American Quarterly, Volume 22, Issue 3, Autumn 1970 pp 678-689 The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, William Andrews … [et al.], ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Angela Partington, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941; 1992.