why-would-he-do-this-

Attached is my short essay for the short story Benito Cereno by Herman Melville.

The following is a follow up reply and question to the essay.

Please answer the BOLDEN question.

Only need about a paragraph or so.

I have to admit, I find Yvor Winters’ argument—that the slaves in “Benito Cereno” symbolize evil—hard to understand. Given that they are slaves fighting for their freedom, how could they be anything *but* heroes? I have no idea if Winters was too racist to see the slaves as courageous and desperate human beings doing what any other courageous and desperate human beings would do in such a situation—maybe he was, but it seems unlikely.

It seems to me that if we want to see evil as a theme of “Benito Cereno,” the more likely candidate for a symbol would be Cereno and the Spaniards, partly because we know that Melville disapproved of slavery, and partly because we know that Americans in his day were not too fond of the Spaniards. There was a tendency at the time for Americans (and northern Europeans) to think of Spain as having been exceptionally cruel as an imperial power. This tradition is sometimes called the Black Legend (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Legend). If Melville bought into this way of thinking, it seems likely that he would use the Spaniards, not the African slaves, to symbolize evil. (FWIW, when it came to the treatment of Native Americans and African slaves, Spain was not really any worse than Britain and the other imperial powers.)

Anyway, let me return to the passage in which the narrator first uses the word “evil”:

“Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good-nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.”

Okay, so according to the narrator, Delano has a trustful nature. He is not generally liable to think of people as evil. But given what people are capable of, this trustfulness is pretty dumb.

Maybe we’re to think that the slaves have been evil by rebelling, and they are guilty of the “malign evil” mentioned by the narrator. But even if this is the case, it merely tells us that the *narrator* considers the slaves to be evil. It doesn’t mean that Melville thinks so, or that we need to read the story as saying so. Narrators are not always reliable. Lots of writers use what’s called an “unreliable narrator” to tell a story.

For your followup. let me ask you about the strangely convoluted way in which the narrator speaks to us in the passage above. The first sentence is a doozy:

“Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good-nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man.”

It seems to me that, had he wanted to, Melville could have expressed himself much more clearly and directly here. Why not simply write something like this?—

“Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano should have been more suspicious. But he was a very trustful and good-natured man, who, perhaps unwisely, was reluctant to think of others as evil.”

Something like that. To me the most egregious obfuscation, the most unnecessary complication of the language, in the whole passage is the word “undistrustful.” The two negations, “un” and “dis,” cancel each other out; Melville could have simply used “trustful,” but he didn’t. Why? It’s almost as if he were *deliberately* trying to make it hard for us to understand what’s going on. Any idea why he might want to do this?

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