Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

After reading Submergence, with its watery thematic base, it is mildly amusing that a random selection from Melville House’s Art of the Novella series yields Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, a maritime adventure. Maritime is not a genre of the literary ecosystem I find seductive, but I found Melville’s story absorbing, though assuaged by its mere one hundred and twenty four pages.

A fictionalised account of a real event, Benito Cereno tells of a slave insurrection on a ship travelling in South America. The captain of an American merchant ship, Amasa Delano, boards to assist what he considers a ship in distress after illness, bad weather and probable incompetence. Delano discerns, but continually misreads, a more macabre misery. Understanding more than the captain, we observe and participate in his unease.

Melville’s tale has more of the quiet horror of a Edgar Allen Poe story, rather than the swashbuckling of Horatio Hornblower (this is an assumption, I have no direct knowledge of Hornblower). It was Dore’s Ancient Mariner etching that kept coming to mind.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

10 thoughts on “Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

  1. I was thinking I’d re-read Bartleby as part of this challenge, but now I’m thinking I might revisit Benito Cereno instead (I own both but don’t remember this one as well). As I recall, the way the narration works is pretty clever.

  2. It has a clever show-and-tell construction. I suspected the slave insurrection early, as Melville probably intended, but he leaves sufficient ambiguity to create an almost nauseating tension.

  3. I’ve been trying to decide for weeks whether I would actually re-read the Melville novellas included in the series; it would be my third reading of both. Of course I love them, so it’s no hardship! And I would like to see what more I can uncover of that narrative technique in Benito Cereno. Back when I read it for the first time, I wrote about how eerily similar (and in some passages identical) the text is to the sources of the true story it is based on, and I’m still intrigued by how Melville used these primary documents as such an integral part of a very well-constructed (and very constructed) piece of fiction.

    • From what I can see from some quick research, Poe’s influence on Melville is widely acknowledged. It struck me forcefully while reading this book.

  4. You are my reference point for all things Melville, Nicole. After finishing the book, my first action was to read your thoughts. It is fascinating that he stays so close to the source text; I am not sure today a writer would risk the accusation of plagiarism.

  5. Benito Cereno is one of my favorite Melville books, and it seems awfully underread (compared w/ Billy Budd and Bartleby, I suppose). You’re spot on about the nervous dread. I think it’s a fantastically ironic book, all about the perceptions of well-meaning white people. It’s kind of a scathing satire, in its own way, but not really funny I suppose (or not as funny as Moby-Dick). Anyway, I’m enjoying your write ups in the series. Good luck on this journey, Anthony!

    • Thanks, Ed, I appreciate your reading and enjoyment. I surprised myself with how much I was drawn into a maritime adventure, testimony to Melville’s writing ability.

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