Both good and evil lie in human nature. Sometimes evil seems to be good while looking from different perspective, and vice versa. This contrasting relationship between good and evil governs the whole plot of Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Even Melville portrays atmosphere, characters and incidents in such a way that can suit his purpose. The following will focus on how evil has been suggested and dramatized in Benito Cereno.
The everlasting struggle of appearance versus reality finds a strong place in Melville’s Benito Cereno. Melville dramatizes the theme of evil such a way that the readers often get puzzled thinking of the real characteristics of being evil. In this novella, Melville establishes contrasting forms of innocence. Innocence of mind lacks knowledge of wrongdoing, and, as a result, it may commit and excuse heinous crimes. Innocence of action opines that sometimes a lesser evil can be committed to accomplish a greater good.
For example, Captain Delano is too naive to see the slave revolt because he sees the black people as ‘good people’. He even considers Babo as a friend, not a slave: “Don Benito, I envy you such a friend; slave I cannot call him. Babo is innocent of wrongdoing because he realizes that the white people will do further wrong to his fellow slaves unless he revolts. Yet neither party is truly innocent; Captain Delano has no qualms about slave trading while Babo pretends to be a slave to play on Delano’s misconceptions and to manipulate his actions.
Thus evil is suggested and dramatized in their individual actions. The atmosphere suggests evil in Benito Cereno. While describing the morning of the sea, Melville says, 'The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything gray. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter's mould.
The sky seemed a gray surtout. Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come. ' The appearance of the ship ‘San Dominick’ also suggests something evil. The decoration of the ship is very strange.
Captain Amasa Delano sees a painted or chalked sentence-'seguidvuestrojete' [follow your leader] which, in the later part of the story, expresses extreme cruelty of the black. Delano describes the ship as, 'The ship seems unreal; these strange costumes, gestures, and faces, but a shadowy tableau just emerged from the deep, which directly must receive back what it gave. ' When Delano visits ‘San Dominick’, he is caught by the strange evil look of ‘Oakum-pickers’. He further faces the evil look of ‘Ashanti conjurers’.
Later, towards the end of the story, in court testimony Delano learns of the fact that Ashanti conjurers committed the massacre. Even evil is suggested in the strange behaviour of Benito Cereno. Delano commented on this: “under the circumstances, would a gentleman, nay, any honest boor, act the part now acted by his host? The man was an impostor. Some low-born adventurer, masquerading as an oceanic grandee; yet so ignorant of the first requisites of mere gentlemanhood as to be betrayed into the present remarkable indecorum.
That strange ceremoniousness, too, at other times evinced, seemed not uncharacteristic of one playing a part above his real level. ” When the Spanish lad gets assailed with a knife by the slave boy, seeing the incident Delano senses some evil things hovering around; but he overlooks his suspicion. The deceptive tyrannical treatment for Atufal is another dramatization of evil. After talking stealthily with Babo, when Benito asks Delano about his ship, Delano thinks him a devil.
When Delano sees a while sailor getting trampled by two negroes, he again grows suspicious thinking of the fact that something evil is happening there. Delano never understands the gesture of the Spanish sailors who repeatedly try to communicate with him. Even the act of throwing the knot towards Delano does not mean anything to Delano. Evil is also dramatized in Babo’s use of Spanish flag for shaving purpose.
Being unknown to the true fact, Delano thinks that Babo uses Spanish flag as his apron because the black are fond of colour. The skeleton of Aranda consistently reminds the great evil already occurred there, and gives Babo a weapon to threaten Benito: “keep faith with the blacks from here to Senegal, or you shall in spirit , as now in body, follow your leader' pointing to the prow;” The act of sharpening the hatchets of the black people also signifies some ominous things happening here.
Even Babo’s decapitated head symbolizes the cruelest evil deed of the white people, which outrun the former evil deed of Babo. Thus evil is suggested and dramatized in the incidents. Evil is dramatized in the characters of Benito Cereno. Delano and Babo are the representatives of the white and black people. Delano sees the black people as absolutely good, animals incapable of evil, and the whites as the perpetrators of evil.
However, as Melville demonstrates by continually using darkness and shadows to imply evil, white people also see all dark people as immoral. Babo realizes that white slave laws make it impossible for anyone but the whites to escape slavery. He realizes how Delano perceives black people, and is able to use Delano’s prejudices to his advantage. In Delano and Babo, Melville presents dual (but not identical) shades of innocence-innocence of knowledge and innocence of action-and argues that innocence is not binary.
Innocence of either thought or deed does not mean goodness because true innocence does not exist. Nor does race imply morality, as the white people’s racist laws as well as their conflicting perceptions of blacks demonstrate. The morality of thought, action, and race is made of shades of gray, not black and white, so there can be no pure innocence of both thought and action. Thus, every person who appears completely innocent must be acting.
Delano is inwardly innocent, but outwardly, a slave trader. Babo is outwardly innocent, but inwardly, he stages a revolt. In the court, Benito utters: “The negro Babo was the plotter from first to last; he ordered every murder and was the helm and keel of the revolt; that Atufal was his lieutenant in all; but Atufal , with his own hand, committed no murder; nor did the negro Babo. Melville illustrates his dual forms of innocence with this charade.
Thus evil is suggested and dramatized in the characters. To put in a nutshell, we can say that through Benito Cereno, Melville tries to picture the conflict between reality and appearance. In this novella, evil is suggested and dramatized in such a way that evokes questions in readers’ mind regarding the evil practice of slavery, racial hatred and prejudices. What is evil does not necessarily always have to mean something evil.
Besides, sometimes, what appears to be good can also be deceptive one. This world is nothing but a stage where, we, all are merely the actors playing individual roles. Many things happen here, which are beyond logic or any acceptable meaning. So all we have to do is that before giving something the name ‘evil’, we should place ourselves in that particular situation and view it from that particular standpoint. Only then it might be possible to come to a fair judgement.