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Benito Cereno – Reader Response Criticism Essay

Most readers of Benito Cereno will be surprised when the African conspiracy is finally revealed. Although Melville begins the novella with ominous imagery, the text is designed to lead the reader away from the true events of the San Dominick. The point of view of Benito Cereno is the major tool Melville uses to trick the reader. The story is written in the third person, but expresses Delano’s thoughts and observations. Most readers will trust Delano’s judgement, and his observations of Don Benito and his crew set the reader up to be surprised.

Firstly, Delano’s mistrust of Don Benito caused me to suspect the Spanish captain of taking part in a conspiracy against Delano. Benito asks him strange questions about The Bachelor’s Delight “with a guilty shuffle” (188). When Delano becomes nervous while watching Benito conversing privately with Babo, I was also alarmed. The image that I was most struck by was Benito Cereno standing with his face downcast, as Babo, who is kneeling down, looks upward at his master; Delano noted this contrast, and I interpreted the scene as symbolic of Cereno’s guilt.

Secondly, I believed Babo to be a devoted and loyal servant. Delano was impressed by Babo’s concern for Don Benito, as was I. I never interpreted Babo’s constant service as anything but well-intentioned; in fact, all of the slaves on the ship appeared to be good-natured. Delano even reflected on the ability of the African race to mix work with pleasure after observing the “negroes” onboard performing what he thought were the orders of Cereno. He was completely unaware of the slaves’ true intentions.

I, like most readers of Benito Cereno, was completely unaware of the mutiny of the slaves until Delano realized upon his departure that Don Benito had been terrified all along of Babo; however, upon rereading the text, there are many clues as to what was going on. In this new context, the image of Don Benito looking down while Babo looked up at him takes on an entirely new meaning. This clearly represents Babo’s power contrasted with Cereno’s helplessness. The same dynamic is shown when Babo is shaving Don Benito and cuts him.

Delano notes that nothing “could have produced a more terrified aspect than was now presented by Don Benito” (215). During a second reading, I was also able to notice several other assertions of the Africans’ power. The two Africans who pushed aside the Spanish seaman, and the African boy who attacked the Spanish boy were demonstrating their control over the ship and its passengers. Also, when a Spanish seaman tries to answer Delano’s questions about the San Dominick’s troubles, the Africans take over: “as they became talkative, he by degrees became mute, and at length quite glum” (197).

These are all important details that illustrate the underlying events of the ship, but the reader is not able to correctly interpret them during the first reading. These events are only significant to the reader once the conspiracy has been revealed. The text of Benito Cereno is designed to mislead the reader. Delano’s point of view caused me to misinterpret the events onboard the San Dominick. The typical reader is only able to uncover the hidden clues of the story once Delano himself becomes aware of the real conspiracy.

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