From the opening paragraph of the novella Benito Cereno onwards, the reader is regularly made aware of the atmospheric presence of sea and sky. Far from being a mere decorative background to the main plot, these elements of nature play an important role in defining the moral tone of the narrative. …
Set against the political scene of the mid 1850s, Melville’s story explores the tensions surrounding the so-called “Compromise” of 1850 and its potential to resolve the differences between for the Northern and Southern States of America. In particular the much contested “Fugitive Slave Law”, which was a crucial part of that accommodation, stirred up huge moral dilemmas which citizens in both North and South had to consider. This paper analyses the shifting nature of sea and sky throughout the novel and shows that the sea and the sky provide the key which unlocks the moral message of the story.
The opening page of the novella presents the perspective of Amasa Delano, a relaxed and fair-minded ship’s captain who looks out into the harbour and notices the natural colors of the sea and sky. The key feature of the seascape is its grayness. The sea is described as being “fixed … sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mould” (Melville, 1959, p. 107) while the sky “seemed a grey surtout” (Melville, 1959, p. 107) which is a formal piece of clothing. The overwhelming impression is of an abnormal stillness, which for a captain of a sailing ship means an enforced pause, since there is no wind to drive him forward. The underlying message here is that the location of the story is a backwater where the normal cut and thrust of life has stopped. The eerie stillness gives Delano and a feeling of foreboding: “Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.” (Melville,m 1959, p. 107). The surroundings are deliberately neutral and vaguely threatening. Into this exceptional setting sails the mysterious slaving ship. The grayness signifies that the story cannot be located in any firm context of dark or light, or indeed black and white, since gray is half way between the two. This moral uncertainty has been picked up critics: “Benito Cereno has always been a problematical text to its critical readers … Melville is one reader’s racist while being another’s abolitionist, and the text of the story has been cited as evidence in support of both of these.” [Weiner, p. 114] The San Dominick is a slave ship in which the hierarchy of master and slaves is in disarray. Captain Cereno loses his wits from time to time, and the slaves behave with a mixture of nobility and impudence, upsetting the usual order of things. Captain Delano’s inability to work out exactly what is going on creates a sense of disorientation in the reader. This lack of clear direction is again reflected in the natural surroundings. Cereno’s ship is not sailing free it is caught in a frame of green sea weed “ribbon grass- straight as a border of green box” (Melvile, 1959, p. 140). This implies that instead of sailing the oceans freely, as one might expect, the ship is itself captured. The slaver has become enslaved, and the plot of the story gradually reveals just how trapped Cereno is by the very cargo he is supposed to be transporting. Melville makes this repeatedly clear through Delano’s perception of unusual images of the sea “Though upon the wide sea he (=Delano) seemed in some far inland country.” (Melville, 1959, p. 141) The world is turned upside down, and nature reflects this state of affairs. In the middle part of the novella, nature appears to return to its normal and peaceful state. Delano reproaches himself for suspecting something amiss. He interprets the calm surroundings as divine providence: “… he saw the benign aspect of nature, taking her innocent repose in the evening, the screened sun in the quiet camp of the west shining out like the mild light from Abraham’s tent… ...
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