Benito Cereno by Herman Melville (A Complete Guide)

Updated: Oct 29

Below is a complete guide to the novella Benito Cereno by Herman Melville, including a reading of the text. The audio is also available wherever you listen to podcasts.




JOIN US FOR A LIVE DISCUSSION OF THE STORY ON NOVEMBER 12th 2020.





1) Introduction and background to the story

In part one of this series I argue why it is of critical importance for all Americans to read this novella by Herman Melville before it is too late. In it are critical observations about the American spirit, and an underlying philosophy that is currently tearing us apart.


Melville's story, published in 1855, is a thriller/mystery based on a true story. In 1799 an American Whaling Captain, Amasa Deleno, espies a ship in distress off the coast of Chile. As a good American, he goes to the rescue, bringing food and water. Upon boarding the ship, however, he begins to perceive odd behavior that he cannot explain.


In this introduction, I describe the core epistemological quandary of this character, and of our own lives in America today.


Stories should be experienced and enjoyed as stories, but nonetheless, with some guidance, I will help to show you how this classic tale can breath insight into your own daily life.


In this episode I discuss how Nihilism is an important idea to understand when reading Melville's work. Here is Professor Onkar Ghate discussing Nihilism:



2) Chapter 1: Ship in Distress


*Please note these chapters are my own inventions and not Melville's. He has written this story in one non-stop narrative. I am breaking it up to help make it a little more easy too digest.


This is the first reading of the novella by Herman Melville. In part 1 I argued why this remains a classic story we should all read.


Beneath the terminology section below, I have included the text of Chapter 1 from Benito Cereno.


In the next episode I will give you a summary of this section of the story, and then an exploration of some key themes in the text so far.


Terminology


Herman Melville was a sailor. He understood nautical terms as a musician understands musical compositions. Thus, Melville's texts are heavy on the nautical terms. I highly recommend viewing some schematics of sailing ships of the 1800s in order to gain a visual of terms. Below are a few to help you out.


First, there is a very unfamiliar activity going on aboard the San Dominick.


That is:


Oakum Picking


The Oakum Pickers - There is a description of several black men "picking oakum." What is Oakum and what is oakum picking?


Picking oakum was one of the most common forms of hard labor in Victorian prisons. Prisoners were given quantities of old rope, which they had to untwist into many corkscrew strands. They then had to take these individual strands and unroll them, usually by rolling them on their knee using their hands until the mesh became loose.


Here is a depiction of a prison scene:



NAUTICAL TERMS:






Click HERE for the text of Chapter 1



3) Chapter 1 Summary and a Close Reading


In this episode we go over the first "Chapter" which I have titled "A Ship in Distress."


Make sure you have listened to parts 1 & 2. Part 1 is my introduction to Melville's Novella. Part 2 is my reading of Chapter 1. And this part, 3, is my quick summary followed by a closer look into the chapter.


I broke the Closer Look into 4 categories:


1) The Odd Ship

2) Aboard the Ship

3) Benito Cereno - First Surmises

4) Captain Amasa Delano, Whaling Ship Captain Extraordinaire



4) Chapter 2 "The Gordian Knot"



This is my reading of chapter 2 of "Benito Cereno" by Herman Melville.


Click HERE for the text of Chapter 2



5) Chapter 2 Summary and A Close Reading

Here I give a quick summary of chapter 2: The Gordian Knot. Then we dive into the mind of Captain Amasa Delano.


One of the key values of reading great literature is the ability to enter the consciousness of another person. This is something we are unable to do in our daily lives. In Captain Delano you may find an unnerving similarity to the way that your mind (and mine!) works.

6) Chapter 3: Follow Your Leader


This chapter concludes the major part of Melville's narrative.


We left off at the end of chapter 2 with the shaving scene. Delano has left Cereno to confer with his slave Babo. Delano is surprised t see Babo running after him with a cut on his face. He has been cut by his master Benito Cereno, in retaliation for Babo having accidentally cut him during shaving.


Click HERE for the text of Chapter 3



7) Chapter 3 Summary and A Closer Look



The primary narrative of this novella ends with this chapter. Next is a series of deposition documents describing the inquiry into the slave revolt.


In the summary I condense the key events of this chapter. In the closer look, I discuss three key points that are helpful in understanding this piece by Melville.


1) The core epistemological quandary I posed at the beginning, "A man who is incapable of comprehending a certain series of events is put in a situation where he must do exactly that." Throughout all three chapters we learn there are numerous reasons, Captain Delano is incapable of understanding the predicament he is in. But one that becomes explicit in this chapter is his racism.


2) The mystery is revealed in a general way, and this alters the image of all the bizarre events we have seen in the story.


3) the third point I make in the closer look section is a severe scrutiny of a particular image of Captain Deleno in the moments before he has his revelation regarding what has occurred on board The San Dominick.

8) Chapter 4: The Inquiry




This chapter concludes the major part of Melville's narrative.


We left off at the end of chapter 2 with the shaving scene. Delano has left Cereno to confer with his slave Babo. Delano is surprised t see Babo running after him with a cut on his face. He has been cut by his master Benito Cereno, in retaliation for Babo having accidentally cut him during shaving.


Next up will be a quick summary and a closer look at this chapter. That will be followed by the finale of Benito Cereno.


Click HERE for the text of Chapter 4




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