Writing Techniques Used by Herman Melville in Benito Cereno

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There are many styles in which a writer can convey a story within a movie or a book. Whether it falls under the genre of a romantical, thriller, horror or action adventure movie there are different styles that can be chosen to embellish the way it is told. The act of deception is nothing new to the human race. People choose to hide their true intentions for many different reasons. It simply could be to benefit the individual, someone else or to manipulate a situation. In a story or film this style of writing is called Anagnorisis. In order to identify this type of writing the author will place some clues throughout the tale hinting towards something but does not usually reveal what it is until the end of the story. Herman Melville wrote Benito Cereno in 1855 and it is a novella that came out in three parts. Melville uses the technique, anagnorisis in his novella. This allows him to put an interesting twist in this tale.

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The actual definition of anagnorisis is the moment in a plot or story where the recognition or discovery by the protagonist of the identity of some character or the nature of his or her own predicament, which leads to the resolution of the plot. The ideal moment for this device to happen is the moment of peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, where the protagonist realizes some important insight or fact, human nature, his own situation, or a truth about himself. It, in fact, unravels all the major complexities of the plot. This ties into Benito Cereno very well as Melville places many hints throughout this tale which all try to inform the reader of a plot twist. In a quick synapsis of the story, Amasa Delano is the captain of a large American merchant ship called Bachelor’s Delight. He oversees what he thinks to be a distressed ship. The ship turns out to be the San Dominick captained by Don Benito Cereno. The significance of this ship is it is a slave ship that was moving with the waves near the coast. Captain Delano goes to the ship and observes hardly any crew, slaves freely roaming about and the Captain Cereno seemingly being held up by his slave, Babo.

Captain Cereno tells Captain Delano they were stricken by stays for most of the day supplying water and other items to the people on board. A series of strange things happen while Delano is aboard. He witnesses some slaves acting out towards some of the Spaniard crew members. He notices that the Captain Cereno cannot stand on his own and seems to be hesitant to speak. He asks questions all while inspecting the ship. Delano gets many thoughts of doom but his easy-going nature just laughs them off as something else. Ultimately the charade of lies is exposed as Captain Cereno launches into Captain Delano’s boat showing the dagger with Babo. Delano helps recapture the ship killing many slaves. The story goes into the courtroom where the trial of Babo and associates are taking place. The story ends with Cereno saying ‘Had I dropped the least hint, made the least advance towards an understanding between us, death, explosive death-yours as mine-would have ended the scene.”

Now to go back to the topic at hand, anagnorisis. There are many subtle clues throughout the story that hint to Delano the gravity of the situation. He just misses them because he was too wrapped up in his own prejudiced thinking. The first hint comes in this quote from the text “Always upon boarding a large and populous ship at sea, especially a foreign one, with a non-descript crew such as Lascars and Manilla men, the impression varies in a peculiar way from what produced by first entering a strange house with strange inmates in a strange land”. This is showing the mindset of Delano, an American who does not see blacks as equals to white men. It also shows things do not seem natural to Delano. The way the people aboard is free moving, unconstrained and acting odd is not a custom to what he is used to seeing. He depicts the African women as animals along with the men.

When he truly believes they are the equivalent to animals he naturally would not believe they would be intelligent enough to hold a revolt. This almost sets him and the rest of the characters up for the big finally. As the story moves forward Melville rolls on with more hidden messages. Delano is skeptical of the situation aboard the ship but is quick to dismiss everything he thinks. Delano then witnesses a young Spaniard being hit across the head by a slave boy only to watch Cereno do nothing. Furthermore, from the text "That all the negroes slept upon deck, as is customary in this navigation, and none wore fetters, because the owner, his friend Aranda, told him that they were all tractable" This translates to the Captain’s own failure to realize that most captive people would try to escape if given the chance to get their freedom. Him allowing them to do this because of the word of his friend allowed the take over to happen in the first place.

These were just a few of the hidden messages throughout this story line that lead to the end. Ultimately, Captain Delano was duped for a majority of the time into believing that Captain Cereno was in charge. The last big clue was when the captured Captain would not let go of Delano’s hand as he was leaving the ship to his own. Delano saw the look on his face the look on Babo’s face and still did not pick up. It wasn’t until Captain Cereno jumped into the boat which revealed the knife Babo had did Captain Delano see what was truly happening.

Melville never specifically mentioned slavery being a good or bad thing. He was able to use his writing skills to portray a middle stance type of view of the issue at hand regarding slavery. This left it up to the reader to decide. Melville’s use of the writing style called Anagnorisis was impeccable. Especially since this was written so long ago. Stories like these build the suspense and make the reader on edge because they usually pick up on subtle clues but do not actually know what it is they are seeing. The reader forms an opinion and then by the time they get to the end the story is nothing like what they have imagined.

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