Early US Literature

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A Post-Colonialism Reading of “Benito Cereno”


ABSTRACT: The following sources show the publications of “Benito Cereno” in their various forms. Also, some of the works will be the post-colonial and post-modern theories and theorists, which will be incorporated into textual analysis of the novella. Furthermore, it is necessary to use some of Melville’s biography, due to the fact that he did live with an African tribe. This sheds light on “Benito Cereno” as a whole. Also, a study of Homi K. Bhabha and Giles Deleuze is imperative to showing how mimicry, hybridity, and multiplicity plays out through the work.

Bhabha, Homi K. “Signs Taken for Wonders.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Boston: Blackwell, 2004. 1167-84. Print.

        This source is invaluable because it covers the theories of Homi K. Bhabha that are crucial to understanding “Benito Cereno.” In it, Bhabha explains the theory of hybridity and of mimicry, which are both essential for critical analysis the text. Mimicry deals with colonialism in Melville’s novella because the theory itself is applied to Babo and the other slaves. For example, mimicry is used when the colonized (i.e. the slaves) are forced to try to be exactly like the colonists—they copy the people who are in power. Because of this copying, the slaves reverse the idea of who is in control. Hybridity is a fairly broad term, but Bhabha uses it to show that eventually colonized people will challenge what the people who colonize them are doing—not everything is a universal. If these theories are not taken into account—or not understood—the message of blackness and whiteness is lost in the text, as it pertains to slavery and how it operates in different societies. Bhabha’s ideas create a framework for how the book is read through a post-colonial view. He is a monumental figure in literary theory and his critical interpretations apply so much to the novella, and make it even a richer text.

Buell, Lawrence. “Melville and the Question of American Decolonization.” American Literature 64.2 (1992): 215-37. Print.

        The premise of this article is a close look at many of Melville’s texts and how they relate to the idea of decolonization. Lawrence Buell posits that Melville was deeply concerned with colonization throughout his works. He also examines “Benito Cereno” and the idea that Captain Delano is a “Yankee” and Benito Cereno is an utter fool; thus making Delano out to be “good.” His argument is that Cereno is from Spain, which makes him a Southerner, and therefore is allegory for the slave trade and abolitionists. This is a particularly important idea because it sheds light on Melville’s own feelings–it has quite a bit of biographical information–and also deals with some of the theories of Homi K. Bhabha. Yet, this argument will be rebutted to reveal that there is more going on than just an allegory for the South and the North. In fact, Delano is really no better than Cereno. He, too, should be seen as a bumbling fool walking amongst the ship. It is a wonderful idea to think that this boiling hatred can be seen as a simple allegory, but it is not the way that the text should be read. Instead, its purpose is to show that there is much more going on in the text than such a simple conclusion and that jumping to that particular conclusion is denying a host of other themes and signifiers that run throughout the work. These are the ideology of what the West calls barbaric and also the ideology of what is civilized.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. “A Thousan Paleaus.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Boston: Blackwell, 2004. 378-87. Print.

        Deleuze and Guattari show how the “colonized”–via Homi K. Bhabha–are actually rhizomatic multiplicities. It will also help prove that Captain Delano and Benito Cereno are not. Rhizomatic, in layman’s terms, should bring to light the fact that some subjects have no genealogies—their agency is not universal, but instead spreads out like a potato’s rhizomes. This lets the idea of being a multiplicity come into illumination during the text. Subjects can be more than just one thing; subjects can be more than one thing or person at once—they are constantly changing. Thus, Babo and his companions mimic being the slaves when they are actually not. However, being that they are multiplicities, they go through being slaves, to not being slaves, to being slaves again—or in Babo’s case, dead—during the novella. Oppositely, Captain Delano and Benito Cereno are not rhizomatic; they both believe in a universal which is the slave trade. If one believes in a universal, it is nearly impossible to also be rhizomatic or a multiplicity because the subject is enveloped in his or her own ideology. As Deleuze and Guattari point out: “There is no ideology and there never has been.”

Freeburg, Christopher. Melville and the Idea of Blackness. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2012. Print.

         This book has a chapter that specifically deals with “Benito Cereno” and regulating the mind. It will be useful, because it expands on the racial tension through the novel. It also gives character analysis of Babo, Captain Delano, and Benito Cereno. Freeburg goes into detail about how Melville juxtaposes typical feelings of “whiteness” and “blackness.” Since this research is dealing with these two topics specifically—and the ideas of colonization—it becomes a crucial source to use for any context or discourse. If one does not study Freeburg’s use of these terms, it is almost impossible to comprehend the other theories that come up in this bibliography. He sees “blackness”—not as allegory—but through a sociopolitical view. As mentioned before, Buell finds “Benito Cereno” completely allegorical, whereas Freeburg has a stronger view of the impact of colonization, mimicry, and hybridity. His textual interpretation makes one understand more fully that Melville is concerned with all of these social controversies of the time. Furthermore, he argues that Melville’s use of blackness is not always racial through all his books. This is a versatile source for any academic that wants to work on colonization and racial tension.

Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” 2007. Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. 2405-61. Print.

         This is the actual text which I will be analyzing. Thus, it is the fundamental piece to the project. The product of this is that the novella shows the claim, which I posit: What is considered civilized and barbaric is Western society is false and skewed much of the time. Of course, it is completely necessary to read due to the fact that one would not understand plot, significance, themes, etc. More so, it is a text that shows Melville’s deep concentration on slavery, colonization, and what is right and what is wrong. Melville, being an American Romantic, was very concerned with many injustices. This is seen throughout most of his works. However, Melville did receive criticism for departing from his particular philosophical style during his later works. “Benito Cereno” is still a philosophical work in the sense that it explores what Melville has always explored: Is there enough good in this world to replace what we find evil. Thus, the discussion used in this annotated bibliography can only be understood if the novella is read with these other sources as well.


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