Study Guide

Benito Cereno

By Herman Melville

Benito Cereno Introduction

Long before the crew of the Black Pearl cried mutiny, Jack Sparrow's predecessors ruled the Seven Seas in Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno." Old Hermie's version is no Disney theme park ride, though, so buckle up for a tale of dastardly double-crossers and struggles against the forces of evil. We're talking psychological drama and an ending that could rival The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense.

But there aren't any vengeful ghosties (or creepypants Keyser Söze) haunting this piece: most of the evil in "Benito Cereno" has to do with the horrific slave trade. And, like lots of Melville's other writings, there's some juicy historical context to this story that shows just how much stranger truth is than fiction. Captain Delano, Babo, and Benito Cereno are based on very real people, with a few select liberties taken. Melville rips lots of details right from the headlines of a famous trial in 1805.

But Melville wasn't just busting out a hot take on a timely story. He published "Benito Cereno" in 1855—fifty years after the news story made headlines. Was he bored? Did he get lost in the library and find an interesting scrap of history. Probably not: Melville was vehemently anti-slavery. The characters in "Benito Cereno" might not get that slavery is hugely and absurdly evil, but Melville himself sure did. He uses this story as a platform to rail against it. Plus, both "Benito Cereno" and the real-life story that inspired it have all the hallmarks of a Melville yarn: ships, masculinity, and grim ambition.

Hungry for more? Don't blame us for keeping our lips zipped, but this is one story that has to unfold on its own. If there's anything we hate, it's spoilers. All we'll say is that after you read this story you'll never think the same way about a) shaving with straight razors b) anything covered by a mysterious tarpaulin (yeesh) and c) who holds the power in the master/slave relationship.

What is Benito Cereno About and Why Should I Care?

The first thing you should know about "Benito Cereno," Shmoopers, is that not all is what it appears. We're strictly in no-spoiler territory, but we've got a sketchy-looking ship with an oddly silent crew: it's safe to say there's something weird going on.

Let's just say that if you're the kind of Shmooper who likes a story that zigzags a bit, "Benito Cereno" delivers the goods, and then some. We're talking about a cast of characters as nuanced and multi-faceted (and unlikeable) as those in Game of Thrones and a narrative that's got about as many twists and turns as Sarah Koenig's Serial. 

See, Melville is the master of portraying inner turmoil. That's a fancy way for saying that there's more brewing at sea than just storms, and that everyone has a hidden agenda. We have to rely on our own mystery-solving chops to get us through with Googling "Benito Cereno Spoilers."

If you're looking for a group of suspects to consider, Serial-style, check out Captain Delano, Babo, and Benito himself. Each of those guys has a poker face that could rival Doyle Brunson's, and everyone is playing a different game. Rather than just considering who's guilty, Shmoopers, this story prompts you to think about motive and the nature of truth. 

Benito Cereno Resources

Websites

Binge-Read All of Melville
Got a lot of time on your hands and an interest in reading all the Melville? UPenn helpfully compiled all of Melville's works available online. Knock yourself out!

See His Mean Mug
Got a burning desire to see what Mr. Melville looks like? Here's a description of what he looked like from his passport.

Amateur Graffiti Artist
Melville totally scribbled over everything. Lucky for us, someone keeps track of these things and dedicated a site to Melville's marginalia.

Movie or TV Productions

Benito Cereno (French '60s version)
It might not be exactly as Melville pictured it, but this French film version of "Benito Cereno" has lots of 1960s flair. Oui oui?

The Enigma of Benito Cereno
You can look forward to this seemingly enigmatic portrayal of our favorite sea captain.

Articles and Interviews

Capitalism, Slavery, and Sea Captains
Ever wondered what those three things have in common? Wonder no more! 

Audio

Kick Back and Listen to the Ocean
Want to rest your tired eyes and dream of the rollicking sea? Listen to this audio recording on YouTube of "Benito Cereno" (in parts).

Images

A Real Slave Revolt
The slave rebellion aboard the San Dominick could really have happened. Here, the New York Times provides a picture of an actual slave revolt that took place aboard a ship.