Study Guide

Benito Cereno Gray Sky

By Herman Melville

Gray Sky

Everything is Gray-vy

"Benito Cereno"is set against a persistently gray sky, shrouding everything around it in a spooky-looking mist. Even in the happy-seeming harbor of St. Maria, the gray sky seems foreboding:

"Everything was mute and calm; everything gray […] The sky seemed a gray surtout […] Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come. (37.3)

That seems like some pretty explicit fore-shadowing (hey-o!) to us.

It's not the sky that's gray in this story; morals seem to be a sort of gray area for "Benito Cereno". Since Melville published this story in the time leading up to the Civil War, plenty of sympathy would be directed towards the rebel Babo—he wants to be free, and acts out of desperation.

But Babo isn't entirely portrayed as a good guy. Neither is Captain Delano, who seems a little too eager to buy Babo from Benito Cereno. Cereno himself seems incapable of making any moral judgment. Perhaps that gray sky is indicative of a little more than poor weather.

And, as a final thought: what colors combine to form gray? That's right: black and white. And what is the central conflict in "Benito Cereno?" You got it: it's between white slave-owners and black slaves—and between the roles that white men and black men were supposed to take in the early 19th Century. When white Delano tussles with black Babo, the combination is gray. When the black slaves become masters and the white masters become slaves: hoo boy. Gray area city.

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