Critical Essays Literary Technique in Benito Cereno””

The following are examples of some of Melville’s rich, meaningful rhetorical devices:

Foreshadowing: Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms.

Repetition: And that silver-mounted sword, apparent symbol of despotic command, was not, indeed, a sword, but the ghost of one.

Alliteration: . . . three months after being dismissed by the court, Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader.

Simile: . . . a furtive, diffident air, which sat strangely enough on his weather-beaten visage, much as if a grizzly bear, instead of growling and biting, should simper and cast sheep’s eyes.

Symbol: . . . he chanced to observe a sailor seated on the deck engaged in tarring the strap of a large block, a circle of blacks squatted round him inquisitively eyeing the process.

Historical allusion: No sword drawn before James the First of England, no assassination in that timid King’s presence, could have produced a more terrified aspect than was now presented by Don Benito.

Mythological allusion: Despairing of getting into unembarrassed talk with such a centaur, Captain Delano, after glancing round for a more promising countenance, but seeing none, spoke pleasantly to the blacks to make way for him . . .

Literary allusion: . . . one readily perceives why those hypochondriacs, Johnson and Byron . . . took to their hearts, almost to the exclusion of the entire white race, their serving men, the negroes, Barber and Fletcher.

Biblical allusion: Or was the Spaniard less hardened than the Jew, who refrained not from supping at the board of him whom the same night he meant to betray?

Rhetorical question: . . . was it not absurd to think of a vessel in distress — a vessel by sickness almost dismanned of her crew — a vessel whose inmates were parched for water — was it not a thousand times absurd that such a craft should, at present, be of a piratical character; or, her com-mander, either for himself or those under him, cherish any desire but for speedy relief and refreshment?

Caesura: Ah! thought Captain Delano, these, perhaps, are some of the very women whom Ledyard saw in Africa, and gave such a noble account of.

Natural image: . . . vanished into the recesses of the hempen forest, like a poacher.

Visual image: . . . he moved slowly about, at times suddenly pausing, starting, or staring, biting his lip, biting his finger-nail, flushing, paling, twitching his beard, with other symptoms of an absent or moody mind.

Aural image: . . . a continuous, low, monotonous chant; droning and druling away like so many gray-headed bag-pipers playing a funeral march.

Tactile image: The wind, which had breezed up a little during the night, was now extremely light and baffling . . .

Contrast: . . . the moody air of the Spaniard, which at times had not been without a sort of valetudinarian stateliness, now seemed anything but dignified; while the menial familiarity of the servant lost its original charm of simple-hearted attachment.

Personification: . . . the San Dominick had been battledored about by contrary winds, inveigled by currents, or grown weedy in calms. Like a man lost in woods, more than once she had doubled upon her own track.

Synecdoche: To Captain Delano’s surprise, the stranger, viewed through the glass, showed no colors . . .

Dialogue: “What are you knotting there, my man?” “The knot,” was the brief reply, without looking up. “So it seems; but what is it for?” “For some one else to undo,” muttered the old man . . .

Humor: Fie, fie, Jack of the Beach! you are a child indeed; a child of the second childhood, old boy; you are beginning to dote and drule, I’m afraid.

Parallelism: . . . in the black he saw a headsman, and in the white a man at the block.

Aphorism: Ah, this slavery breeds ugly passions in man.

Euphony: Presently the ship’s bell sounded two o’clock; and through the cabin windows a slight rippling of the sea was discerned; and from the desired direction.

Cacophony: “Confound the faithful fellow,” thought Captain Delano; “what a vexatious coincidence.”

Conceit: . . . there’s Rover; good dog; a white bone in her mouth. A pretty big bone though, seems to me.

Catalogue: . . . the third, Yola, likewise killed; the fourth; Ghofan; and six full-grown negroes, aged from thirty to forty-five, all raw, and born among the Ashantees . . .

Periodic sentence: The man was an imposter.

Ellipsis: “True, true,” cried Captain Delano, starting, “you have saved my life, Don Benito, more than I yours . . .”

A sustained work tinged by the atmosphere of terror common to gothic horror, Benito Cereno displays remarkable control of cohesion and unity as well as an integrated chiaroscuro, or play of light against dark. Set against an overcast day, the chaotic shipboard events lead to the enfeeblement and ultimate extinction of Don Benito’s spirit, which succumbs to his grim confrontation with Babo’s malice. To maintain the cheerless, brooding mood which permeates the rising action, Meville carefully salts the text with concrete images of masts, chains, rails, rusty hatchets, a sword, the colorful flag of Spain, a rotting balustrade, a ruined bell, and other aspects on and of the decrepit ship. For example:

As his foot pressed the half-damp, half-dry sea-mosses matting the place, and chance phantom cat’s-paw — an islet of breeze, unheralded, unfollowed — as this ghostly cat’s-paw came fanning his cheek; as his glance fell upon the row of small, round dead-lights — all closed like coppered eyes of the coffined — and the state-cabin door, once connecting with the gallery, even as the dead-lights had once looked out upon it, but now calked fast like a sarcophagus lid; and to a purple-black tarred-over panel, threshold, and post; and he bethought him of the time, when that state-cabin and this state-balcony had heard the voices of the Spanish king’s officers, and the forms of the Lima viceroy’s daughters had perhaps leaned where he stood — as these and other images flitted through his mind, as the cat’s-paw through the calm, gradually he felt rising a dreamy inquietude, like that of one who alone on the prairie feels unrest from the repose of the noon.

Like Edgar Allan Poe’s phantasmagoric images, Melville’s poetic vision weaves a mesmerizing texture of decay and unease which ensnares the imagination of so literal an intelligence as Delano.