Nature in Benito Cereno

Note: this paper is one in a series written for a lit class. Each essay examines a text from a specific critical perspective.... which is why this essay focuses on mimetic criticism.

In most of Herman Melville’s writings, he chose to rewrite past events, and “Benito Cereno” is certainly no exception to this rule. Based on the actual account of Captain Amasa Delano, who published a log of his travels in 1817, “Benito Cereno” is an interesting interpretation of the events surrounding the ship Perseverance. Although Melville changed the names of the ships Perseverance and Tryol to Bachelor’s Delight and San Dominick (respectively), the fact that the story is based on a real life event is one reason that this story should immediately grab the attention of mimetic critics. And the fact that this story is so closely related to nature (both human and the natural world), is surely reason enough to attract a very specific branch of mimetic critics: the eco-critics.

In the introduction to his book The Environmental Imagination, critic Laurence Buell discusses key elements that might be found in an “environmentally oriented” work of literature (Buell 7). He immediately identifies four elements, which he suggests must all be present before a text can be considered environmental. On a very basic level these criteria seek to relate men and nature in a way that has been often present since the Romantic period. That is, not only were men affected by nature, but also men affected nature. This reciprocal relationship is the focus of Buell’s entire argument, and indeed the central point of all eco-criticism. In order for a text to be environmentally oriented then, eco-critics require that nature be not only present but also actively participating and influencing the events of the story.

The first key element that Buell focuses on is the idea that “the non-human environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history” (Buell 7). In “Benito Cereno,” Melville puts great emphasis on nature, including (appropriately) the sea and its “long roods of swells” (Melville 489). Descriptions of natural things and comparisons between objects and the natural world are prevalent. Even the Spanish slave ship, the San Dominick, when close enough to examine, is described in terms of nature. The platforms on the masts, “hung overhead like three ruinous aviaries” (Melville 490). This description is significant in that it not only sets a dark tone to the tale, but also works to foreshadow the future events that occur among the sailors and slaves on board the two ships. As I will later show you, this particular use of nature highlights the manipulation of what was, at the time of the publication of “Benito Cereno,” the common view of what was humanly “natural” in the United States.

A second requirement for an eco-centric text is that it must express in some way the idea that “human interest is not… the only legitimate interest” (Buell 7). Captain Delano is described as a person possessing of a “singularly undistrustful nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms” (Melville 489). However, by establishing that this particular character-trait is unusual, Melville actually suggests that a more natural, “normal” person is instead wary and distrustful. Having created a natural state for the men of this story then, it is important to note that Delano is very much aware of nature, and being influenced by it. “It might have been but a deception of the vapors, but, the longer the stranger was watched the more singular appeared the ship’s maneuvers” (Melville 490). I would suggest that Delano was perhaps more influenced by nature and the natural world than by men. He even expresses concern, which, though on some secondary level is for the men on board the San Dominick, is reserved largely for the ship herself, “From her continuing too near the sunken reef, deeming her in danger, calling to his men, he made all haste to apprise those on board of their situation” (Melville 490). Plainly then, nature is portrayed as an active and influential part of the events that occur in “Benito Cereno,” above and beyond the natural feeling of empathy that an audience feels when reading about a tragic human situation.

Buell’s third critical necessity, that “human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation” is a little more difficult to identify in “Benito Cereno” (Buell 7). First, let me make it clear that while I draw a distinction between what constitutes human nature and what is environmental nature, for the sake of identifying this third criteria I am making a connection between the two. In “Benito Cereno” Melville moves to establish not only nature but also natural order by angling the text so that it becomes obvious that even though (in recent American history), whites were considered superior to their dark counterparts; it is not the whites but the slaves who now have control. Melville does this by making a connection between this 19th century assumed “natural” order and the physical condition of the slave ship: “While upon the tarnished headboards, near by, appeared, in stately capitals, once gilt, the ship’s name, ‘SAN DOMINICK,’ each letter streakingly corroded with the tricklings of copper-spike rust; while, like mourning weeds, dark festoons of sea-grass slimily swept to and fro over the name, with every hearse-like roll of the hull” (Melville 491).

This is not man, but rather nature ringing out a death toll for the part of the “Scala Natura” which declares not only light skin coloration superior to dark, but also places humans over the natural world. The breakdown of social order is reflected in the decay of the San Dominick. If all were well with the world according to the standards of 19th century white Americans, the slaves on board the San Dominick would surely have been represented under the full control of Don Benito, rather than vice-versa. Atufal, a minor character in the novel, led Captain Delano to become confused about what was truly happening aboard the San Dominick because of his chains and mild manners. Indeed, Atufal may be Melville’s partially idealistic representation of what should be. He is a slave who is bound in chains and obedient in all forms save two: that he will not ask for Benito’s pardon, and that it is from his mind that the idea for the revolt had originated.

The fourth and last thing that Buell requires of an environmentally inclined text is “Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given” (Buell 8). Throughout “Benito Cereno” we see that nature is consistently personified as a malignant presence. However, nature’s affect upon the characters of the story is not entirely bad. Captain Delano, who has already been illuminated as an unusual example of humankind, shifts perspectives at the last. Where previously in the story he was shown to be wary of nature and unusually trusting of men, at the end of the story his descriptions of nature take on a new tone: “See, yon bright sun has forgotten it all, and the blue sea, and the blue sky; these have turned over new leaves” (Melville 528). Don Benito however, does not agree. He argues that the reason that nature has changed in this way is “Because they have no memory,” and “because they are not human” (Melville, 528). Benito’s statement merely opens the door for Captain Delano to press his argument, “But these mild trades that now fan your cheek, do they not come with a human-like healing to you? Warm friends, steadfast friends are the trades” (Melville 528). By arguing in this way, Delano dissolves the barriers between men and nature, and presents Benito with an argument that shows the relationship between man and nature to ultimately be “natural.”

“Benito Cereno” clearly presents a positive image of nature, especially when compared against the specific human situation in which it is active. Even though the events on board the San Dominick are bad, they are more a reflection of human nature than natural nature. In addition, these events allowed the narrator of the story to come to a more ethical connection with nature. In thinking of nature as a friend or human, Melville actually allows readers to feel sympathetic towards nature and to empathize with nature in a way that they previously may have been unable to. These things assure that “Benito Cereno” is indeed an environmentally focused text.

Works Cited:
Keesey, Donald, comp. Contexts for Criticism. 4th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” Keesey 489-529
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