It would be difficult to argue that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has had a substantial influence over the events of world history. Fittingly, many canonical authors draw on ecclesiastical references to increase the significance of their work. There have been many literary critiques, studies and analyses of “Benito Cereno.” Herman Melville’s novella is a thematic goldmine; it offers much to discuss: racism, rebellion, colonialism, imperialism, historical context, and the list goes on. And, many scholars have written many essays, which discuss many of these subjects. However, few have focused on the ecclesiastical imagery that frames the text; the novella begins and ends with the mention of a monastery.
An authority on Melville, Eric J. Sundquist has been referenced or quoted in several critical works pertaining to “Benito Cereno.” In his essay, “Benito Cereno and New World History,” referring to the role reversal of Babo, the slave, and Cereno, the master, aboard the San Domingo Sundquist asserts that “the masquerade staged by Babo and Benito Cereno” mirrors “the haltingly realized potential for slave rebellion in the New World and, in larger configuration, the final drama of one stage in New World history” (Sundquist 146). He goes on to examine the historical context and importance of the slave revolt in San Domingo (Haiti) noting that “Melville’s exploitation of the theme of balked revolution… has helped draw attention to the wealth of symbolic meaning the slave revolt in San Domingo in the 1790’s would have had for a contemporary audience” (Sundquist 147). Sundquist cites the significance of Melville changing the name of the “ship from the Tryal to the San Dominick” as giving “the slave revolt a specific character” because, after a series of bloody uprisings, “Haiti came to seem the fearful precursor of black rebellion throughout the New World” (Sundquist 147). Sunquist focuses on the historical significance of Melville’s artistic alterations to the original, factual text. Yet, he does not connect it with the Dominican, “Black Friars” mentioned repeatedly throughout the novella (Melville 2). The Black Friars, so-named for the dark robes they shrouded themselves in, were a strict order of Dominicans, founded by San Dominic, who were used by the Catholic Monarchs to apprehend heretics during the Spanish Inquisition.
Another Melville critic, Sandra A. Zagarell also fails to comment on the significance of the ecclesiastical imagery Melville inserts in his novella. Her essay, “Reenvisioning America: Melville’s Benito Cereno” focuses on the inherent inequalities Delano perceives in his observations of Benito Cereno and his ship. Zagarell argues that “Melville challenges his countrymen’s Delano-like sense of superiority by showing how very like other nations America was” (Zagarell 127). She assert that “elaborating a complex ideology, [the text] dramatizes the epistemological fancy footwork Delano must perform in order not to understand what is amiss on the San Dominick, and it ominously doubles Delano’s ideology with that of the Spanish Captain” (Zagarell 129). She goes on to say that Delano’s misunderstanding of the perilous situation aboard the San Dominick “discloses what Americans did not know, why they did not know it, and the potential consequences of that ignorance” (Zagarell 129). Zagarell notes that “in presenting Delano’s ideology with a situation it cannot explain – the slaves’ revolt and subsequent pretense of enslavement – Melville reveals that the conventions whose fixity men like Delano take for granted are actually exceedingly fluid” (129). She, like Sundquist, is concerned with the historical context of Melville’s tale. Unlike Sunquist, Zagarell concentrates on Delano’s thoughts about, and impressions of, Cereno. While Sunquist focuses his essay on the potential for slave uprisings in the conflict presented by the Old and New Worlds, Zagarell is more concerned with Delano’s New World, American perception of the Old World, Spanish captain and his ship.
However, neither of these Melville scholars’ analyses addresses the questions I would like to: why does Melville include ecclesiastical imagery? Why does Delano first perceive the San Dominick as a “whitewashed monastery?” (Melville 2). The imagery is dark, ominous, threatening. To the unsuspecting American, it seemed that “nothing less than a ship-load of monks was before him” (Melville 2). Through the haze Delano sees “darks cowls” and “other dark moving figures… dimly descried, as of Black Friars pacing the cloisters” (Melville 2). And, after all is said and done, and Cereno is “dismissed by the court” he dies in a monastery (Melville 75). Why?
© Copyright 2016 Veronica Dunlop. All rights reserved.
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