Melville vs Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas
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When inquiring about the comparisons and contrasts between Melville’s Benito Cereno and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Written by Himself, the following question almost inevitably arises: Can a work of fiction and an autobiography be compared at all? Indeed, the structure of the two stories differs greatly. Whereas Douglass’s Narrative adapts a typical pattern of autobiographies, i.e. a chronological order of birth, childhood memories, events that helped shape the narrator etc., Benito Cereno is based on a peculiar three-layered foundation of a central story recounting the main events, a deposition delineating the events prior to the first part, and an ending.
There are other contrasting aspects of the stories that call for attention. Most significantly Benito Cereno – ultimately – portrays slaves as evil and Babo as the mind behind the cunning plan that deceives Captain Delano. The reason for this one-sided representation is naturally the fact that we experience the story from Delano’s point of view. In the beginning, we perceive Babo as the typical docile, helpful, and faithful servant so often portrayed in other slave characters such as Stowe’s Uncle Tom and Jim in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Babo is more than just a slave; he is a “faithful fellow”, “a friend that cannot be called slave” . And despite all the underlying hints of a slave insurrection, Delano does not grasp their meaning. Examples are the slaves’ treatment of the Spanish sailors and the hatchet polishers , but in Delano’s narrow-minded world, only the white man is capable of conceiving plans of ‘evil’. And when he – and the reader too – finally sees “the mask torn away, flourishing hatchets and knives, in ferocious piratical revolt”, he is embarrassed and “with infinite pity he [withdraws] his hold from Don Benito” . From this moment on, Babo is a malign devil and Melville removes speech from Babo’s mouth. This strengthen our opinion of Babo as ‘evil’ even more, for how can we sympathise with him without hearing his version of the story? Apparently, Melville proposes no other alternative for the reader than to sympathise with the white slave owner Don Benito, whom Babo so ingeniously deceives.
This is fundamentally different in Douglass’s narrative. It is written in the first person singular and o...
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...though Babo suffers a literary death, he is the one with the last laugh. Don Benito enters a monastery and dies shortly after as a weakened and beaten man, while Babo’s “head [on a spear] … meets, unabashed, the gaze of the whites”.
Slave rebellions are the common topic of the two stories. Melville plays with the anxiety whites had of such and Douglass of its possibility to elevate slaves out of their misery. If paraphrased, the end of chapter X in Douglass’s Narrative serves as a perfect illustration of this: Douglass describes his Master Hugh seizing the money Douglass had earned; “not because he [Hugh] earned it, - not because he had any hand in earning it … but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up.” Exchange ‘money’ with ‘liberty’ and Babo’s right to revolution as that “of the grim-visaged pirate upon the high seas”, becomes as right as the white man’s enslavement of blacks. In understanding this, Babo turns into a true hero – albeit a literate one – on a level with Nat Turner, Madison Washington and others. His quest for freedom and his struggle to achieve it deserves to be remembered, just as Douglass is remembered today.