The idea of nature in “Benito Cereno.”

The idea of nature in “Benito Cereno.”

Studies in Short Fiction
Spring, 1993

Terry J. Martin

Although many critics have analyzed specific natural images in Melville’s Benito Cereno, no one has yet focused exclusively on the role of nature in the novella, nor looked fully at its problematic relation to Delano. Such an examination can both reveal much about Melville’s artistry and enhance our understanding of the protagonist’s special kind of self-delusion. Midway through the novella, Delano performs an act that is at once typical and revelatory of his ideology: overwhelmed by fears for his life and doubts about providence, he turns to nature for reassurance:

As [Delano] saw the benign aspect of nature, taking her innocent repose in the evening, the screened sun in the quiet camp of the west shining out like the mild light from Abraham’s tent–as charmed eye and ear took in all these, with the chained figure of the black, clenched jaw and hand relaxed. (96-97).

The personal qualities that Delano attributes to nature (i.e., its “benign[ity]” and “innocen[ce]”), together with the religious associations that the sight evokes, reveal a kind of Emersonian belief in the transcendent goodness and moral providence of nature. It is, in other words, God’s benignity that Delano sees suffused throughout the scene. Delano is not a thoroughgoing pantheist; he retains the idea of a personal God, noticeable especially when he later declares, “There is someone above” (77). Nevertheless, for Delano, just as for Emerson, this transcendent spirit is shadowed forth in phenomenal nature, and Delano would no doubt agree with Emerson that “particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts” (13). This belief in effect turns nature into a vast allegory of the divine spirit. For Delano, the mere appearance of benignity in nature warrants belief in the transcendent reality of benignity…

…Delano’s belief that nature possesses a transcendent moral order legitimates for him the interpretation of natural signs. To be sure, Delano’s behavior is no different from that of most of his contemporaries when he interprets, for example, the color of skin according to this ideal order. If all things signify. then surely white, being the opposite of black, must entail different spiritual characteristics as well. Indeed, Delano has only to look to nature” to find objective corroboration for his belief that whites are “by nature . . . the shrewder race” (75) and therefore naturally superior to blacks: the (apparent) dominance of the whites and servitude of the blacks on the San Dominick offers sufficient proof of Delano’s premise. But Delano has also observed what he takes to be the evident inferiority even of free blacks at home. Blacks have presented themselves as “good-humor[ed],” “easy,” “cheerful,” and “harmonious in every glance and gesture; as though God had set the whole negro to some pleasant tune” (83). They are, he thinks, fit “for avocations about one’s person,” like “natural valets and hair-dressers; taking to the comb and brush congenially as to the castanets, and flourishing them apparently with almost equal satisfaction” (83). Furthermore, blacks are, in Delano’s view, exempt “from the inflicted sourness of the morbid or cynical mind” (84). However, he also deems them essentially “stupid” (75), displaying the “docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind, and that susceptibility of blind attachment sometimes inhering in indisputable inferiors” (84). For Delano, skin color is simply the seal that providence uses to stamp inferior goods.

Of course, who knows what happens when the races are “unnaturally” mixed? Delano conjectures about the effect: “It were strange, indeed, and not very creditable to us white-skins, if a little of our blood mixed with the African’s, should, far from improving the latter’s quality, have the sad effect of pouring vitriolic acid into black broth; improving the hue, perhaps, but not the wholesomeness’ (89). It will be seen from this that the racially crossed offspring are at a distinct disadvantage in Delano’s world, in which natural signs correlate with spiritual identity, because their identities are as uncertain as the effect of mingled magic potions. In fact, the mulatto represents a special semiotic problem for Delano precisely because the mulatto is neither black nor white and is hence unable to be interpreted with any degree of certainty. Delano is therefore even willing to consider the possibility that a mulatto with a regular European face is a devil (89). After all, a belief in the inherent allegorical qualities of matter requires that the mulatto be something less than white but greater than black, and devilishness at least presupposes intelligence gone astray…

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