Melville Vs Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglas

1179 words - 5 pages

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 offers the reader a very subjective angle. The result is a deep felt sympathy for Douglass’s situation. When he writes, “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit … the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” , the suffering of the slave Frederick Douglass becomes real; something we can grasp, feel, and almost touch. Mr. Covey is the worst example but all slave owners are portrayed as uncongenial oppressors of freedom. Even Master Hugh in Baltimore, who is compassionate and bestows Douglass with as much freedom as...

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