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Melville Stories

Herman Melville

Important Quotations Explained

"Benito Cereno" (Part III)

Key Facts

"I would prefer not to."

This is the most famous line in Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," and perhaps one of the most famous lines in American literature. Whenever the Lawyer asks his scrivener Bartleby to do something, Bartleby responds, "I would prefer not to." At one point, the Lawyer questions him closely: "You will not?" and Bartleby responds, "I prefer not." The prefer, however, doesn't mean that Bartleby will do it despite his preference. Bartleby assumes a polite tone with his boss by using the term "prefer," and there is irony in the choice. If he says he "will not" do something, the Lawyer can easily interpret that as misbehavior and fire him. But as long as he says "prefer," Bartleby makes it seem as if the Lawyer is being pushy, or just asking for a favor rather than giving an order. Bartleby's response is so calm and delivered so rationally that the Lawyer briefly thinks that he himself must be the crazy one, and he has to ask his other copyists for confirmation that he's right.

Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitting to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? Sometimes from out the folder paper the pale clerk takes a ring—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank- note sent in swiftest charity—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more…on errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!

These are the last lines of "Bartleby the Scrivener." The narrator (the Lawyer) has heard a rumor that Bartleby once worked in the Dead Letter section of a post office. For the Lawyer, these dead letters become a way of explaining Bartleby's nature. The Lawyer believes that the endless pile-up of sad, forgotten letters, often intended for people now dead, must have caused Bartleby to slowly withdraw from human society, perhaps even from his own existence. But it shouldn't be assumed that these dead letters simply drove Bartleby insane. Bartleby may very well have continued working if he had not lost his job due to a change in administration. It is possible that Bartleby became his job, and when he couldn't do it any more he lost his sense of purpose. Whatever the reason, the Dead Letter office is only one small clue to the Bartleby's strange behavior.

As I lay in my hammock that night, overhead I heard the slow weary draggings of the three ponderous strangers along the encumbered deck. Their stupidity or their resolution was so great that they never went aside for any impediment. One ceased his movements altogether just before the mid-watch. At sunrise I found him butted like a battering ram against the immovable foot of the foremast, and still striving, tooth and nail, to force the impossible passage. That these tortoises are the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps a downright diabolical, enchanter, seems in nothing more likely than in that strange infatuation of hopeless toil which so often possesses them. I have known them in their journeyings ram themselves heroically against rocks, and long abide there, nudging, wriggling, wedging, in order to displace them, and so hold on their inflexible path. Their crowning curse is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world.

This passage is from the "second sketch" of "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Islands." It is an excellent example of Melville's language, and his ability to make the commonplace remarkable, or even mystical. Melville's diction takes a humorous scene—a tortoise hopelessly trying to walk through a ship's mast—and makes it seem like the epic, tragic struggle of a hero who has been "enchanted" and cannot figure out how to simply walk around an obstacle. However, all the mystical energy of the scene is dissipated by the last line, which is humorous and which seems to hint at a kind of universal truth. Anyone, even people, with such a "drudging impulse to straightforwardness" will find themselves facing obstacles in a "belittered world."

But some dull sense of another body that should be interred, of another cross that should hallow another grave—unmade as yet—some dull anxiety and pain touching her undiscovered brother, now haunted the oppressed Hunilla. Her hands fresh from the burial earth, she slowly went back to the beach, with unshaped purposes wandering there, her spellbound eye bent upon the incessant waves. But they bore nothing to her but a dirge, which maddened her to think that murderers should mourn.

This quote is an example of Melville's skill with imagery and metaphor. The idea of the waves playing a "dirge" for Hunilla's husband and brother, making her think it strange that "murderers should mourn"—the poetic nature of this idea is on par with some of the best passages from Moby Dick. Such passages reveal how different "The Encantadas" is from Melville's earlier works about exotic locations (such as Typee).

This passage is also an example of prosopopoeia. Prosopopoeia is a technique in which a poet or author gives an inanimate object human qualities. In this case, the waves are both murderers and in the act of "mourning" for Hunilla's husband and brother. The concept of the living sea is a very classical one, echoing the Greek and Roman poets.

There is something in the Negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one's person…There is, too, a smooth tact about them in this employment, with a marvellous, noiseless, gliding briskness, not ungraceful in its way, singularly pleasing to behold, and still more so to be the manipulated subject of. And above all is the great gift of good humour…When at ease with respect to exterior things, Captain Delano's nature was not only benign, but familiarly and humorously so. At home, he had often taken rare satisfaction in sitting in his door, watching some free man of colour at his work or play. If on a voyage he chanced to have a black sailor, invariably he was on chatty, and half-gamesome terms with him. In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to Negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.

Race is one of the most significant issues of the twentieth century, and dealing with older texts is always a tricky issue. Some schools ban Huckleberry Finn for its use of the word "nigger." That word is not in "Benito Cereno," but the above passage is arguably just as offensive, if not more so. The passage is easily read as being patronizing toward the black, claiming that they as a race are particularly fit to be servants and have a "good humor" that makes them pleasant to be near. Delano's equating blacks with "Newfoundland dogs" seems to be intended to show Delano's exceptionally good opinion of blacks, but the patronizing nature of the comment is offensive to modern readers. There may be an ironic comment in the use of such an obviously degrading metaphor as "Newfoundland dogs": Melville may be making fun of those who think of blacks that way. But the passage is frustratingly ambiguous, like much of Melville's writing, and without any real understanding of Melville's opinion of blacks at this time, Melville's intentions with such a metaphor cannot be determined with any real surety.

The reader should be wary of associating the views of Captain Delano, the narrator, with those of Melville the author. But both men do have similar backgrounds: both are men from Massachusetts who have spent time on whaling ships. Much of the tone of the story is taken from the autobiography of the real-life Amasa Delano. However, Delano makes no comments like the passage above; Melville has added enormous amounts of detail to Delano's bare-bones account. Some critics have claimed that while Delano is the voice for most of the story, the last section, after the court deposition, is entirely Melville's, and it is there that the story gives its most interesting impressions of race.

…"you were with me all day; stood with me, sat with me, talked with me, looked at me, ate with me, drank with me; and yet, your last act was to clutch for a villain, not only an innocent man, but the most pitiable of all men. To such degree may malign machinations and deceptions impose. So far may even the best men err, in judging the conduct of one with the recesses of whose condition he is not acquainted. But you were forced to it; and you were in time undeceived. Would that, in both respects, it was so ever, and with all men."

"I think I understand you; you generalize, Don Benito; and mournfully enough. But the past is passed; why moralize upon it? Forget it. See, yon bright sun has forgotten it all, and the blue sea, and the blue sky; these have turned over new leaves."

"Because they have no memory," he dejectedly replied; "because they are not human."

"But these mild trades that now fan your cheek, Don Benito, do they not come with a human-like healing to you? Warm friends, steadfast friends are the trades."

"With their steadfastness they but waft me to my tomb, Senor," was the foreboding response.

"You are saved, Don Benito," cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; "you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?"

"The Negro."

This dialogue contains "Benito Cereno"'s most explicit commentary on the question of slavery. Cereno's haunting claim that "the Negro" is a "shadow" upon him raises many questions as to what the perception of blacks is within the story. Cereno now sees that blacks cannot be underestimated, and that all his life he has been underestimating them. Both he and Delano have now seen a very intelligent black, Babo, in action. Babo succeeded in controlling Cereno and fooling Delano. At the end if the story, the narrator leaves it ambiguous whether, when Cereno dies, which "leader" he is following—his friend Alexandro Aranda, or Babo, who exerted such control over him. It is also unclear whether the black shadow really represents the unjust institution of slavery itself. Perhaps Melville is saying that Cereno deserves this ending.

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Correction to the sixth section of Encantadas

by The_Great_And_Powerful_Ass, January 15, 2013

After her husband dies, the narrator speaks of two terrible things, which he should not mention, that happened to Hunilla. What are those things? They are buried in the semantics of Melville's writing, but: 1.) Hunilla actually becomes pregnant and has to try and have the baby herself because her husband and brother died on the catamaran. 2.) After she gives birth, the baby dies, and she is raped by men on a ship that boards the island. They leave after they rape her, leaving her alone again.
Not too long afterwards is when the other s... Read more

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