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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols



Of the three stories, none have a more explicit theme than "Benito Cereno." Published just a few years prior to the Civil War and in the midst of a fierce national debate over slavery, Melville must have been aware of the racial implications of his story was he was writing it in the early 1850s. While the story is based on an actual event, Melville embellishes the story greatly, adding many flourishes including Captain Delano's thoughts on blacks.

There is little documentation on Melville's views on blacks or slavery. This leaves his stories, such as "Benito Cereno," frustratingly difficult to interpret. Some critics have pointed out that Melville had two experiences that would give him a unique perspective on slavery: he had served as a cabin boy on a whaling ship (a thankless job similar to slavery) and he was a captive of the Typee cannibals, so he has experience as a captive. He was also witness to the rituals and behavior of the Typee cannibals, which may have affected how he saw other races, especially "primitive" races. Since many slaves were taken directly from their African tribes, it is likely that Melville's experience may have affected his portrayal of the blacks in "Benito Cereno" as particularly ruthless and war-like, once their ruse had been exposed.

Some critics have interpreted "Benito Cereno" as an expression of Melville's anxiety over the slavery issue. Regardless of his own opinion of blacks or slavery, he recognized the explosive nature of the slavery question in the United States and the violent conflict it would create.

Charity and Selfishness

"Bartleby the Scrivener" contains a very critical look at "charity," and the story may be a wry commentary by Melville on the way materialism and consumerism were affecting it. The Lawyer thinks of charitable actions in terms of cost and returns: "Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence I can get along with him. If I turn him away he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience." Note the lawyer's train of thought: he first pities Bartleby; then he recognizes the fact that Bartleby is useful to him; then he notes that Bartleby would be ill-treated at another office, presumably making him less useful to some other employer and, by extension, society; and finally, the Lawyer pats himself on the back for keeping Bartleby on as a worker. He "purchases" self-approval, a "sweet morsel for his conscience" which will cost him little. Through "charity," the Lawyer is actually just buying himself a good conscience. In a broader sense, he also believes he is making the best use possible of Bartleby. If he can at least get Bartleby to make copies, then at least he is doing something.

Of course, eventually Bartleby refuses even to make copies. Still, the Lawyer decides that he will let Bartleby live on in his offices, so that he doesn't starve; but as soon as Bartleby affects his business, the Lawyer moves his offices and abandons Bartleby. The Lawyer does make the kindly offer to let Bartleby live in his own home, but the Lawyer might do this just to relieve himself of the annoyance of having to dealing with the tenants who complain about Bartleby. Of course, were the Lawyer to take Bartleby into his home, he could purchase great amounts of good conscience. But Bartleby refuses the Lawyer's charity, as he does whenever it is offered to him, saying that he "would prefer not to." The Lawyer then decides to keep Bartleby on his staff as a sort of "charity case."



This is the third paragraph from "Benito Cereno":

"The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything grey. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter's mould. The sky seemed a grey mantle. Flights of troubled grey fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled grey vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come."

The passage contains four uses of the term "grey" as well as one of "lead," which is gray in color. These early sentences set the mood for the story, and it is fitting that gray be the dominant color, since "Benito Cereno" defies a breakdown into black-and-white components. The San Dominick appears before Delano's ship out of a dusty fog, and Cereno's very face is often ashen or gray. Nothing is clear in "Benito Cereno," and the more he moves through the story, the more confused Captain Delano becomes. It is not until the very end that this foggy grayness parts and Delano understands the true situation.

Grey, of course, is also the color between black and white, and in a story so concerned with race, a motif of grayness can't be ignored. The blacks and whites mingle on the deck of the San Dominick, creating a kind of human grayness.

By introducing grayness so early in the story, Melville places his readers in familiar territory: there will be no easy answers, and in "Benito Cereno" in particular, nothing will be as it seems.


One of the most obvious motifs in "Bartleby the Scrivener" is the amount of food references. Two of the Lawyer's scriveners have food-related names: Turkey and Ginger Nut. Ginger Nut is nicknamed for the food cake he delivers to his co-workers, but Turkey's name is less obvious. One of the peculiarities that the Lawyer notices about Bartleby is his lack of eating. He notes that Bartleby sometimes eats the ginger nut cakes, but that's all. The Lawyer considers this in one of the most amusing passages of the story: "My mind then ran on in reveries concerning the probable effects upon the human constitution of living entirely on ginger-nuts what was ginger? A hot, spicy thing. Was Bartleby hot and spicy? Not at all. Ginger, then, had no effect upon Bartleby. Probably he preferred it should have none."

In a story where materialism plays a role, food makes a good metaphor for desire and avarice. Bartleby, who prefers not to deal with these things, is ultimately killed by food, or rather, the lack of it. Bartleby's death, while symbolically caused by his withdrawal into apathy, is physically caused by his refusal to eat or rather, his preference not to eat—his preference not to engage in the avarice and greed of his materialistic world.


Alexandro Aranda's Skeleton

Most of Melville's use of symbolism was with concepts and objects that could be applied broadly, meaning they usually became motifs rather than explicit symbols. "Benito Cereno," being primarily a straightforward adventure novel in its form, does not contain many overt symbols. One exception is the skeleton of Alexandro Aranda, the owner of the slaves, hung from the ship's bow. Under the skeleton is written the words, "follow your leader," and Babo shows it to the white sailors, commenting on how white the bones are (suggesting they are bones from a white man). The added irony, of course, is that both blacks and whites have bones of the same color.

Dead Letters

At the end of "Bartleby the Scrivener," the narrator (the Lawyer) reveals the one clue he has to Bartleby's history: a rumor that Bartleby once worked in the dead-letter office. The Lawyer believes this is the cause of Bartleby's strange behavior: "Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?" The Lawyer's theory is that reading all those dead letters, intended for people who are dead or gone, must have been so depressing that it drove Bartleby slowly to his apathy and emotional detachment.

The dead letters could symbolize many things. Some critics who look at "Bartleby the Scrivener" as a comment on Melville's life believe the "dead letters" may represent his unpopular novels, such as Moby Dick. These novels, like the letters, may be "errands of life," offering the reader great insight into their life, but the novels, like the letters, have no one to read them.

The letters could also make a good metaphor for the drudgery of the emerging middle-class, blue-collar job. Sorting letters day in and day out could eventually be difficult for anyone to endure for a long time, and such repetitive tasks are, even today, a common source of depression for some employees. By making them dead letters, Melville makes the depressing nature of such a task more explicit. When he changes jobs, Bartleby is willing to write letters (or copies) for some time, but when he is asked to read them, he would "prefer not to." For a short time, he finds some satisfaction in the creation (rather than the destruction) of letters, but finally he is unable to do even that.

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Which of the stories has the most explicit racial themes?
Bartleby the Scrivener
The Encantadas
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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


17 out of 19 people found this helpful

Jewish Armada

by RyanMonkeyNipple, October 17, 2014

Hey Jewish


by MasondedeJohn, February 10, 2017

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