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Themes

Themes

Race

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."

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