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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
This is the third paragraph of the novella:
"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. Black and white men 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 strongest motifs in "Bartleby the Scrivener" is its 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Melville Stories!