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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Of the three stories, none have a more explicit theme than "Benito Cereno." Published six years prior to the start of the Civil War and in the midst of a fierce national debate over slavery, Melville would have been aware of the racial implications of his story as he was writing it in 1855. While the story is based on an actual event, Melville embellishes the story greatly, adding many flourishes including Captain Delano's thoughts on Black people.
There is little documentation on Melville's views on Black people 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 low-ranking sailor on a whaling ship (a thankless job, although certainly no where near as horrible as slavery) and he was briefly a captive of the Typee cannibals in the South Pacific. He was also witness to the rituals and behavior of the Typee cannibals, which could have affected how he saw other races, especially the so-called "primitive" races. Since many slaves were abducted directly from their African tribes, it is possible that Melville's experience may have affected his portrayal of the Black slaves in "Benito Cereno" as particularly ruthless and violent.
Another interpretation is that there is actually nothing particularly surprising or unusual about how the slaves on the the San Dominick behave—including killing the slave owner Alexandro Aranda and hanging his corpse from the ship's masthead as a warning to the sailors—given the fact that they are literarly fighting for their freedom and for their lives. One might expect the so-called "civilized" and presumably Christian white sailors on the the San Dominick or the Bachelor's Delight to behave in exactly the same way had the tables been turned and they were snatched from their families and their freedom and faced with the prospect of being forced into slavery for the rest of their lives. This may strike some as a particularly "modern" take, but it should be noted that opposition to and abhorrence of slavery was significant and growing in the United States in 1855—particularly in New England where Melville lived and wrote (even if we do not know for sure what Melville felt about the issue).
Some critics have interpreted "Benito Cereno" as an expression of Melville's anxiety over the slavery issue. Regardless of Melville's opinion of Blacks or slavery, the fact that he wrote and published a novella with such provocative subject matter in 1855 demonstrates that he recognized the explosive nature of the slavery question in the United States and perhaps even that he was anticipating the violent, bloody conflict it would create for the country just a few years later.
"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."
Ace your assignments with our guide to Melville Stories!