Abstract

Melville's "Benito Cereno" is a problematic text that students of color, especially, can find troubling. However, when this story is studied alongside two other narratives of shipboard slave rebellions--Charles Johnson's Middle Passage and Frederick Douglass's The Heroic Slave--it becomes apparent that Melville is making the same point as these writers about such rebellions through the subtle use of paradox as the key rhetorical strategy. In these texts not only are slave mutinies seen as inherently paradoxical, but so is the status quo that the mutinies seemingly invert, so that mutineers and officers, slave and free, are revealed to be two sides of the same coin--ultimately they are each other. By foregrounding inconsistencies, the use of paradox serves to undermine and invert apparent fixed verities, and then reveals beneath them the organic interdependence of the mirror and its image. Those involved in the rebellions described by Melville, Johnson, and Douglass usually fail to realize this, however, like Narcissus, they cannot recognize the inverted image as themselves. This interdependence, in "Benito Cereno" especially, is therefore found in the story's subtext: Melville's covert means of making a subversive point. Such use of paradox is in fact broadly characteristic of the slave-mutiny narrative genre as a whole, providing a useful approach for studying all such texts.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1542-4286
Print ISSN
0093-3139
Pages
pp. 54-70
Launched on MUSE
2003-10-06
Open Access
No
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