170 The Heroic Slave vs. Benito Cereno

Alexina Gillis

The Heroic Slave and Benito Cereno are two vastly different texts. While both bring attention to and shed light on the cruelties of slavery, the two stories are told in completely different ways. According to the reading it is stated that “Melville works through irony and indirection; Douglass, consistent with his commitment to abolitionism, works more directly in articulating his themes” (xxx-xxxi). In Benito Cereno, most of the text is focused on Babo, one of the slaves that helped in the slave revolt, and other enslaved peoples. This text seems to want to prove that those enslaved on the ship are intelligent, and can and will do anything to be free. They are depicted as a dangerous force that has the strength and smarts to overcome any challenge.

On the other hand, The Heroic Slave focuses more on Madison Washington, and immediately points out that he is a strong man, but one that is not intimidating in any way. The text is quick to let readers know that this man is not dangerous, and even caters to white readers by relating him back to a white savior, Hercules. Douglass says “His whole appearance, betokened Herculean strength; yet there was nothing savage or forbidding in his aspect. A child may play in his arms, or dance on his shoulders. A giant’s strength, but not a giant’s heart was in him. His broad mouth and nose spoke only of good nature and kindness” (part 1). The Heroic Slave is much more direct because Douglass outwardly tells the reader that Madison is a hero and not dangerous, and we follow him through the story as he saves different slave ships with the help of a white man. Douglass has an abolitionist theme, and I believe he wanted to make this outwardly obvious to the reader.

In Benito Cereno, there is kind of a negative connotation towards Babo wanting to be free from enslavement, almost as if the reader should be seeing him as dangerous or suspicious (when in reality, all Babo wanted to do was go home). Although these are both texts that relate back to abolitionism, they are represented in almost opposite ways. Granted, both are problematic. But one story we see an enslaved character who stands up and fights for his people and is a hero, while the other we see an enslaved character who revolts, but is supposedly very dangerous and a murderer. The issue with The Heroic Slave is the idea of a white savior being needed. While Madison is painted as the hero, the novel makes it obvious that he could not have succeeded if it weren’t for the white man helping him. And in Benito Cereno, the enslaved peoples that just wanted to escape are seen as dangerous and cruel.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Alexina Gillis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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