Melville vs Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas Essay

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When inquiring about the comparisons and contrasts between Melville’s Benito Cereno and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Written by Himself, the following question almost inevitably arises: Can a work of fiction and an autobiography be compared at all? Indeed, the structure of the two stories differs greatly. Whereas Douglass’s Narrative adapts a typical pattern of autobiographies, i.e. a chronological order of birth, childhood memories, events that helped shape the narrator etc., Benito Cereno is based on a peculiar three-layered foundation of a central story recounting the main events, a deposition delineating the events prior to the first part, and an ending.
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When he writes, “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit … the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” , the suffering of the slave Frederick Douglass becomes real; something we can grasp, feel, and almost touch. Mr. Covey is the worst example but all slave owners are portrayed as uncongenial oppressors of freedom. Even Master Hugh in Baltimore, who is compassionate and bestows Douglass with as much freedom as possible, is criticised by Douglass . This is significantly different from Benito Cereno. Here the slave owner is portrayed as the puppet of the slaves – a highly unusual approach – and even though Babo is free in some sense, he is still dependent on Don Benito on his road to freedom. Just as the scenery enshrouding the San Dominick is unclear and grey, so is the question of who the slave really is. The text also suggests this ambiguity, for example when it is described how Don Benito’s falling stature is supported by Babo , or the way Babo has control over the conversation with Delano . In Douglass’s Narrative there is no doubt about the relation between slave and slave owner, although Douglass, after the fight with Mr. Covey, resolves that “the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact”, he still “remained a slave in form” . Where Benito Cereno works with highly symbolic terms, Douglass’s Narrative is straightforward and plain when it comes to interpretation . Jonathan

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