Online Extras

Benito Cereno, by Herman Melville


This is an online extra to our August 2013 cover story, 25 greatest law novels ever.

Herman Melville’s Billy Budd is often, and rightly so, the go-to story when it comes to law and literature. It starkly delineates the terrible choices that judges are faced with; and it demonstrates, as few novels ever have, how the operation of what we call “the law” dehumanizes the individual for the supposed good of the whole. Every time I read Billy Budd my head rages with confusion and guilt because the death of the angelic sailor Billy Budd is not the sole responsibility of good Capt. Vere, but of the society he represents and embodies.

Yet I’d like to throw my lot in with an even more remarkable story—call it a novella—also by Melville, Benito Cereno. As the story of an actual mutiny, as opposed to the cooked-up one in Billy Budd, Benito Cereno goes further because it is about how we perceive, not how we judge. And for me this is what law is at its core. It is about what we see and what we don’t see—and how this influences the way society is organized. The good-natured American Capt. Delano is a guest on board a Spanish ship that has been taken over by its cargo, slaves—except he’s utterly incapable of comprehending this. The Spanish captain, Cereno, is not in control; his servant Babo is the absolute boss of the ship, wielding his razor with terrifying authority. Delano thinks Cereno is just being shaved! Delano cannot see what’s happening in front of his eyes because there’s an order to the world in 1799, and that order has whites in power and blacks enslaved. The story ends with the depositions from the subsequent court case involving the incident, an “objective account” of what happened. All should be well. It isn’t. Because the law is only able to explain so much.

Melville knew the law, but he knew human beings better. And he knew what frightens us the most—a rupture in the so-called natural order of things. “You are saved,” cries Capt. Delano toward the end, “… you are saved: What has cast such a shadow upon you?” “The negro,” Cereno answers. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, another majestic story about, among other things, law and literature, opens with an epigraph consisting of these two lines of dialogue from Melville’s Benito Cereno.


Peter Orner is the author of the just published new story collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (Little, Brown, 2013) as well as two novels, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love. Orner’s first book, Esther Stories won the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Orner is also the editor of two non-fiction books, Underground America, about immigration, and Hope Deferred, set in Zimbabwe. Orner has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and holds a JD from Northeastern University. Currently, Orner is a Professor at San Francisco State University. He lives in Bolinas, Calif.


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