French, Anyone?

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I found Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” to be very overwhelming.  The story itself was rather long and in this length every single paragraph had so much packed into it, I felt like I was drowning in literary devices and meaning.  Therefore, it is hard for me to focus on any one thing, because I feel like I’m being assaulted by about 20 different possible agenda items, but as I don’t have time to write more than one, I decided to point out a myriad of a certain type of word that I found throughout the story.  And that type of word is…..French!

In the third paragraph, Melville surprised me as I came across, “The sky seemed a gray surtout” (489).  I knew what it meant, since it is a French word meaning “above all else” or “especially,” but it is certainly not the type of vocabulary one usually comes across in reading an American story.  Granted, apparently surtout has another meaning in English (according to Merriam-Webster.com it can also refer to “a man’s long close-fitting overcoat”).  Nonetheless, it is still certainly a French world, even if it has an alternate meaning in English.

Nor did the French words end there; Melville uses a plethora of them.  Some of the most obvious pure French words being reconnoiters (502), tableau (491), ch√Ęteau (505).  There were also many words which while not strictly French (meaning the French language got them from Latin), the English language nonetheless inherited from French.  These include missal (510), and the overly repeated enchantment (505) and hypochondriac (510).   

At first, I thought perhaps authors just wrote using more complicated language in the 1850s, but now take a look at this quote from the story, “While Captain Delano was thus made the mark of all eager tongues, his one eager glance took in all faces, with every other object about him” (491).  Delano “took in all.”  “Benito Cereno” is certainly full of different cultures and languages.  Not to mention that "tongues" can also refer to languages.  Melville stresses again and again the disparity between the “American,” the “Spaniards,” and the “slaves.”  But under these obvious differences, I am positing that through his unusual word choices there is an underlying reference to the French as well.  And if you really want to come down to it, there could be an Italian one with Melville’s use of words like “grotto” and his repeated references to religion (one of the headquarters obviously being in Italy).  Melville mixes in so many different nationalities and ethnicities.  To some degree he even points out the presence of both men and women aboard the St. Dominick. 

Even if you don’t agree with me about the French reference, there are still certainly three different groups represented in the text: American, Spanish, and African.  So my question is why?  What is Melville’s point in doing this?  Is he trying to point out that in the end all these groups of people all equal?  Is he trying to mimic the melting pot that makes up the U.S. (Melville is an American author after all)?  Or is he doing it for some other reason? 

Read more blogs on Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” 

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