A Blending of Literary Schools Creates One Convincing Claim

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From Charles Swann’s “Whodunnit? Or, Who Did What? ‘Benito Cereno’ and the Politics of Narrative Structure”:

“That is why I insist on calling it a mystery story—for it is a detective story where the reader on reading and, crucially, rereading the story has to learn not only to be the detective who could have solved the crime, but to decide what the crime was and who the real criminal is” (311). 

I really liked Swann’s article, I thought it was one of the most convincing and well-done articles we have read so far in this course.  I think some of my classmates probably feel the same way, Erica for example thought Swann's article was very helpful as well.  Swann blended together many schools: historicism (through all his facts and research), reader-response (as he comments on page 320, “the reader has to be the kind of detective who will read the deep narrative that underlies the harmless-seeming surface,” implying that the reader has to be a certain type of reader), mimetic criticism (as on page 322, he quips, “Melville’s story is mimetic of social consciousness on both sides), author intention (on page 316, Swann ponders, “But what does Melville mean here?”), and obviously intertextualism (as he considers the mystery genre as a whole and takes into consideration works by Poe, other works by Melville, and the real historical account of the slave revolt on Santo Domingo).  This blending of so many schools makes it almost impossible to come up with a counterargument for Swann’s claims.  In fact, after Swann carefully goes through so many other arguments and disproves them all, who would want to disagree with him? 

Furthermore, besides how well Swann sets up and proves his claim, I really liked his emphasis on the reader being the detective.  Melville’s active manipulation into forcing the reader into this role really makes sense to me.  While I was reading, I know I was searching for clues as to what was going on.  I was trying to piece Delano’s perceptions and observations into some sort of sensical explanation.  After all, as Swann points out about Delano, “he does not know that a “crime” has been committed” (323), but we as the readers know that something is amiss and are on the watch for the explanation.  I think the positioning of the reader as the detective is a very accurate representation of the emotions and efforts that the reader goes through.  And since the reader so actively misses the solution during his or her first reading, it makes her or him remember the story all the more and consider “what the crime was and who the real criminal is.”     

Read others’ thoughts on Swann’s article. 

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