Date of Graduation

Spring 2009


Master of Arts in English



Committee Chair

Linda Trinh-Moser


Benito Cereno, Lacan, Zizek, gaze, fantasy, symbolic determination, ideology critique, La Leyenda Negra, "The Purloined Letter"

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature


Recent criticism on Herman Melville's novella Benito Cereno has read the story within a social context but has offered only a limited treatment of the intense psychologism that permeates the narrative. My treatment of the story situates the story within a social context, but also offers a close reading of the text that traces the thought processes of the main character, Captain Delano. I first employ a method of psychoanalytic ideology critique that draws from the theories of Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek. I combine the Lacanian concept of the gaze with Žižek's concept of an imaginary fantasy structure that domesticates the gaze. In this reading, Delano construes the strange events and people who enter his visual field on board the Spanish ship within a fantasy structure informed by the ideology of the capricious, tyrannical "black" Spaniard. Delano's ideological fantasy explains how he receives enjoyment from his failure to figure out the truth concerning the rebellion that has taken place on the ship. Next, my application of Lacan's concept of symbolic determination reveals that Delano's fantasy and his consequent "blindness" are determined also by the signifying chains that make up his desire, a desire to be Benito Cereno. Melville's unique narrative structure also implicates the reader in his critique of American ideology. Benito Cereno asks the reader to assess whether she, like Delano, is stuck within an ideological fantasy blind to America's drift towards becoming Spain or whether she is capable of realizing that America has already assumed this subject position that it has always desired to occupy. America's future depends on its acting in accordance with who it already is rather than who it imagines itself to be.


© Landis David Duffett

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