Acting Stereotypes Out: Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and Charles Dicken’s Our Mutual Friend

When Al Jolson put on black face in the first talkie, he turned himself white, according to the article “Blackface, White Noise: The Jazz Singer Finds His Voice” by Michael Rogin. Wasn’t Al Jolson white to begin with? Well, he was Jewish. The plot of The Jazz Singer (1927) revolves around the young performer’s decision to become a cantor for the synagogue, like his father, or pursue a career in Vaudeville. Jakie Rabinowitz chooses Vaudeville and changes his name to Jack Robin, just as Asa Yoelson had changed his name to Al Jolson. The movie, like the play it was based on, was a thinly veiled biography of its star.

More significant than the name change, however, was the act of putting on blackface. According to Rogin, by rubbing burnt cork all over his face, both character and actor were obscuring their Jewishness. Since the color was just make up, which could be washed away, Jolson was showing that he was not colored. If not colored, then white! The act of a Jewish man putting on blackface did nothing to challenge either black or Jewish stereotypes; it only confused the issue of otherness in America. (It could be said that with this film, Hollywood was also obscuring its Jewishness, as it turned away for many years from open portrayals of Jewish people, to hidden references that would only be caught by those in the know.)

In contrast, what would it mean if a black person were to put on blackface? Or a Jewish person were to pretend to be Jewish? This is in essence what happens in Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. Appearing nearly a hundred years before The Jazz Singer, both of these texts take a far more radical approach to stereotypes by having someone from each group act out the stereotypes of that group, thereby distancing the stereotype from the character and undermining the stereotype.

The Unaspiring Contentment of a Limited Mind: Black Stereotypes in “Benito Cereno”

In Melville’s novella, Captain Delano is allowed to watch Babo, the supposedly fawning servant, shave his master Captain Cereno. This inspires Delano to rhapsodize about the servile nature of black people, a justification used for slavery and a stereotype still in circulation today. “There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person. Most negroes are natural valets and hair-dressers; taking to the comb and brush congenially as to the castanets, and flourishing them apparently with almost equal satisfaction” (Melville 49). Although Delano feels negroes are “natural valets and hair-dresser” and believes they thoroughly enjoy their tasks, he betrays his doubts by using the words “apparently” and “almost” in the phrase, “apparently with almost equal satisfaction.” For can he really believe anyone would “take to the comb and brush” with “equal satisfaction,” as they would to a leisure activity like playing the castanets?
The reference to castanets unites this idea of servile satisfaction with another stereotype, a black person’s drive to make music, a connection which is then extended: “And above all is the gift of good-humor . . . a certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture; as though God had set the whole negro to some pleasant tune” (Melville 49). “Good-humor” and “cheerfulness” are described as “harmonious,” and the “whole negro” is set “to some pleasant tune,” suggesting that this musical drive is innate, a God-give trait. In another section, Delano is much impressed with the industrious black men sharpening axes in a rhythmical, decidedly musical way, as if turning their work into a pleasant song, supposedly demonstrating the pleasure they derive from their menial task.
Delano continues analyzing the qualities of the negro which suit him to “avocations about one’s person” by adding the quality of “docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind” (Melville 49). He considers two famous personages, Johnson and Byron, who “took to their hearts, almost to exclusion of the entire white race, their serving men, the negroes, Barber and Fletcher” (Melville 49). Apparently this is due to a patronizing fondness, or susceptibility, gentlemen might develop for anyone of much lower social status, “that susceptibility of bland attachment sometimes inhering in indisputable inferiors” (Melville 49).

If we have any doubts about the quality of this “bland attachment,” bland because it is not the friendship and respect of equals, we are told, “In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs” (Melville 49-50). This suggests that black people are nearly as far below the captain in status as a dog might be. By telling the reader that Delano’s affection for black people is similar to that of “most men of a good, blithe heart,” the narrator invites the reader to compare Delano’s attitudes to others in society, even inviting the readers to consider whether their own hearts are blithe enough to take genially to the negro as Delano does. The captain turns this patronizing affection for blacks towards Babo by jokingly suggesting on several occasions that he would like to acquire Babo as his own dedicated servant.

In short, the qualities that Delano recognizes in Babo which make a negro an ideal slave are: a servile nature, a simple enjoyment of work (made easier by an innate musical drive), and a limited mind. But it is Delano’s insistence on the limited mind of the negro which makes him incapable of seeing the truth behind the mysterious events aboard the Spanish ship. For Babo is not himself in this scene. He is merely playing the role of a contented slave.

In fact, he is the leader of a successful mutiny and the actual captain of the ship. Far from having a servile nature, he, and all the black people on the ship, have overthrown the Spanish slave traders and are now trying to get back to their homes in Africa. Babo’s constant attendance on Cereno, we learn, is not due to a dog-like affection for his master and a simple-minded contentment with his servile tasks; Babo is keeping a close eye on Cereno and a knife at his back to make sure he speaks and acts exactly as Babo requires. Rather than having a simple mind, Babo shows himself a mastermind who easily outwits Delano as he had previously outwitted the entire Spanish crew. Similarly, the music of the axe grinders takes on another tone altogether when the reader recognizes that they are sharpening the axes to defend themselves, or perhaps even to raid Delano’s ship, and the music they are making is of defiance and aggression rather than simple-minded satisfaction.
By having Babo act out a stereotype of his race, he is distanced from the role. This shows the role to be artificial and insufficient to explain Babo and his actions, thereby questioning and undermining the stereotype more than a straightforward positive portrayal of a black man might do, because it directs the reader to identify the various aspects of the stereotype which blind Captain Delano and encourages the reader to recognize them as false.

A Thorough Jew to Look At: Jewish Stereotypes in Charles Dickens’ “Our Mutual Friend”

Similarly, in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, a Jewish man plays out the stereotype of himself, a rich, miserly money lender, but in this case not at his own volition, but under the direction of Mr. Fledgeby who has power over Mr. Riah because of his debts. Fledgeby asks, “‘Who but you and I ever heard of a poor Jew?'” (Dickens 269). Riah answers that Jewish people know of many poor Jews and treat them well. In response, Fledgeby asks, “‘Who believes you to be poor now?'” to which Riah replies, “‘No one'” (Dickens 269). Apparently the “no one” includes Fledgeby himself, if we are to believe his comments.

When Mr. Riah says he has a little garden on the roof, Fledgeby says, “‘To bury your money in, you old dodger?'” (Dickens 271). To which Riah replies that “‘a thumb-nail’s space of garden would hold the treasure I bury'” (Dickens 271). Fledgeby does not seem to believe him and says, “‘I should like to know what you really are worth,'” (Dickens 271). To which Mr. Riah replies, “‘Do you not, sir–without intending it–of a surety without intending it–sometimes mingle the character I fairly earn in your employment, with the character which it is your policy that I should bear?'” (Dickens 413). Whether or not Fledgeby himself intentionally confuses the role with the actor–and the insistence on intentionally suggests that he does–he certainly intends those who come to borrow money from him to believe in the character rather than the real man, even when Riah plainly states that he is merely following orders from his superior. The character is a convenient fiction which Fledgeby uses to his advantage, for what matters is what his debtors believe.
No one believes Riah is a poor employee at the command of another because he looks like a Jew and Jews are supposed to be rich and stingy. Fledgeby says to Twemlow, “‘He is a thorough Jew to look at, but he is a more thorough Jew to deal with'” (Dickens 556). What does Riah look like? When we first meet Riah he is described as, “an old Jewish man in an ancient coat, long of skirt, and wide of pocket. A venerable man, bald and shining at the top of his head, and with long grey hair flowing down at its sides and mingling with his beard” (268).

What in this description marks him as Jewish, since there is not such a clear indicator here as there was with Babo’s skin? The ancient coat, perhaps, which is “long of skirt” (later described as a gabardine), but what of the wide pockets? It is a telling detail in a description of a Jewish money lender for the reader is inclined to think the pockets are wide in order to hold money. The long hair “flowing down at its sides” suggest Jewish side-locks, and the beard must be Jewish because presumably the corners have not been trimmed. Fledgeby says that Riah has “‘Got a beard besides, and presumes upon it'” (Dickens 421). The beard seems to be particularly important in the role Riah is supposed to play.
However, it is not Riah who presumes upon his beard, who uses associations people have with such a Jewish beard to his advantage, but Fledgeby. Fledgeby thinks to himself, “‘He has got a bad name as an old Jew, and he is paid for the use of it, and I’ll have my money’s worth of him'” (Dickens 551). Although Riah has “a bad name as an old Jew,” it was Fledgeby who forced him to act out this stereotype. Fledgeby pays him to play the role and insists that he will “have his money’s worth of him.” This line subtly shifts the stereotype of the greedy money lender from the Jewish man, who is not the rich miser, onto the supposedly Christian gentleman, who instead is the real “Shylock,” determined to get his pound of flesh out of his debtors.

Jewish people developed the reputation of being rich and miserly in the middle ages when they were prohibited from entering almost every profession except banking. On the other hand, Christians were forbidden to charge interest. And so the reputation of the greedy Jew developed not from Jewish beliefs or customs, but from Christian policy. By the Victorian age, such strictures had fallen away, and most “Christian” banks were charging interest. Still many of the prejudices, which arose from policies in the middle ages, continued through Dickens’ day (as they do to this day).
Dickens himself had been accused of encouraging stereotypes in his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist, a perfectly greedy, money-grubbing Jew. Mrs. Eliza Davis, a Jewish woman, complained to Dickens that “the portrayal of Fagin did ‘a great wrong’ to all Jews” (Wikipedia). Dickens created the character of Mr. Riah in response, in acknowledgment of his own exploitation of stereotypes and as restitution for the wrong he had done them. Rather, however, than just portray a positive image of a Jewish person as he might have done, Dickens created a noble character who is forced to play out the stereotype, so that the reader could clearly recognize what that stereotype was, then separate it from the character, seeing the prejudices as artificial and unjust.

In short, having a character play out a stereotype of his or her own groups is a radical act. It distinguishes the character from the role, forcing the reader to examine the stereotype and question its validity. Although critics in Melville’s day read Babo as an expression of evil, modern critics recognize that Melville was performing a more subtle attack on prejudice. Dickens, as a way of apology for his own use of stereotyping in the character of Fagin from Oliver Twist, presented readers with a complex portrait of a Jewish man, Mr. Riah, forcing us to separate the character from the role he plays as moneylender. Unlike the use of blackface by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, in which a person from one minority played out the stereotype of another minority, unintentionally confirming both stereotypes, Melville and Dickens had characters act out the stereotypes of their own group, thereby acting these stereotypes out of existence.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. New York: The Modern Library, 2002. Print.

Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” Selected Tales and Poems. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. Print.

“Our Mutual Friend.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 September 2010. Web. 15 October 2009.

Rogin, Michael. “Blackface, White Noise: The Jewish Jazz Singer Finds His Voice.” Critical Inquiry Vol. 18, No. 3 (Spring, 1992): 417-45. The University of Chicago Press. Print.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *