These two tales are very different, but both of them are deep and acute penetrations into the human psyche. The first one, "Benito Cereno" is about a mutiny on board of a ship. This ship is navigating astray, off the coast of Chile (which is NOT in Central America, as other reviewers have embarrasingly said), when Captain Delano, an American sailor, observes it. He gets near the suspicious ship, gets on board of it, and finds an extremely tense and enigmatic situation. Wonderfully, Melville chose to describe the situation only through the senses of Captain Delano. As the narrator is not omniscient, we only know what Delano knows, so we understand his confusion and amazement at the strange facts he observes. We share his vacilations, speculations and changes of opinion before the disconcerting behavior of Captain Benito Cereno. This makes the reader stay interested all through the story, like he was there being part of it. The unexpected ending will solve the mystery, but only partially.
What's best about this story, even more than the smart plot, is the author's technique. He puts the reader right in the middle of the action. Just like in life, where we have no narrator telling us what the rest of the characters are doing "meanwhile". We only know what we learn from our senses, hopefully processed through reason.
The second tale, "Bartleby the scrivener" follows a technique similar to that of "Benito Cereno", but within a very different context and plot. It's narrated in first person by a good-hearted and charitable Wall Street lawyer (I guess times have changed)who hires a young and silent man as a copyist (that is, before Xerox, the guy who made manual copies of legal documents). Bartleby sets to do his work, copying page after page, but he refuses to do anything else, with the words: "I would rather not" as an answer to every order, instruction or request to do something. Tenaciously, Bartleby resists to any action. It's a pathological portrait of indifference and apathy, taken to the extreme. As in "Benito Cereno", we receive no additional explanations or background to his behavior. We are exactly where Bartleby's boss is: confounded. We are invited to witness a unique form of behavior and attitude towards life. The naration jumps continuously from drama to humor, with great fluidity and fine irony. Haunting and intriguing, this is a masterpiece of storytelling.