Benito Cereno

Benito Cereno Themes

Benign Racism

Captain Delano is a quintessential "benign" racist. He does not hate blacks; he rather likes them. But he likes them for utterly degrading (and, as "Benito Cereno" shows, utterly fictional) reasons. He considers Babo, for instance, to be a childish slave of limited intelligence. Melville writes that Delano takes to blacks "not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs."

Indeed, Delano often compares the Africans aboard the San Dominick to animals. Babo is a "shepherd's dog," an African mother is a "doe" tending her "fawn," Cereno is master of "his little black sheep," and so on. The point is, while Delano finds blacks utterly charming and "fun-loving," fond of bright colors and of "uniting industry with pastime," this "admiration" masks his deep-seated conviction that blacks are not wholly human. In fact, when in the midst of trying to sort out the odd occurences on board the San Dominick, it briefly occurs to Delano that Cereno might be in league with the blacks, he dismisses the thought with a shudder: "who ever heard of a white so far a renegade as to apostatize from his very species almost, by leaguing in against it with Negroes?"

Melville systematically discredits Captain Delano's "generous" opinions of blacks. Babo, whom Delano takes to be the most faithful slave there could be - even going so far in his "compliments" as to offer to buy Babo as his own slave - turns out to be the scheming mastermind of the mutiny on the San Dominick. Atufal, whom Delano considers a noble savage unjustly chained, ends up being Babo's right hand man in the mutiny. The slave women, whose tenderness toward their children Delano admires, are eager participants in the murder of their Spanish slaveholders.

Melville understood the Babo hiding behind the mask of the submissive slave. He realized, with Civil War on the horizon, that the United States needed to learn this lesson too. The "liberal" mythology of the happily menial black is no better than outright race hatred. Both opinions offer the loathsome conviction that blacks are somehow less human than whites.

Good vs. Evil

For many years, "Benito Cereno" was viewed as a tale about the struggle of good versus evil. According to this interpretation, the blacks aboard the San Dominick represent "blackness" - i.e. moral depravity - in the abstract. At the end of the tale, when Cereno declares that "the negro" has cast its shadow upon him, he implicates the evil within human nature, whom the blacks metaphorically represent.

Occasionally, critics still argue that Melville's intention in composing "Benito Cereno" was to thematize good versus evil. They point out that though the yearning of the slaves to be free is indeed a compelling motivation for their actions, Melville does not himself introduce the motivation in the text. As a text, they argue, "Benito Cereno" sees blacks as evil, regardless of whether we find the decision to use African slaves as metaphorical representations of evil politically incorrect.

Beginning in the 1960s, and increasingly in the ensuing decades, this reading of the good versus evil theme in "Benito Cereno" has undergone critical scrutiny. These critics argue that far from intending the blacks of the San Dominick to represent evil, Melville in fact offers a portrait of attempted freedom. They have located subtle indications of the slave's motivations - for instance, Raneds is killed while handling a sextant, suggesting that the slaves thought that he was navigating them off course. Furthermore, Melville explicitly writes that Babo and his followers longed to sail to Senegal or a similar country where they would not be racially persecuted.

The evil in "Benito Cereno," ultimately, is an evil of acts, not of people. Both the blacks and the whites in the tale exhibit depravity - compare the display of Aranda's skeleton to that of Babo's disembodied head. (The whites, one might argue, exhibit even more depravity, as they act from meretricious motives, not as the blacks do from the longing to be free.) Besides, if one must posit a good versus evil in "Benito Cereno," who on Melville's earth and sea represents pure good?


"Follow your leader" might well be the motto of "Benito Cereno." It appears early in the story, underneath the concealed skeleton of Don Aranda, and is repeated throughout the tale, always signifying something new. The "leader" in the inscription might refer to Aranda - threatening that if the whites defied the blacks they would follow that Don to their deaths. Or it might be Cereno, whose docile example throughout most of the tale provides a model for those Spaniards who wish to save their necks. Later in the story, "Follow your leader" is Delano's mate's rallying cry as he leads the Americans to capture the San Dominick from the rebel slaves. Finally, Cereno "follow[s] his leader," Babo, into death at the tale's close.

In a complex society, it is never a simple matter to separate leaders from followers. For the greater part of "Benito Cereno," Captain Delano is stupidly unable to conceive of Babo, Atufal, or any black person as a leader. Their color demarcates them, in his view, as followers. Far from even considering the question of Babo's leadership, Delano is more distracted by whether or not Cereno is a genuine leader, or an imposter "masquerading as an oceanic grandee." In Delano's opinion, leadership comes with a prerequisite: white skin.

Ironically, the effect of Delano's tunnel vision works to Babo's advantage as a leader. In fact, Babo's leadership thrives on his being perceived as a follower. There is no doubt that, of the characters in "Benito Cereno," Babo exhibits more than anyone else the qualities of a true leader. He is resourceful, planning the series of masquerades on board the San Dominick after Delano had spotted them. He is improvisatory and bold, deciding on the fly to attempt to take the Bachelor's Delight. He has a creative, performative flair. And yet the moment Babo is revealed as a leader, his power has vanished. He is physically overwhelmed, and chooses to live out the rest of his brief life in silence.

Melville, then, depicts leadership as a paradoxical quality - just as effective, sometimes, when it is hidden as when it is brandished on a battlefield. The leaders of an age are not necessarily those with the captain's hats, he suggests. They are the visionaries, the creative spirits, the souls who refuse - like Babo, unlike Cereno - to live surrendered lives.


"Benito Cereno" is a performance on every level. Melville performs the perspective of Captain Delano; Captain Delano performs the role of the benign racist; Benito Cereno performs the part of power (all the while wearing a stuffed, swordless scabbard); and then there are the grand performances of the slaves: Babo, Atufal, Francesco and the rest. Even the symbols of "Benito Cereno" have a performative quality; the "Black Friars" of the order of St. Dominic, for example, were associated with a London monastery which Henry VIII abolished and converted to a theater.

To some degree, the theme of performance corresponds to the age-old notion of appearance versus reality. For most of the tale, Cereno appears to be in control, while in reality Babo is in control, holding Cereno at dagger-point like a marionette by his strings. Similarly, Captain Delano affects a loathing of slavery throughout the tale, yet he is in reality quite content with the institution, at one point offering to buy Babo as a slave and at the end of the tale participating in the re-enslavement of the San Dominick's mutineers.

Yet these realities have performative characteristics as well. Cereno's deposition of the truth is staged as court testimony; the decorum and protocol of court becomes itself a performance. And Babo, once his "real" self is revealed, does not lose his dramatic flair. He performs his defeat - his stoic silence - as eloquently as he played the stooge for Delano. Melville thus suggests that performance is not in opposition to reality. Realities, too, are performed. The attempt of Cereno, Delano and the vice-regal court in Lima to "shed light" on the incidents on board the San Dominick is just as much an attempt to close off light - to perform a definitive answer, leaving no room for contrary opinions (such as Babo's). One must always be aware of who is claiming something as well as what they are claiming, which is an apt segue to the theme of perspective.


"Benito Cereno" is written in three sections: the first section, by far the longest, is narrated from the limited third-person point of view of Captain Delano; the second section is a deposition given in a vice-regal court in Lima from the perspective of Benito Cereno; the third part, which is very short, is written from an omniscient perspective. In all three sections, the perspective from which the story is told is as important as the story itself. The "who" of the telling says as much as the "what."

In the first place, this is because much of the story's impact relies upon the limited perspective (and limited perceptiveness) of Amasa Delano. We need to see the world as he does in order to understand how limited he really is. Delano and the reader are given the same images, the same symbols. Both hear the clashing of the Ashanti hatchets, both behold the Gordian knot at the same time. Yet the reader, hopefully, sees so much more than Delano. Whereas Delano is content to take it on faith that the old Spanish sailor who offers him the knot is mad, the reader cannot possibly endorse such a dismissive reading. Thus, simply in comparing Delano's purview with that of the text itself, Melville allows other themes to bloom - Delano's racism, the importance of symbols - through the broader theme of perspective.

But perhaps the most important contribution of perspective to the tale's theme is more paradoxical. We are given an account of a slave mutiny simply from the point of view of the whites. First Delano, and then Cereno (with the definitive air that a court deposition tends to lend to a narrative) paint us a picture, begging us to consider it complete. Of course, it is not complete: the perspective is lacking by (at least) half, and the blacks' side of the story is made evident through its absence. What a different story "Benito Cereno" would be if it were told from Babo's point of view. What a triumph it would be considered when the mutiny was successful, and what a tragedy at the story's end! The constant, almost claustrophobic attentiveness to the white point of view, to the exclusion of the black, paradoxically suggests the artificiality of the perspective of "Benito Cereno." The artifice of perspective is thus itself a theme in the tale.


Melville published "Benito Cereno" in 1856; the United States would be at Civil War within four years. The tale represents one of Melville's several contributions to the impassioned debate surrounding slavery during his era. It is not enough to say that Melville was simply opposed to slavery: more than that, Melville understood the larger implications of slavery, and the moral degradation that slavery visited upon all races and all participants.

Ironically enough, Melville put the thesis statement of his take on slavery in the mouth of the most foolish character in "Benito Cereno", Captain Delano. Delano says, "Ah, this slavery breeds ugly passions in man!" And of course he is right. The brutality of slavery leads to the counter-brutality of the slave revolt, which eventually leads to the counter-counter-brutality of the capture of the San Dominick by Delano's men. But it is not enough merely to acknowledge that slavery unleashes such behavior. By putting the condemnation in Delano's mouth, Melville underscores the observation that it is not enough to think slavery wrong: one must recognize the root of the problem, which is racism.

Delano, after all, is thoroughly racist. His concern for Cereno's apparent mistreatment of Babo, which prompts his condemnation of slavery, stems from his own belief that Babo is an ideal black servant- solicitous, submissive, happy, menial. Racism, more than slavery, breeds ugly passions in men, as Delano himself demonstrates at the end of the tale, when he participates enthusiastically in the re-capture of the slaves on board the San Dominick.

As alarming as it may seem today, Melville's era saw the debates surrounding slavery and those surrounding the races as essentially separate. Nearly everyone, Northerners as well as Southerners, subscribed to the opinion that blacks were inferior to whites. Melville, wise beyond his time, shows in "Benito Cereno" how the feeling of racial superiority (or, even more generally, the feeling of superiority of any kind) catalyzes the "ugly passions" that seem, to "liberal" nincompoops like Delano, to stem from slavery itself.


It may seem odd to consider "symbols" a theme in a story. Symbols, after all, represent themes. They are the medium through which, in many books, the thematic subtext is transmitted. However, in "Benito Cereno," something more complicated is going on. A major theme of the tale is the interpretation (and misinterpretation) of symbols. Indeed, many of the most prevalent symbols in the tale are symbols of symbol-hunting: the lock and key, the Gordian knot, etc.

Delano in a chronic misreader of symbols. His trusting nature is such that hidden meanings don't easily penetrate his sight. He would much rather ignore a symbol, or apply to it some quick and easy interpretation, than wrestle with one, which is what Melville requires in "Benito Cereno." For example, as the tale opens, Delano's forebodings about the San Dominick translate easily into gothic imagery. In the eighteenth century, gothic novels, or similarly melodramatic narrative forms, were the primary means by which emotions like foreboding and dread were made accessible to a popular audience. Rather than examine the imagery before him as unique in its mystery, Delano sees it as a type, thus relieving him of the responsibility to actively interpret his world.

Of course, Delano's density in symbol-reading keeps him in the dark about the main plot of "Benito Cereno." He cannot see the evidence of the mutiny even while it is staring him in the face. He hears the Ashanti wizards "clash[ing] their hatchets together, like symbols" and merely reaffirms his prejudice that blacks like to mix play in with their work; never for a moment does he understand the true portent of the "cymbals": that the Ashanti are issuing a threat to Cereno. (Melville plays with Delano's inability to read; "cymbals" sounds like "symbols," after all.)

The prose of "Benito Cereno" is rife with symbolic and mythic imagery, even though the tale is written almost completely from the perspective of the dense and unperceptive Delano. It's thick texture rewards re-readings. And with each re-reading, the reader can, while exploring the symbolic patterns in the work, take stock in how much better a reader he or she is than poor Delano.