Benito Cereno

Benito Cereno Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Trace the use of color in "Benito Cereno", from the gray skies of the tale's opening through the descriptions of the characters - black, white and mixed - to the bright sun and the blue skies at the close of the tale. What does Melville suggest with these colors? Is irony at play?

  2. 2

    Discuss Captain Delano's attitude toward blacks in "Benito Cereno". What does he admire about Babo, about the African women, about Atufal? What do you think Melville's position might have been with regard to Captain Delano's attitude?

  3. 3

    "Benito Cereno" was written as the United States prepared for the Civil War. Although the tale is set long before Melville's own era, how might it be a comment upon the events of the Civil War?

  4. 4

    Who is the hero of "Benito Cereno"? The title character? Captain Delano? Babo? Nobody? How might any of these characters be seen as heroic, or unheroic?

  5. 5

    Consider the perspective of "Benito Cereno". From whose vantage do we see the action? From whose don't we? Who does Melville silence and who does he allow to speak, and to what effect?

  6. 6

    "Benito Cereno" is full of performance. On nearly any page of the book, one can find instances of characters taking on parts, performing roles, speaking lines, being coached, or otherwise trying to communicate while conscious of an audience. What does "Benito Cereno" suggest about the nature of performance? What is the line between performance and reality? Who are the great actors in "Benito Cereno"?

  7. 7

    Discuss the religious subtext of "Benito Cereno". From the beginning of the story to the end, monasticism, Catholicism, messianicism, the Inquisition and other religious imagery help to communicate Melville's message. What purpose does any one strain of this imagery serve in "Benito Cereno"? For instance, follow Christ images throughout the tale, or references to the Black Friars, a.k.a. the Dominicans.

  8. 8

    A major image in "Benito Cereno" is the stern-piece of the San Dominick: "a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked." Follow the echos of this image throughout the tale. At given points in the narrative, whose foot is on whose throat? What is the significance of the masks on the figures in the image, and how do masks relate to the tale as a whole?

  9. 9

    Why does Benito Cereno die at the end of his tale? Why doesn't Captain Delano?

  10. 10

    Reflect on the violence in "Benito Cereno". Who commits the atrocities in the story, and what does Melville suggest about barbarity? Consider three key images: the skeletal remains of Don Aranda, the battle between the sailors of the Bachelor's Delight and the slave mutineers aboard the San Dominick, and the image of Babo's head on a pike at the end of the tale.