Point of view
"Benito Cereno" is narrated from a third person point of view that is limited to the perspective of Captain Amasa Delano, an American sailor from Massachusetts.
Delano’s experience aboard the San Dominick is depicted through his inaccurate perceptions of the racial dynamics on board the ship. He assumes that the blacks are under the dominion of Benito Cereno; in reality, they have revolted, forcing the Spanish sailors to perform for Delano as if the ship’s crew was culled by a pestilent sickness. Andrew Delbanco observes the subtlety of Melville's handling of perspective, writing that Melville "moves us so close to Delano's perspective that we witness the scene as if over his shoulder and hear the 'clamorous' crowd as if through his ears."
Throughout the majority of the novella, the crucial information that the self-liberated blacks have murdered all of the Spanish officers on board, excepting Benito Cereno, is withheld from the reader. This disruption of the ship’s status quo is repeatedly foreshadowed by Delano’s misperceptions about Benito Cereno and Babo's unusual relationship. During his visit aboard the slave carrier, Hershel Parker observes that Delano "repeats a pattern of suspicions-followed-by-reassurance, with progressively shorter periods in which suspicions can be allayed." He describes Melville's Delano as "bluffly good-natured, practical, and resourceful but intellectually obtuse, naively optimistic, impervious to evil."
With regard to Melville's choice to implement a third-person narration, John Bryant believes that no first-person narrator was used because it would have made the suspense hard to sustain, as first-person narrators "too easily announce their limitations." Melville "adopts the voice of an omniscient and supposedly objective speaker, but limits his reporting almost exclusively to Delano's skewed point of view." The narrator only reports what Delano sees and thinks, "[making] no judgments and [relating] Delano's fatally racist presumptions as fact." Melville's limited narrator deceives the white readership of Putnam's Monthly "into adopting Delano's erroneous thinking." At the time of publishing, the denouement most likely came as no less shocking to the reader than to Delano himself, and "the story's final effect is to force readers to retrace their own racism to discover how, as a condition of mind, it distorts our vision." Laurie Robertson-Lorant astutely verbalizes this parallel between Delano's viewpoint and the reader's position, writing, "Babo has woven an elaborate web of deception from the American's own prejudices," and "Melville has drawn readers who adopt Delano's view of the San Dominick into the same entangling web."
Prose rhythm: tension vs. relief, narrative style versus legal documents
Several critics have noticed the fundamental rhythm of the story, a rhythm of tension and relief characteristic of the sentences, Captain Delano's state of mind, and even of the structure of the novella as a whole.
Every so often, Delbanco notices an unusual hissing whisper or silent hand signal "might cut through Delano's haze and awaken him to the true situation, but he always reverts to 'tranquillizing' thoughts" about the white man's power and the black man's "natural servility". Unconsciously, Delano lets himself be distracted from pursuing his apprehensions. Delbanco concludes his description of the shaving scene (see below) with an assessment of what he sees as the purpose of the rhythm: "This pattern of tension followed by release gives Benito Cereno its teasing rhythm of flow-and-ebb, which, since the release is never complete, has the incremental effect of building pressure toward the bursting point."
The prolonged riddle of the main story is solved with the leap of Don Benito into Delano's boat—an ending of just a page and a half. This event is related a second time, now in "the cumbersome style of a judicial exposition" for which the documents in the source provided the model. For Berthoff, the presence of these documents represent "only the most abrupt of a series of shifts and starts in the presentation" that constitute the narrative rhythm of "tension increasing and diminishing" and of "the nervous succession of antithetical feelings and intuitions." Berthoff recognizes the sentences perform the double function of simultaneously showing and suspending, remarking, "They must communicate tension but also damp it down." Though the paragraphs are usually short, the longer ones contain what, for Berthoff, is the essential rhythm of the tale:
- As his foot pressed the half-damp, half-dry seamosses matting the place, and a chance phantom cats-paw--an islet of breeze, unheralded, unfollowed--as this ghostly cats-paw came fanning his cheek; as his glance fell upon the row of small, round dead-lights--all closed like coppered eyes of the coffined--and the state-cabin door, once connecting with the gallery, even as the dead-lights had once looked out upon it, but now calked fast like a sarcophagus lid; and to a purple-black, tarred-over panel, threshold, and post; and he bethought him of the time, when that state-cabin and this state-balcony had heard the voices of the Spanish king's officers, and the forms of the Lima viceroy's daughters had perhaps leaned where he stood--as these and other images flitted through his mind, as the cats-paw through the calm, gradually he felt rising a dreamy inquietude, like that of one who alone on the prairie feels unrest from the repose of the moon.
Besides the role of Melville's descriptive powers in carrying the suspension in this sentence, "the rhythm of sensation and response it reproduces" is in "in miniature" the rhythm of both the action and the telling.
After the presentation of the legal documents, the novella concludes in a style of "spare, rapid, matter-of-fact statement into longer paragraphs and a more sustained and concentrated emphasis:"
- As for the black--whose brain, not body, had schemed and led the revolt, with the plot--his slight frame, inadequate to that which it held, had at once yielded to the superior muscular strength of his captor, in the boat. Seeing all was over, he uttered no sound, and could not be forced to. His aspect seemed to say, since I cannot do deeds, I will not speak words. Put in irons in the hold, he was carried to Lima. During the passage, Don Benito did not visit him. Nor then, nor at any time after, would he look at him. Before the tribunal he refused. When pressed by the judges, he fainted. On the testimony of the sailors alone rested the legal identity of Babo.
- Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites; and across the Plaza looked towards St. Bartholomew's church, in whose vaults slept then, as now, the recovered bones of Aranda: and across the Rimac bridge looked towards the monastery, on Mount Agonia without; where, three months after being dismissed by the court, Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader.
These last paragraphs introduce a new tone, after the "teasing oscillations of mood" in the first part and the "dry repetitions of the court documents," the novella's conclusion is "terse, rapid, taut with detail," and for Berthoff an admirable example of "Melville's ordinary boldness in fitting his performance to the whole developing occasion."
As Rosalie Feltenstein first noticed, the Spanish ship and its crew are described continuously in "similes drawn from monastic life." At first sighting, the ship is likened to a "white-washed monastery after a thunderstorm." Delano first mistakes the crew for monks, "Black Friars pacing the cloisters." Ironically, the ragged Babo looked "something like a begging friar of Saint Francis." Even the name of the ship, San Dominick,[note 2] is relevant here, the Dominicans being known as "the Black Friars." The name of the ship is not only appropriate for the African slaves, but also "hints of the blackness with which the story is filled."