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Melville Stories

Herman Melville

"Benito Cereno" (Part II)

"Benito Cereno" (Part I)

"Benito Cereno" (Part III)

Summary

Delano tells Cereno he will give him some supplies, some sailors, and some rigging to help them reach the nearest port. This momentarily cheers up Cereno, but then Babo draws him aside, claiming the excitement is bad for his master, and when Cereno returns, he is morose again.

As Delano moves across the ship whenever Cereno is otherwise occupied, he often gets an intuitive feeling of suspicion, that something is wrong. He notices a small black boy hit a white cabin boy on the head with a knife, and lightly chides Cereno for allowing this to happen. The other captain acknowledges the incident, but makes no effort to punish the attacker.

Delano then inquires as to the owner of the slaves and discovers they belong to Alexander Aranda, a friend of Cereno's who died of the fever. Delano suspects that Aranda's body is still on board, judging from Cereno's reaction to discussing the man. But they are interrupted by a giant black slave named Atufal, who appears before Cereno in chains. Cereno asks Atufal if he is now willing to ask for pardon, but Atufal makes no answer, and Cereno dismisses him. Delano is impressed by Atufal's honorable refusal to beg for pardon, and he almost chides Cereno for keeping such a noble, well-behaved slave in chains, and Cereno can make no satisfactory explanation.

Cereno then rather rudely begins whispering with his servant. Delano starts to become suspicious, and believes he is the subject of their conversation. He even briefly flirts with the idea that Cereno is actually some low-born adventurer masquerading as a ship captain. But the good-natured Delano dismisses this idea, even as Cereno returns and asks him some rather suspicious questions, such as how many men his ship holds and whether they would be present on it that night.

Troubled by this, Delano tries to distract himself and sees an odd sight: a Spanish sailor, wearing the usual clothing of a sailor but with a shirt of the finest linen underneath. He sees another sailor brandishing something shiny before vanishing into the ship's hold. All these signs perplex him, and he turns them over in his mind. He is beginning to suspect that Benito Cereno may have plans to attack him and capture his own ship, the Bachelor's Delight.

Delano again dismisses his suspicions as silly, but witnesses another strange scene: two blacks push a sailor and then throw him to the ground. When Delano attempts to point this out to Cereno, the Spanish captain has another coughing fit, and his servant Babo must help him. The scene between master and servant causes Delano to forget the incident with the sailor. But soon the suspicions are back, as he thinks he sees the Spanish sailors giving him meaningful glances. He tries to question them, but they are constantly crowded out or harassed by the slaves. One sailor, however, seems to attempt to make contact with Delano, but flees before Delano can speak to him. Since the sailor seemed to be trying to speak to him without even his captain knowing, Delano becomes even more suspicious of Cereno.

Analysis

To anyone who knows the secret of "Benito Cereno"—and even to those that don't—the unfolding of its mystery may seem painfully slow. The summary above cannot do justice to Melville's prose, which is paced rather slow and methodically, much like Captain Delano's mind. The strange incidents begin to pile up: the young back slave hitting the white boy without any reprimand from Cereno, the Spanish sailors seeming to motion to him, the whispering between Cereno and Babo, and the two blacks knocking down the sailor. Yet each time, Delano's trusting nature causes him to dismiss his suspicions.

It is difficult to determine whether Delano is too trusting, or not trusting enough. If Delano were more willing to let his suspicions get the best of him, or if he were a more suspicious person in general, he might have figured out what was going on before the end of the story. But as the reader later finds out, had Delano found out the truth about the slaves and tried to act, he almost certainly would have been caught by Babo and killed on the spot. By being so trusting, Delano falls for the hastily-arranged scam that Babo concocts, and this allows Cereno to survive until he can leap down into Delano's boat.

But, as mentioned earlier, Melville unfolds his plot very slowly. Some readers may become frustrated with Delano as he repeatedly witnesses strange events, then dismisses them time and again. Literary critic Warner Berthoff has likened "Benito Cereno" to the telling of a riddle: it must be told once, so the listener has a chance to figure it out; and once figured out, the listener goes over the riddle again, to make sure his or her answer fits all the parts of the riddle. The strange incidents that Delano witnesses are the clues to the riddle, the answer is so surprising that Delano never really figures it out. To a nineteenth-century man, even one from a liberal state like Massachusetts, the idea of a group of slaves revolting, then coming up with such a complicated ruse to fool a ship's captain, would have been a very far-fetched idea indeed. Melville's readers would have been just as mystified by the strange events as Delano.

It is notable that Delano does little to intervene with the strange things he encounters. He accepts Cereno's odd, often rude manners with little reproach, if any. Whenever a black strikes a white man, he points it out to Cereno, but he doesn't do anything about it himself. Delano and the Lawyer of "Bartleby the Scrivener" are actually similar characters. They are both relatively intelligent, established, well-balanced men who are exposed to a number of very odd events and behaviors. They remain contemplative where most men would immediately question these events vigorously, or take immediate action. Few lawyers would retain a copyist that refused to examine his copies, and few captains would ever allow a black slave to strike a white man without punishment, no matter what the ship's actual captain did. But despite their contemplation, both Delano and the Lawyer are thwarted in their attempts to discover the truth. Delano only finds it when Cereno leaps into his boat and reveals that the blacks are actually in control of the ship; the Lawyer never really finds out the truth about Bartleby. By remaining so passive in their observations, both Delano and the Lawyer are unable to reach the knowledge they are so earnestly searching for.

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Correction to the sixth section of Encantadas

by The_Great_And_Powerful_Ass, January 15, 2013

After her husband dies, the narrator speaks of two terrible things, which he should not mention, that happened to Hunilla. What are those things? They are buried in the semantics of Melville's writing, but: 1.) Hunilla actually becomes pregnant and has to try and have the baby herself because her husband and brother died on the catamaran. 2.) After she gives birth, the baby dies, and she is raped by men on a ship that boards the island. They leave after they rape her, leaving her alone again.
Not too long afterwards is when the other s... Read more

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