Skip over navigation

Melville Stories

Herman Melville

"Benito Cereno" (Part III)

"Benito Cereno" (Part II)

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

Delano attempts to speak to another sailor, who is tying a knot, and the sailor hands the knot off to Delano, telling him (in broken English) to untie it quickly. Delano, dumbfounded, doesn't do so, and the knot is taken away from him by a slave. The situation is extremely strange, but Delano tries again to simply ignore it.

Delano questions Cereno further and, when he mentions Cape Horn, Cereno responds, "Who spoke of Cape Horn?" When reminded that he himself did, Cereno seems very upset. Babo then informs Cereno it is time for his daily shave. Delano finds this, like everything else, very odd, but goes along with it. During the shaving, he admires Babo's attitude and skill at shaving. He then brings up Cape Horn again, and before Cereno can answer, Babo accidentally cuts Cereno's skin. At the sight of the blood, Cereno looks terrified. Delano decides that a man so terrified by the sight of blood cannot possibly be plotting murder. The hollow tone of the Spanish captain's responses again makes Delano suspicious, and he wonders whether the master and servant aren't acting out some sort of pre-arranged play before him.

Delano then has lunch with Cereno, and finds to his annoyance that Cereno will not dismiss Babo from the room so they can talk in private.

The wind returns, and Delano begins to pilot the San Dominick toward his own ship. Soon the two ships are anchored near one another, and Delano calls for a boat to be lowered from his boat with supplies for the San Dominick. The supplies are delivered, and Delano prepares to take his leave of the ship. Just as he gets into his boat, Cereno leaps over the side of the San Dominick and falls at the captain's feet. Babo also leaps over, and with a dagger as well; Delano's men stop Babo from attacking, however. Delano realizes that Babo intended to stab Cereno, not himself; and as the boat escapes, the canvas falls away from the figurehead, revealing a human skeleton above the words "follow your leader." Delano then sends his men to take the ship, which they manage with some losses to their number.

The rest of the story consists mostly of Cereno's court deposition, revealing the truth about what happened on the ship.

The slaves revolted, led by Babo and the giant Atufal, killing much of the Spanish crew and taking control of the ship. They then forced Cereno to sail toward Senegal, where they were to be released. But before they could make such a trip, it would require supplies. Babo would not let Cereno come to a port that would put the ship in view of people, so he chose to sail to the island of Santa Maria. He told Babo he was planning on getting supplies, but in actuality he hoped a passing vessel would save them. In the meantime, the slaves killed their owner and master, Alexandro Aranda, and hung his skeleton on the figurehead to serve as a warning to the other sailors. When the Bachelor's Delight came near, Babo gave Cereno a story to tell, as well as the other sailors, then set up the masquerade of himself as a servant to Cereno, so as to keep an eye on him. Cereno and all the sailors were threatened with instant death if they give anything away. Cereno struggled between wanting to tell Delano the truth and the constant threat of Babo. Finally, he leapt overboard into Delano's boat, thus ending the charade.

At the end of the trial, Babo is executed and his head placed on a pole. Cereno falls into a deep misery, and a few months later he dies—he did indeed "follow his leader."

Analysis

The riddle is finally revealed: the slaves were in control all the time. Everything Delano witnessed makes sense, upon reflection. Most subtle was Cereno's method of hiding his nervousness: he made himself appear to be mentally ill or sick, and prone to faint, and he used those fainting spells to distract Delano whenever he became worried that Delano was in danger of discovering the truth. If Delano found out that the slaves were running things, Babo would have them both killed. While Delano was worried that Cereno was plotting to kill him, Cereno was in fact preserving the other captain's life through his strange behavior. It is this concern for the safety of Delano and his crew that finally sends Cereno over the edge and into Delano's boat. He knows that Babo is planning to capture Delano's ship while his men are on shore, and this drives him to escape despite Babo's threat.

The deposition itself is interesting primarily for the way it explains all the strange things Delano witnessed while on board. But in this last section of "Benito Cereno," the reader is forced to examine the story's treatment of blacks, and whether their revolt was justified. Certainly the deposition paints them in the worst light: the slaves murder dozens of men in their sleep, and Babo is a cold-blooded murderer who casually orders the death of Alexander Aranda. A slave revolt, of course, is the worst fear of all slave owners and traders. This one is particularly brutal and effective, thanks to their leader Babo.

Babo is a complex character. He is arguably more intelligent than either Cereno or Delano, because he has almost total control over Cereno and successfully fools Delano. It is sheer luck that Cereno survives his leap into the boat and Babo fails to kill him. Babo's performance as Cereno's servant is so convincing that Delano admires him on several occasions for his loyalty to his master, and even offers, half-jokingly, to buy him. When the story is re-read, there is a blatant irony in the relationship between Babo and Cereno. Cereno is the real servant, of course, and every time he reels and falls into Babo's embrace, it could be the embrace of death. Babo hovers over Cereno like Death himself, threatening to take his life should he make one wrong move. The shaving scene, where Babo accidentally nicks Cereno's throat, takes on a particularly sinister character. But it is unclear what Melville is trying to say by making Babo so intelligent. Is Babo intelligent, or is he just very cunning? Since Babo can speak and write Spanish, it is likely that he is quite intelligent. By having him outwit two white commanders, Melville is crediting Babo with considerable intelligence. But whether this is intended as proof that blacks are as smart as whites, or simply to make Babo into a formidable and frightening villain, is unclear. Much of Melville's fiction is written without such absolutes; the gray areas are intentional.

Probably the most significant fact at the end of the story is Cereno's inability to recover. Delano asks him what has cast such a "shadow" upon him, and Cereno responds "the Negro." This could mean many things. It could mean that Cereno's mind has been ruined by the terrible ordeal he has gone through. More symbolically, it could mean that Cereno realizes he is less intelligent than a black slave, so a "shadow" is now cast over his own skin, making him the "black."

This last interpretation may be supported by the last few lines of the story. Delano tells us that a few months after Babo was executed for his crimes, Cereno died and was buried in the same cemetery as Alexander Aranda, and therefore he truly "followed his leader." But this statement comes right after Delano describes the death of Babo, while Aranda is only mentioned very briefly in passing. So the reader can never be sure just who Cereno's "leader" really was—his friend Aranda, or Babo the black slave?

More Help

Previous Next
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

1 Comments

10 out of 12 people found this helpful

Follow Us