Benito Cereno | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Benito Cereno | Quotes

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1.

Delano's surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature.


Narrator, Section 1 (Benito Cereno's Story)

In this early introduction to Captain Amasa Delano, the reader is told by the narrator that Delano is extremely good-natured. This is an early indication of the narrator's unreliability and close connection with Delano, as it becomes clear throughout the narrative that this is also how Delano sees himself.

Captain Delano, the reader is told, feels no uneasiness about the suspicious circumstances surrounding the ship he spots entering the harbor. Even though the ship is flying no flag, which is unusual, the captain is unconcerned. And so, from the start, the reader is given a little warning about the depth of the captain's "good-naturedness" and the way it allows him to overlook possible danger.

2.

The living spectacle it contains ... has, in contrast with the blank ocean which zones it, something of the effect of enchantment.


Narrator, Section 1 (Benito Cereno's Story)

Captain Delano is overwhelmed upon boarding the strange ship. The colors and noise, the large proportion of black people in contrast to the white sailors, and the general strangeness and disrepair of the ship all create a scene that feels surreal to the captain.

This is not the only time he feels something is a little strange about the ship and those aboard it, but as per his temperament he likens his feeling to "enchantment" instead of unease.

3.

In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery.


Narrator, Section 1 (Benito Cereno's Story)

Upon taking stock of his surroundings and meeting with Benito Cereno, Captain Delano notes Cereno's bad health and the general poor condition of the crew. His interpretation of the chaos, disrepair, and lack of general orderliness about this ship is that it is caused by the miserable circumstances undergone by all aboard—most particularly by Cereno. The quotation may indicate Melville's own view of the chaotic and dangerous side of life as it is actually lived when control is weakened.

4.

But it is Babo here to whom ... I owe not only my own preservation, but likewise ... the merit is due, of pacifying his more ignorant brethren.


Benito Cereno, Section 1 (Benito Cereno's Story)

Benito Cereno explains to Captain Delano Babo's presence and his own relationship with him. This is an important moment because of the verbal irony of what Cereno says. Babo is ultimately the cause of the deaths of many of the sailors and crew aboard the San Dominick, and he holds the power of life and death over Cereno.

Ultimately, what Cereno says is not untrue. He is saved because Babo orders him to sail the ship to Senegal and keeps the others from killing him. Also, he does "pacify" the other black people aboard in a way, because he is their leader and keeps them in check. However, Captain Delano interprets this statement the way the reader is meant to interpret it, believing Babo is Cereno's faithful servant.

5.

He easily inferred that the young captain had not got into command at the hawsehole, but the cabin window.


Narrator, Section 2 (Growing Suspicion)

Captain Delano tries to figure out the confusing character of Benito Cereno. His deduction is that Cereno was not a captain who worked himself up to that rank through experience and perseverance but instead is someone who came in through "the cabin window"—i.e. someone who was able to secure his position through money or connections.

The hawsehole is the hole through which the anchor is pulled up, and being at the bottom of the ship, "coming into command through the hawsehole" would indicate starting at the bottom and working one's way up.

6.

I know no sadder sight than a commander who has little of command but the name.


Narrator, Section 2 (Growing Suspicion)

The Narrator here directly relates Captain Delano's thoughts. After witnessing an incident where a black boy hits a white boy with a knife and Benito Cereno says nothing and hands out no punishment, Captain Delano is confused and alarmed. Instead of following up on this strange incident, however, he simply decides Cereno is a bad captain and has little control over his crew or the others aboard. This is an example of an incident that should pique Delano's suspicion and curiosity; instead, he simply rationalizes with a more benign and naïve explanation.

7.

There was a difference between the idea of Cereno's darkly pre-ordaining Captain Delano's fate, and Captain Delano's lightly arranging Cereno's.


Narrator, Section 2 (Growing Suspicion)

After a moment in which Captain Delano actually allows his imagination to begin to sense the strange and dangerous nature of what is really going on around him, he again shifts his focus away from the thoughts that disturb him. What Delano sees as his own "good nature" is more of a refusal to see the world around him as it really is.

8.

His glance called away from the spectacle of disorder to the more pleasing one before him.


Narrator, Section 3 (The Boat is Sighted)

After watching a Spanish sailor be injured by two black men, Delano turns to Benito Cereno in the expectation that he will do something. Instead, Cereno appears to have another fit and is supported by Babo, a scene Captain Delano finds pleasing. Again, this is another instance of Captain Delano actively choosing to let his attention be drawn away from an important and informative incident, replacing it with something he finds "more pleasing" to look upon, a more naive view of experience.

9.

Like stray white pawns venturously involved in the ranks of the chess-men opposed.


Narrator, Section 3 (The Boat is Sighted)

In Captain Delano's more imaginative moments he is able to sense all is not as it seems aboard the San Dominick. This is such an instance, in which he imagines the black and white people on the ship are chess pawns of the corresponding colors. This analogy he envisions has an underlying tone of danger, because the "white pawns" are outnumbered and in enemy territory on the chess board.

10.

There's naked nature, now; pure tenderness and love.


Narrator, Section 3 (The Boat is Sighted)

Captain Delano thinks this about the black women he watches lying around on the deck. It is a thought that shows the way Captain Delano thinks. Besides his automatic relation of the black women to wild things, it is the way he conceives of nature that is telling. That Delano equates "naked nature" with "tenderness and love" paints him as someone critically naive of the cruel and dark sides of nature.

He views nature as something he can put human emotions on—the emotions of "tenderness and love"—instead of seeing it realistically as a force that is wild, untamable, and with little relation to human feeling. In turn, this hints to the reader something of the true nature of the black people on board who do not fit into Delano's limited worldview.

11.

Docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind.


Narrator, Section 4 (A Fair Wind)

This comment, reflecting Delano's view of black people generally, is a more overt comment on his belief that black people lack the intelligence and independent thought to act for themselves. It is racism at its most virulent height, indicative of some people's attitudes at the time.

12.

Possibly, the vexation might have been something different, were it not for the brisk confidence inspired by the breeze.


Narrator, Section 4 (A Fair Wind)

Again, in this moment when Captain Delano is irritated, Babo returns to Benito Cereno's cabin at the same moment he himself does, the reader is shown how Delano turns away from something of significance and focuses on the positive news of the fair wind blowing the ship into the bay. Instead of following up on the strangeness of the fact that Babo never allows Delano to be alone with Benito Cereno, Delano turns his attention to something he better understands.

13.

Their red tongues lolled, wolf-like, from their black mouths. But the pale sailors' teeth were set.


Narrator, Section 5 (The Truth Revealed)

In this image the mutineers on the San Dominick are no longer characterized as docile animals but as vicious ones. The wolf has long been an animal associated (inaccurately) with viciousness towards humans. The narrator purposefully introduces the contrast of the evil black and red of the mutineers to the righteous paleness and white teeth of the sailors. This is meant to characterize the white sailors as a force of good and the black mutineers as evil animals.

14.

You are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?


Captain Amasa Delano, Section 6 (The Denouement)

On their way to Lima after the defeat of the mutineers, Captain Delano asks Benito Cereno this question. Cereno's answer is "the negro."

Benito Cereno, despite being "saved," is still deeply affected by the trauma of his experiences. And yet his answer seems to indicate he blames the black race generally and not just those aboard his ship. This is one of the most critical moments of the narrative because it seems the narrator is doing something more than making a commentary on Cereno's experience.

Some critics have pointed out that this could be Melville's own commentary on the rising up of enslaved people and the overthrow of American slavery that is soon to come in the Civil War (1861–65). Regardless, at the end of the narrative the black person is ultimately held responsible for all of the bad that happened. There is no sense of accountability or empathy given by either Benito Cereno or Captain Delano. The force and power of the quotation took on added levels of meaning in the 20th-century era of racial equality and civil rights, and not in a positive sense, yet these words are believable given the characters of the story.

15.

Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader.


Narrator, Section 6 (The Denouement)

The mutineers scrawled the slogan "follow your leader" on the side of the San Dominick as a warning to Benito Cereno that they would kill him like they did Alexandro Aranda if he doesn't cooperate. This final line of the narrative depicts Benito Cereno's death a few months after the trial: he does finally follow his friend Alexandro Aranda into death.

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