Literature Study GuidesBenito CerenoSection 2 Growing Suspicion Summary

Benito Cereno | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Benito Cereno | Section 2 (Growing Suspicion) | Summary

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Summary

Moved by the plight of Benito Cereno and his ship, Captain Amasa Delano offers to lend Cereno three officers to help him get to Lima. Cereno accepts and invites Captain Delano to go up to the poop deck with him. Once there, Captain Delano watches with horror as one boy gashes another with a knife and Cereno shrugs it off as boys sporting. Captain Delano suggests Cereno "keep all [his] blacks employed" and seems to feel nervous at the white people on the ship being outnumbered by the black. Cereno reveals that many of the black people on the ship are slaves that belonged to his friend Alexandro Aranda, who died of the fever on the ship. A large black man all in chains approaches Cereno, and Cereno asks him if he is ready to beg Cereno's pardon. The man replies that he is not and quietly returns below.

Cereno and Babo step aside and begin to whisper. Captain Delano understands they are in part whispering about him. He sees a young Spanish sailor he had not seen up to then and a room with something glinting in it and begins to feel a little nervous about the whole situation. Captain Delano ruminates about the situation and in the end puts his suspicion away, deciding Cereno is in fact likely a member of the well-known Cereno merchant family. Cereno comes back and begins asking Captain Delano specifics about his cargo, how many men he has on board, and how the ship is armed. Trying to puzzle out Cereno's motives, Captain Delano leaves the poop deck and becomes increasingly apprehensive. He tries to work out if there is some "sinister scheme" afoot. Delano goes in circles trying to make sense of his feelings of foreboding and distrust of Cereno, each time he addresses his fears "good-naturedly" explaining them away again.

Analysis

Captain Delano continues to try to puzzle out Cereno and his ship, with little result. Delano's self-drawn conclusion about Cereno is he is some sort of middle-class man who did not work his way up to captaincy of the ship but who instead gained it through connections and money. In the narrator's words Delano decides "that the young captain had not got into command at the hawsehole, but the cabin window." The "hawsehole," one of many technical nautical terms used by Melville in this novel, refers to the hole the anchor is pulled up through. It is implied in this quote that Cereno did not become a commander through working his way from the bottom up, but by coming straight into captaincy in some other fashion. Delano draws this conclusion because he can find no other way to explain Cereno's seeming complete lack of command of his subordinates on the ship, his strange low spirits, and his soft unworked hands. There are more ominous explanations that creep into Captain Delano's thoughts, but he repeatedly ignores and explains them away. This foreshadows that Delano's "good naturedness" is potentially a fatal flaw in his personality. While the narrator seems to laud that good naturedness, Delano's repeated attempts to ignore the "ghostly dread" that comes upon him and the suspicious things he witnesses create an atmosphere of tension and foreboding.

In one of the most suspicious moments of all, Cereno asks specific questions about Delano's crew and cargo, which can seem to have no good motive behind them. In a classic narrative device the scene is interrupted before important information can be imparted or, in this case, before the character has time to have an epiphany about what he has just learned. Captain Delano, for once, does not have time to try to think through or rationalize what he just experienced. If he had, he would probably realize there could be no benevolent reason for Cereno to ask the questions he does about Delano's ship and crew. This moment passes quickly and yet is critical to the development of plot and suspense.

Captain Delano's attitude towards the black people on the ship remains distrustful and shortsighted. Despite his repeated praise of Babo and his admiration for how Babo supports and attends to Benito Cereno, Captain Delano sees him ultimately as nothing more than a devoted slave. He is delighted by Babo's "simplicity" but does not particularly think of him as a man in the same way he regards himself and Cereno. There are a few flashes in which Captain Delano feels uneasy about Babo much in the way he gets twinges of uneasiness about Cereno and the rest of the ship, but, as seems to be consistent with his character, Delano focuses on the good-natured side Babo displays and is able to put aside his feelings of unease and continue in his old prejudices and sense of superiority.

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