Benito Cereno | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Benito Cereno | Symbols


Shaving Razor

In a tense, disturbing scene of Benito Cereno Babo sharpens a razor and shaves his "master's" face and neck while Benito Cereno shakes in terror. Captain Delano does not know what to make of this scene and so convinces himself it is an instance of the well-behaved and devoted servant attending to his master. The razor in this scene symbolizes power, but the type of power it represents differs according to character. For Babo it represents his newfound power over a white man's life and death. As he shaves Benito Cereno, both parties are acutely aware of how easy it would be for Babo to end Cereno's life in that moment. Thus, for Cereno the razor represents his subjugation to Babo's control. But to the outsider Captain Delano the act of a servant shaving his master represents the power of Cereno's position as captain and master. In this one brief scene the razor holds multiple layers of meaning.

Atufal's Chains

Atufal's chains, like the razor Babo uses to shave Cereno, carry meaning that varies by perspective. Captain Delano sees these chains as a symbol of Benito Cereno's control over the black people aboard the San Dominick, as the mutineers mean him to see them. However, he also notes Atufal's "royal spirit" and the way the chains do not seem to diminish or shame him. In Delano's eyes Atufal's way of wearing the chains with pride and poise makes him doubly interesting and kingly. However, for Atufal the chains probably represent a necessary indignity in the role he is playing in order to gain his freedom. For Benito Cereno the chains are a taunt and a farce: Atufal is no more under his control than are any of the other mutineers. The chains are a mocking reminder of Benito Cereno's own subjugated position on his ship as he, too, is enchained.

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