Benito Cereno | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Benito Cereno | Themes


Racial Tension

The tension of race is at the core of the narrative and conflict in Benito Cereno. The inherent power dynamic between the white sailors and officers and the black slaves or mutineers is what creates the tension in the story. Because the story is narrated unreliably through the perceptions and limitations of Captain Amasa Delano, the perceptions of race are equally prejudiced. Captain Delano observes again and again his belief that black people are a lower race than white. He expresses benevolent feelings about black people generally but compares his feelings about them to those of a man who is fond of his dog, saying that his feelings towards the "black race" are "as other men to Newfoundland dogs." His comparison of black people to dogs provides a clear insight into his worldview: white people are the natural rulers, masters, and caretakers of black people. While at no point depicted as a cruel man, Captain Delano still represents the idea of the "kind slaveholder," helping to perpetuate ignorance and prejudice in the guise of having the black person's best interest at heart.

After the mutiny is made clear to Captain Delano and reader alike, the racial perceptions of the novel shift somewhat. Now the black people aboard the San Dominick are no longer simple-minded, subservient cargo—they are clever, ruthless men who will go to any lengths to win their freedom. They are suddenly not so different from the white man. The narration portrays the black mutineers as vicious, evil murderers because the narration is from a white point of view. The white characters do not see themselves in their black counterparts—they explain away their actions because the slaves are either simple and made to serve or evil. There is no understanding of their right as human beings to try to escape enslavement or win their freedom. This biased perception, whether purposeful or a reflection of the author's own viewpoint, however Melville may have seen the politics of his time, provides the foundation of Benito Cereno's plot. In Captain Delano's eyes the black characters may be docile deer and domesticated dogs, or they may be vicious predators with "their red tongues [lolling], wolf-like," but they are animals either way.

Oppression and Power

Benito Cereno is a narrative built around the power play between the white sailors on the San Dominick and the black slaves who are being transported. The ship sets out with a full crew and a large number of slaves belonging to Benito Cereno's friend, Alexandro Aranda. Initially, the white crew and Aranda are the oppressors, with the power of life and death over the slaves. While the ship doesn't seem to be transporting people in the fashion of many of the horrific slave ships of the day, the black people on board were still the property and cargo of their Spanish master, who might end their lives or change its course on a whim.

The mutiny aboard the San Dominick, wherein they killed or gained control over all of the white sailors on board, causes the power to move into their hands. The white sailors who are still alive must follow every directive of any of the black people on board, for fear of their lives. This is not so different from how the enslaved people on board lived before the mutiny. What is interesting is that the perspectives given in the narrative paint the white race as being inherently correct in its power over their black counterparts, but when the black people take control they are depicted as evil and bloodthirsty.

Benevolence and Charity

Captain Amasa Delano's "good-natured" tendency to charitable acts and thoughts toward his fellow humans almost gets him killed multiple times but ultimately saves Benito Cereno's life. This charity first prompts Delano to take a boat out to check on the San Dominick despite its suspicious appearance, setting in motion the events that constitute the story. But it is this same charity and benevolent attitude that make Captain Delano incapable of seeing what is really going on around him. He is so determined not to suspect those around him of wrongdoing that he completely misses the danger of the situation he has entered and the danger Benito Cereno is in.

Additionally, Delano's so-called "benevolent" attitude towards the black people on board makes him unable to see the black mutineers as being capable of creative, independent thought that might lead to unified action. Every time he suspects a particular person or scenario aboard the San Dominick, such as the hatchet-polishers, he quickly reassures himself with a comparison of the black people to docile or simple-minded animals. He feels pride in his kind and benevolent attitude toward black people generally, and his own lack of ability to see them as human beings like himself almost proves his undoing. In the end, while Captain Delano may become the savior of Benito Cereno, he also brings about the doom of the black mutineers and their attempt at freedom, so there is no easy solution to the situation of the slaves and their desire for freedom, but rather, an unsolvable dilemma.

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