Benito Cereno: Theme Analysis
The encounter of the Old World and the New is one important theme of Benito Cereno. As argued throughout this commentary, Captain Amasa Delano functions in the text as a representative of young America’s best and noblest ideals and beliefs about itself: adventurous, optimistic, pious, noble, compassionate. Yet Delano’s encounter with Don Benito and the San Dominick—who, as argued above, can be seen as representing not only Spain but also Europe; the “old world”—reveals the potential pitfalls of America’s chosen identity: “the generosity and piety of Amasa Delano [is] incapable of sounding such wickedness” as “the good captain” faces in Babo and his rebellion (p. 221). Repeatedly, Delano shows himself blind to the truth of his situation—perhaps Melville’s condemnation of a naïve and overly hopeful young nation lacking clarity of vision regarding its place in the world. For, as the events of the narrative unfold, readers may well reflect that America—a nation that, in the years leading up to its Civil War, still, of course, countenanced the same slave trade in which Don Benito is involved and of which Babo, Atufal, and the other blacks are victims—is in danger of becoming just as death-ridden and full of decay as it accuses the “old world” of being. Benito Cereno can thus be read as a text that calls for a repudiation of the very racism it is often accused of promoting or upholding. Delano’s flaw, and perhaps, in Melville’s eyes, America’s, is that “he strove, by ignoring the symptoms, to get rid of the malady” (p. 179).
Appearance versus reality forms another dominant theme in the text. The whole truth about the San Dominick’s voyage is not revealed until the end of the novel, creating occasion after occasion in which Melville can employ literary irony. As James Miller states, “The deceptions in this story in a real sense are the story, for the deceptions [of Babo and the other blacks] capture the imagination of author and reader” (Miller, p. 159). Miller further argues that these deceptions express the truth that “evil is most likely to succeed when it masquerades as innocence” (Miller, p. 159)—as Babo, the “cunning” ringleader of the mutiny, carries out the charade of faithful and complacent servant to Cereno throughout the text.
Slavery and freedom emerges as yet a third central dichotomy in Melville’s text. Cereno began his travels as master of the San Dominick, and his human cargo the slaves; by the time Delano discovers them, of course, the situation has been completely reversed. The slaves have become the masters of the vessel, none more so than Babo: for instance, in the shaving scene, we read that Babo works with “touches evincing the hand of a master… the Negro seemed a Nubian sculptor finishing off a white statue head… the servant for a moment surveyed his master, as… the creature of his own tasteful hands” (p. 190-91). Furthermore, in deceiving Delano for as long as he does, Babo masters even this sea captain from a free republic devoted to liberty. Delano is, in some very real ways, a “prisoner” aboard the San Dominick along with Cereno: as Joyce Carol Oates points out, Delano willingly succumbs, time and again, to the “enchantment” of the decaying Spanish vessel. The slave rebellion, although presented on the surface of the text as an example of great wickedness, can also be interpreted, as this commentary has shown, as a liberating event: it liberates the slaves, if only for a time; and it plants a seed of liberating revelation within Delano—but whether that flash of insight, when the San Dominick’s figurehead is revealed as death itself, proves sufficient is not a question answered within the text. Readers are left wondering whether Delano has seen enough so that he, and the young republic for which he sails, can avoid the same descent into spiritual slavery that the “old world” has suffered—and so this brief consideration of the themes of Benito Cereno bring us full circle.