Note: Because Benito Cereno is not divided into chapters, this commentary will indicate units of the text by beginning and ending phrases and by page numbers. The page numbers cited refer to the 1998 Signet Classic edition of Billy Budd and Other Tales (ISBN 0-451-52687-2), with introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. The section numbers used in this commentary are not present in Melville’s text.
Section 7: “Walking forward to the mainmast…” to “…the best use of the wind” (pp. 191-196)
Delano encounters Babo on deck; the black’s cheek is cut and bleeding. Delano wonders if Cereno bade him leave solely so he could punish Babo in this way for nicking him during the shave. When Cereno appears, however, he leans on Babo for support as before, “as if nothing had happened.”
A tall mulatto announces that lunch will be served in the cabin; Delano reflects that the mulatto represents the improving effect of “whiteskins”’ blood. While the two captains share the meal, Delano is eager to discuss the financial side of his aid to the San Dominick, but he is reluctant to do so in the presence of Babo, who hovers behind him—apparently, Delano supposes, to better anticipate any of Cereno’s possible needs. Cereno, for his part, only assures Delano that anything to be discussed with him can be discussed before Babo. Delano notes, as they discuss the issues of money, that Cereno no longer seems as excited as he did when Delano first arrived. He treats all with “indifference and apathy.”
Delano’s analysis of the mulatto based on the latter’s “regular” facial features—“a king, indeed—the king of kind hearts and polite fellows” (p. 192)—offers yet another example of the American sea captain’s racism. He remarks that white blood, when intermingling with that of blacks, can only “improve[e] the latter’s quality” (p. 193). Ironically, just prior to this incident, Delano has, while watching Babo tend to his bleeding cheek, thought, “Ah this slavery breeds ugly passions in man” (p. 191). Delano seems unable to recognize his own attitudes toward blacks and racially mixed individuals as an “ugly passion”—as, indeed, many whites did not in the 19th century. The comments about the mulatto are thus a further externalization of Delano’s “blindness” regarding the situation aboard the San Dominick—even as he has failed to see that Babo’s cheek wound is, as readers can surmise, self-inflicted. Delano’s attitude is surely racist; whether the text can fairly be judged so depends, again, upon readers’ estimation of the degree to which Melville did or did not share or sought to reinforce 19th-century American racial prejudices.
Professor Thomas Foster has written that, in literature, “whenever people eat or drink together, it’s communion” (Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, New York: HarperCollins-Quill, 2003; p. 8). If Foster’s contention is correct, then we must think of the lunch that Delano and Cereno share as a sacramental scene—a visible sign of an invisible reality. (And appropriately so, given that so much meaning in this text turns on what is visible and what is not—as, for example, Babo’s cut cheek has recently demonstrated.) At one level, reading the meal as a communion meal exposes another level of irony in Melville’s text: although they share a meal, the two sea captains come no closer together over it; indeed, the narrator tells us that they “sat down, like a childless married couple, at opposite ends of the table” (p. 193). There is a distance between the two men; and not just any distance, but one characterized by a lack of intimacy. (The odd reference may also reinforce what such scholars as Joyce Carol Oates read as the suppressed, latent, homoerotic aspects of the novel, as would Delano’s attribution of Babo’s cut cheek to “a sort of love quarrel,” p. 192). Thus, the two men are together, but do not commune: Cereno’s hiding of the truth and Delano’s obliviousness to it prevent such true sharing. When thinking more specifically and explicitly about this lunch scene against the backdrop of the Christian sacrament of communion, however, other meanings are suggested. Just as Holy Communion “re-presents” the death of Jesus, bringing that past event into the present, so does Delano and Cereno’s luncheon bring a past event into the present—namely, the experience of the mutiny, although Cereno, of course, does not reveal that truth to Delano. Nevertheless, as Delano questions Cereno about the experiences of the San Dominick and her passengers, and as he comes perilously close to the truth—asking, for instance, “how it was that the scurvy and fever should have committed such wholesale havoc upon the whites, while destroying less than half of the blacks” (p. 193)—Cereno becomes physically ill, or very close to it: “As if this question reproduced the whole scene of plague before the Spaniard’s eyes…” (p. 193-194)—for, in fact, it has. The past enters and shapes the present through this “communion” meal. Delano, however, gains no benefit from it, as Christians hope to gain the benefits of Jesus’ death through communion. Delano leaves the lunch table unchanged. The meal is not an experience of illumination or liberation. And surely it is not a freeing meal for Cereno—after all, the reason he discusses the monetary aspects of Delano’s aid with “indifference and apathy… [without regard to] weighty benefit to himself and his voyage” (p. 195) is because, though Delano does not know it, no such benefit exists for Cereno. Any aid will only serve to further the purpose of the mutineers, and will not lead to Cereno’s freedom.