Study Guide

Benito Cereno

by Robert Lowell

Benito Cereno Themes

Themes and Meanings (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

What could have been a trite moral allegory pitting good white sea captains against wicked African mutineers founders on the issue of slavery’s evil. Who, black or white, would not mutiny and kill his or her captors if kidnapped? Delano, despite his brag of worldliness in his opening exchange with Perkins, displays an astonishing naïveté that perhaps signifies the moral debilitation, due to slavery, of the white race that Babu hints at in his last words: “The future is ours.” Delano says at one point: “My conscience is clean. God is good. What am I doing on board this nigger-pirate ship?” What can the future hold for a civilization that shares his sentiments? Don Benito tells of how in a grotesque dream “little black men came on us with beetle backs.” In a vivid scene, Babu shaves the trembling Don Benito, teasing his throat with a razor till he draws drops of blood. When Delano first spies the San Domingo he says, “The battered forecastle looks like a raped Versailles. On the stern-piece I see the fading arms of Spain. There’s a masked satyr, or something with its foot on a big white goddess.” As Babu presents his gift bottle of wine, he notes the ribbons that adorn it and points out to Delano that“The crown of Spain is tied to one. Forgive me for tying a rope [to lower the bottle into Delano’s whaleboat] around the King of Spain’s neck.” These images all suggest some allegorical purpose, some hint of racial convulsions soon to come in a postslavery, postcolonial world. As Delano once asserts, “These old empires go. They are much too familiar with their blacks.”

The naïve racism...

(The entire section is 669 words.)