Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Benito Cereno,” like so many of Melville’s other works, rejects the benevolent world view of the optimistic Transcendentalists, represented in the story by Captain Delano. Significantly, Delano comes from Massachusetts, the birthplace of Transcendentalism. Delano is charitable, well-meaning, compassionate, and trusts to the “ever-watchful Providence above.” He is also a fool. Melville says as much at the beginning of the story when he describes the captain as rejecting the notion of “malign evil in man.” The author then wonders whether “in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies . . . more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception.”

The answer is no, as Delano repeatedly proves in the sequel. On board the San Dominick he sees repeated evidence that Cereno is not in control of the ship, yet he fails to draw the logical conclusion that if the Spaniard is not, the blacks must be. He notices that blacks abuse whites with impunity, that Babo uses the Spanish flag as a shaving towel, that at lunch Babo does not stand behind his supposed master but instead takes his station behind Delano, whence he can watch Cereno’s every gesture. At one point a sailor tosses Delano an intricately wrought knot and urges him to “undo it, cut it, quick.” Again Delano fails to understand the meaning of the scene; he does not equate the knot with the mystery aboard the ship.

Nor does Delano learn anything from his experience. Even at the end of the story, he believes that he is saved not by the actions of Cereno but by his own innocence and by Providence. He urges Cereno to forget what has passed and cannot understand why the Spaniard cannot share his happiness. “What has cast such a shadow upon you?” he asks naïvely. Cereno replies, “The negro.” Though Cereno refuses to look at Babo after the rescue, he cannot ignore what Babo symbolizes. He has seen the heart of darkness that lurks in humanity, and that knowledge destroys him.