Benito Cereno Questions and Answers
by Herman Melville

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Is Delano in Benito Cereno simply a fool? Also, how do you interpret Babo?

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Deception and mistaken perception are primary, interrelated themes in Herman Melville’s novella in which no one is “simply” one thing or another.

Captain Delano’s behavior is entirely logical in some ways, but one of the ironies is that two aspects of his worldview are incompatible with each other. These contradictions confuse him so much that he very nearly loses everything.

According to his perspective, however, his faith is shown to be justified. Delano is a devout believer in God and Divine Providence: all will be resolved according to God’s will. This faith supports his belief in the correctness of the social structure that he upholds. This hierarchy applies to his position as the captain who leads his ship’s crew; by extension, he assumes that hierarchy remains in place on Cereno’s ship as well.

But another part of his blind faith justifies white people’s superiority and their enslavement of black people—according to his conviction that racial hierarchy is also Divinely ordained. Because he believes that black people are intellectually inferior, he cannot comprehend the reality before him: that the black “slaves,” not Cereno or his white sailors, are running the ship and that Babo has taken command.

At the last minute, when Cereno and Babo jump into the launch, Delano has an epiphany which saves his life, as he realizes that his world has been turned upside down.

Babo is also complex. While his goal of freeing the enslaved men is understandable, Melville does not make him a sympathetic character overall. The condition of being enslaved seems to have poisoned his entire being, twisting his logic and destroyed his soul. Melville leaves open, however, whether Babo was inherently evil and further corrupted by slavery, or was a good person driven to horrific behavior by the evils of the system.

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