Style and Technique
Melville repeatedly uses irony to undercut the easy assumptions of Captain Delano. Observing Babo’s constant attendance on Cereno, whom the black will not leave even for a moment, Delano comments, “Don Benito, I envy you such a friend; slave I cannot call him.” Such envy is clearly out of place, but there is ironic truth in Delano’s refusing to call Babo a slave, for Babo in fact is the master. Delano likens the ship to a monastery and the blacks to monks, analogies hardly appropriate to the situation. The American regards the black women as the pattern of docility, “pure tenderness and love”; later the reader learns that during the mutiny they were more vicious and bloodthirsty than the men.
Melville also employs irony to indicate that blackness is not a function of skin color. Babo demonstrates that blacks and whites are identical within when he mockingly shows the skeleton of Don Alexandro Aranda. To each of the Spaniards he puts the same question: Does not the whiteness of the bones prove that they belonged to a white man? The answer is no. Beneath the surface all people are alike, which means that all people are capable of the horrors committed aboard the San Dominick.
Ironic repetitions emphasize this idea. Babo’s motto, “Follow your leader,” is a warning to the Spaniards that if they refuse to comply with his orders they will share the fate of Don Alexandro. When the Americans recapture the San Dominick, the chief mate urges the sailors on with the cry, “Follow your leader!” When the blacks mutiny, they kill eighteen whites; in the recapture, “nearly a score of negroes were killed.” Delano prevents Babo from stabbing the prostrate Cereno; later he stops the Spaniard Bartholomew Barlo (how close that name is to Babo’s) from stabbing one of the chained blacks.
Even in death, irony rules. Don Joaquin hides a jewel to present at the shrine of Our Lady of Mercy in Lima as a gift of thanks for his safe passage. The jewel goes to the church, but only after Don Joaquin dies aboard ship. Babo warns Cereno that failure to obey will cause the captain to follow his leader, Don Alexandro, to death. When the San Dominick lands, Aranda’s skeleton has been buried in St. Bartholomew’s Church. Shortly thereafter, Cereno, too, is buried there and so does, indeed, follow his leader.
Kindness and Providence offer no protection against the blackness in humankind. Aranda was a kind master who allowed his slaves the freedom of the ship. His benevolence was his undoing, as it almost destroys Delano, who unwittingly guides Babo and his mutineers into a berth next to his own vulnerable ship. Though Delano emerges from his experience neither sadder nor wiser, the reader cannot be so untouched, for Melville has shown him the grimness of humanity’s soul.
*Chile. South American country off whose coast the American whaling ship Bachelor’s Rest encounters the Spanish slave ship San Dominick, whose slaves have mutinied and taken control, in the harbor of a small island. By setting his story in the southernmost extreme of the known world, Herman Melville dramatizes the racial tensions inherent in the southern United States during the same period. In an attempt to gain the confidence of Captain Amasa Delano of the Bachelor’s Rest, the rebel slaves pretend still to be prisoners and slaves.
Babo, the ostensibly devoted slave of the San Dominick’s captain appears to behave as a quintessential “Uncle Tom,” doing everything he can to meet his master’s needs. The narrator’s description of the slaves is of “natural valets and hairdressers” whose docility arises from the contentment of their limited minds. This is the same view of black slaves depicted in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published a few years before Melville’s story. However, in Benito Cereno Melville powerfully depicts this view of slaves as a fantasy, with the reality the oppressive violence and savagery of Babo and his allies, who...
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