Melville’s story “Benito Cereno” was originally published serially in three parts. There is some indication that he considered making it into a novel but was discouraged by his potential publisher. Melville drew much of his material from Amaso Delano’s A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817); in fact, much of the court deposition material is transcribed exactly from the original.
The story is set in August of 1799 off the coast of Chile, where the “singularly undistrustful” captain of an American sealer, Bachelor’s Delight, Amaso Delano, comes upon an erratically sailing ship that is flying no colors. Against the advice of his mate, Delano approaches the mysterious vessel in a longboat and discovers that she is the San Dominick, a Spanish merchant ship carrying slaves from Buenos Aires to Lima. Upon boarding her, Delano meets the captain, Benito Cereno, an invalid who tells Delano a tale of the disease and the bad sailing weather that has killed much of his crew.
Delano is puzzled by the lack of discipline on the ship, the mysterious actions of the crew and slaves, the oversolicitousness of the servant Babo, and the mercurial behavior of Don Benito, who switches from gentleness to harshness without warning. Delano studies the unusual mix of sailors and slaves on deck, sensing that all is not as it seems; however, he is unable to reach any reasonable conclusion about the situation.
Although he takes pride in his enlightened attitude toward the Africans on board, Delano’s racist assumptions regarding the limited capabilities of blacks lead him to suspect that the Spaniard is plotting some evil. In general, Delano has no capacity to discern evil, and his ethical blindness, which parallels the pragmatic optimism of nineteenth century America, prevents Delano from perceiving the situation until the truth is thrust upon him. Like the lawyer in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Delano is an optimist who is indisposed to countenance evil; therefore, he repeatedly assures himself that his suspicions are illusory.
After resupplying the San Dominick, Delano prepares to depart and promises to tow the disabled ship to safe anchor next to the Bachelor’s Delight. As Delano casts off, Don Benito leaps into the longboat, pursued by the knife-wielding Babo. For a moment, Delano believes that he is being attacked by Don Benito, but a “flash of revelation” makes the situation clear. He realizes that the slaves have rebelled, killed most of the Spaniards, and are plotting to capture Delano’s ship in order to continue their journey to freedom. Their leader, Babo, is revealed to be a cunning and violent deceiver rather than the loyal servant that Delano had imagined him to be.
Delano overcomes Babo, rallies his crew, and manages to overwhelm the slaves who hold the San Dominick. The rebellious slaves are brought to trial, and the last portion of the story is a reconstruction of the court proceedings, retelling the narrative in cold, legalistic terms. Cereno is ruined by the experience. Delano’s efforts to console the Spaniard are futile, and Don Benito retires to a monastery, where he soon dies. Babo is executed, but his head, which is placed on a pole, still smiles in warning after death. The story shows that evil—dark metaphysical evil, an evil that cannot be repaired, meliorated, or ignored—is real in the world. Don Benito recognizes this, and the realization crushes him. Delano’s optimism is tempered but not conquered by the experience.
The story uses color imagery to emphasize the idea that truth is difficult to interpret. White represents good, although, as in the case of the skeleton that the murderous slaves place on the San Dominick ’s figurehead, good is sometimes in decay. Black represents evil, although the story also recognizes the correctness of the slaves’ impulse toward freedom and disputes the stereotype of blacks as incompetent and happy-go-lucky. Gray is the other...
(The entire section is 1,299 words.)