Benito Cereno

by

Herman Melville

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Benito Cereno can help.

Don Benito Cereno Character Analysis

The Spanish captain of the San Dominick initially appears emotionally distraught, physically weak, and passive in his leadership role, to the point of making Captain Delano think that Cereno might be insane. However, Cereno’s behavior on the San Dominick is never genuine, because Cereno is secretly controlled by Babo, the leader of a slave rebellion. Cereno’s erratic attitude is therefore a mix of genuine fear (of his captor Babo) and emotional trauma (due to the violence of the slave rebellion). Cereno’s apparent passivity derives from his need to pretend to Delano that he is still in charge of the San Dominick, while actually letting Babo govern from the sidelines. Cereno’s ambiguous, untrustworthy attitude thus reflects the complex, life-threatening situation he finds himself in—not an inherent lack of courtesy. It is only once the Delano’s crew recaptures the San Dominick that Cereno is able to express his true nature. Although, as a slave trader, Cereno might be expected to have an indifferent or cruel attitude toward black slaves, his experience of the slave rebellion—in which his childhood friend Alexandro Aranda was brutally murdered—makes him much more sensitive than Delano to the injustice and potentially dangerous consequences of slavery. Having witnessed first-hand the violent hatred and anger that can motivate black slaves to rebel, Cereno feels a mix of awe and fear toward Babo, his captor. Unlike Delano, he now realizes that slavery might be immoral and that subjugating others by force could lead to nothing more than violence and death, as it did on the San Dominick. As a result, Cereno concludes that it is only by confronting past harm and present injustice (such as the enslavement of black people) that one can prove truly human and moral. His death three months after that of his “leader” Babo suggests that Cereno’s fate is inextricably tied to the former slave. This supports Melville’s argument that, in a slave society, master and slave depend on each other in a cruel, yet deep-seated, relationship of dependence and domination.

Don Benito Cereno Quotes in Benito Cereno

The Benito Cereno quotes below are all either spoken by Don Benito Cereno or refer to Don Benito Cereno. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin edition of Benito Cereno published in 2016.
Benito Cereno Quotes

To think that, under the aspect of infantile weakness, the most savage energies might be couched—those velvets of the Spaniard but the silky paw to his fangs.

Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Am I to be murdered here at the ends of the earth, on board a haunted pirate-ship by a horrible Spaniard?—Too nonsensical to think of! Who would murder Amasa Delano? His conscience is clean.

Related Characters: Captain Amasa Delano (speaker), Don Benito Cereno
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person. Most negroes are natural valets and hair-dressers […]. There is, too, a smooth tact about them in this employment, with a marvelous, noiseless, gliding briskness, not ungraceful in its way, singularly pleasing to behold, and still more so to be the manipulated subject of. And above all is the great gift of good humor. Not the mere grin or laugh is here meant. Those were unsuitable. But a certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture; as though God had set the whole negro to some pleasant tune.

Related Characters: Captain Amasa Delano (speaker), Don Benito Cereno, Babo
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

“The castle and the lion,” exclaimed Captain Delano—“why Don Benito, this is the flag of Spain you use here. It’s well it’s only I, and not the King, that sees this,” he added with a smile, “but”—turning towards the black,—“it’s all one, I suppose, so the colors be gay;” which playful remark did not fail some- what to tickle the negro.

Related Characters: Captain Amasa Delano (speaker), Don Benito Cereno, Babo
Related Symbols: Flags
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

Is it possible, thought Captain Delano; was it to wreak in private his Spanish spite against this poor friend of his, that Don Benito, by his sullen manner, impelled me to withdraw? Ah, this slavery breeds ugly passions in man.—Poor fellow!

Related Characters: Captain Amasa Delano (speaker), Don Benito Cereno, Babo
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

That moment, across the long-benighted mind of Captain Delano, a flash of revelation swept, illuminating in unanticipated clearness his host’s whole mysterious demeanor, with every enigmatic event of the day, as well as the entire past voyage of the San Dominick. He smote Babo’s hand down, but his own heart smote him harder. With infinite pity he withdrew his hold from Don Benito. Not Captain Delano, but Don Benito, the black, in leaping into the boat, had intended to stab.

Both the black’s hands were held, as, glancing up towards the San Dominick, Captain Delano, now with the scales dropped from his eyes, saw the negroes, not in misrule, not in tumult, not as if frantically concerned for Don Benito, but with mask torn away, flourishing hatchets and knives, in ferocious piratical revolt.

Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

If the Deposition have served as the key to fit into the lock of the complications which precede it, then, as a vault whose door has been flung back, the San Dominick’s hull lies open to-day.

Related Characters: Don Benito Cereno
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

“You generalize, Don Benito; and mournfully enough. But the past is passed; why moralize upon it? Forget it. See, yon bright sun has forgotten it all, and the blue sea, and the blue sky; these have turned over new leaves.”

“Because they have no memory,” he dejectedly replied; “because they are not human.”

Related Characters: Captain Amasa Delano (speaker), Don Benito Cereno (speaker)
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

“You are saved,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; “you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”

“The negro.”

Related Characters: Captain Amasa Delano (speaker), Don Benito Cereno (speaker)
Page Number: 136-137
Explanation and Analysis:

Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites; and across the Plaza looked towards St. Bartholomew’s church, in whose vaults slept then, as now, the recovered bones of Aranda; and across the Rimac bridge looked towards the monastery, on Mount Agonia without; where, three months after being dismissed by the court, Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader.

Related Characters: Don Benito Cereno, Babo , Alexandro Aranda
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Benito Cereno LitChart as a printable PDF.
Benito Cereno PDF

Don Benito Cereno Character Timeline in Benito Cereno

The timeline below shows where the character Don Benito Cereno appears in Benito Cereno. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Benito Cereno
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...characters, Delano seeks the captain of the ship, whom he discovers to be Don Benito Cereno, a gentlemanly Spaniard whose mournful attitude reveals the psychological hardship he has endured. Cereno is... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...for the slaves and sailors alike, but believes that a more energetic leader than Benito Cereno could probably have prevented the general atmosphere of chaos palpable on the ship. Benito Cereno... (full context)
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Delano is also frustrated by Benito Cereno’s moodiness and passivity, which makes Cereno behave rudely toward Delano despite Delano’s warm attitude. However,... (full context)
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Delano wonders if Cereno might be behaving this way because he believes that showing detachment gives him more clout.... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...person who would best be able to relate them: the captain. However, when Delano asks Cereno for more details about the San Dominick’s voyage, Cereno is distraught and looks at Delano... (full context)
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Babo intervenes, lamenting his master’s physical and mental state and saying that Cereno is overwhelmed by the memory of the plague that followed the storm. Cereno then resumes... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
At the end of this story, Cereno praises the black slaves for their calm conduct throughout this entire ordeal. He adds that... (full context)
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Reflecting on this situation, Delano is struck by Cereno’s description of the terrible calm that the San Dominick experienced and concludes that this must... (full context)
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Cereno then invites Delano to follow him to an elevated deck to the rear of the... (full context)
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Delano interrogates Cereno about the role of the oakum pickers and the hatchet-polishers, but Cereno answers with vague... (full context)
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...the ship then rings ten o’clock and an imposing, tall black slave walks toward Benito Cereno. He is kept tied by a chain wrapped around his body, connected to his neck... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
After Atufal leaves, Delano demands an explanation and Cereno says that Atufal has committed an unacceptable act. Cereno hesitates and looks at Babo before... (full context)
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Delano suggests that Cereno should let Atufal free since he seems so compliant, but Babo mutters that Cereno will... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Afterwards, Cereno and Babo begin to whisper to each other, apart from Delano. He notices that Cereno... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Delano wonders if Cereno’s mysterious behavior could be explained by the fact that he is crazy, since a fully... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Cereno then approaches Delano and interrogates him about his ship. Delano tells him that they have... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Finding that Babo and Cereno look like conspirators and confused about Cereno’s questions, Delano once again begins to wonder if... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
...some precious object he has stolen. Moved by these suspicious thoughts, Delano reflects again on Cereno’s odd questions. At every one of his thoughts, Delano notices that the old black slaves... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Influenced by this foreboding environment, Delano feels uncomfortable about Cereno. He wonders if this ship is a pirate ship, although he immediately tries to reassure... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Delano ultimately tells himself that Cereno must simply be too unwell to know what he is doing, and that his strange... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...the sailors, to the loud protests of the oakum-pickers. When Delano points this out to Cereno, Cereno begins to cough uncontrollably and Babo suddenly appears to give him support. This leads... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Delano wonders if he should chat with some sailors, but remembers one of Cereno’s comments about their ill behavior and decides that he does not want to interact with... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...air and answers Delano’s questions shyly. His replies confirm details of the ship’s voyage that Cereno had previously given Delano. The man soon stops talking when black slaves join him, and... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
...otherwise he would have fallen into the water. Delano then reflects on the fact that Cereno has disappeared and wonders if he is plotting something. He also wonders about Cereno’s praise... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Delano then reflects that whites are “the shrewder race.” He wonders if Cereno might secretly be allied with the black slaves, but concludes that this idea makes no... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Babo then arrives, telling Delano that Cereno invites him below deck. Happy about this unexpected turn of events, which confirms that Cereno... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Walking toward Cereno’s lodgings, Delano is annoyed to realize that the calm seas will make it difficult for... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Cereno then appears and Delano asks him if he can organize the sharing of provisions, so... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...water impartially to both the black slaves and white sailors. He saves extra water for Cereno but Cereno only drinks a little bit before returning it. Delano wants to serve special... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Delano then laments that Cereno has no boats. Cereno says that they were lost in the storm and, when Delano... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
When Delano sees Cereno’s cabin, he finds find it small and packed, as it serves various functions, from dormitory... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
...the San Dominick, Delano has been too nervous to fully express these sympathies, but in Cereno’s cabin he now feels comfortable enough to remember his appreciation of black people. (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
As Babo prepares to shave Cereno, Delano is entertained by Babo’s decision to set a small colored piece of cloth underneath... (full context)
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Performing his duties as a barber, Babo reminds Cereno not to shake because it makes Babo more likely to cut him. Babo reminds Delano... (full context)
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Noticing that Cereno cannot be shaken out of his depressed stupor, Delano walks out of the room. Babo... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
...biracial servant, Francesco, then announces lunch. Noticing the boy’s beauty and agreeable voice, Delano asks Cereno if he is a good man. Delano gives a laconic positive answer, in a reluctant... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Delano and Cereno then enter the cabin and sit around the table. Delano notices that Babo has chosen... (full context)
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
During the lunch, Delano hopes to be left alone with Cereno so that they can discuss financial matters, but Cereno insists that Babo is not only... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...become good sailors with adequate training. When everything seems in order, Delano hurries back to Cereno’s cabin, hoping to talk to him alone. However, as soon as he arrives, he hears... (full context)
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Delano then informs Cereno that Atufal is waiting outside the door. Cereno shows fear but explains that Atufal must... (full context)
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
As the hours go by and Delano finally sees his ship nearby, he invites Cereno to come with him to the Bachelor’s Delight, where the Spanish captain will be able... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Still hurt by Cereno’s moody behavior, Delano prepares to board his ship without insisting that Cereno join him. Leaving... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...revived and chides himself for doubting the powers of Providence. He concludes that, even if Cereno is incomprehensible, Delano himself must be proud of his good deeds, which bolster his moral... (full context)
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Delano orders the boat to leave and, as soon as he does so, Cereno jumps into the boat, yelling incomprehensibly. Some Spanish sailors jump into the water to join... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...he finally realizes that Babo was not trying to kill him, Delano, but his master Cereno. Looking up to Cereno’s ship, Delano grasps that the black slaves are angry and uncontrolled... (full context)
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...the human skeleton used as a figure-head, set above the ship’s motto: Follow your leader. Cereno cries out that this is the body of his murdered friend Alexandro Aranda. When the... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Delano proceeds to plan the capture of the San Dominick. Cereno says that a Spanish sailor put the ship’s guns out of use at the beginning... (full context)
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...the ship to chase the San Dominick. When he is about to step into one, Cereno stops him, unwilling to let Delano put his life at risk again. Captain Delano ultimately... (full context)
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...final destination, where the vice-regal courts launch a legal investigation against the San Dominick slaves. Cereno, whose health had improved while on the water but has deteriorated since reaching Lima, is... (full context)
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...criminal case against the black slaves on the San Dominick began on September 24, 1799. Cereno, the first witness, declares that the San Dominick left Chile on May 20, 1798, with... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Cereno explains that the slaves were not kept in chains because Aranda judged them to be... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...many fruitless days, Babo threatened once more to kill the white men on board if Cereno tried to reach any human settlement on shore. Cereno agreed to go to the island... (full context)
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Four days later, after Babo threw some more sailors overboard and Cereno begged Babo daily to tell him where Aranda’s body was, Babo finally showed Cereno a... (full context)
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
After a few days, Cereno offered to sign a contract in which he committed to taking them back to Senegal... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
The narrator then includes selected extracts from Cereno’s narrative. In them, Cereno notes that the calm seas drove many men mad, causing the... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Cereno notes that, throughout Captain Delano’s visit, Babo stayed by his side, playing the part of... (full context)
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Throughout his testimony, Cereno emphasizes his gratitude for Delano’s generosity. In his concluding remarks, he mentions that he does... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Cereno notes that certain crew members tried to alert Captain Delano to what was happening, but... (full context)
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
Finally, Cereno adds that some of the sailors killed some slaves after the San Dominick was recaptured... (full context)
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
...appear open and bare. The narrator then proceeds to describe an earlier event: Delano and Cereno’s conversations during their trip to Lima. During this period, Cereno, whose health seems to have... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Delano then concludes that he owes Cereno his life, but Cereno, finally expressing his politeness and gratitude fully, replies that Delano was... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Cereno then reflects on Delano’s experience. He notes that, although Delano spent many hours with Cereno,... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Surprised by Cereno’s gloomy tone, Delano enjoins him to forget the past and focus on the future, instead... (full context)
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...him to abandon speech. Throughout the rest of the journey and the trial in Lima, Cereno refused to look at him. (full context)
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
...turned toward the church where Aranda’s bones were deposed and, farther, toward the monastery where Cereno, three months later, died, thus “follow[ing] his leader.” (full context)