Benito Cereno


Herman Melville

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The Knot Symbol Icon

The convoluted knot that Captain Delano sees a sailor tying aboard the San Dominick highlights the tense and seemingly unsolvable social situation that a slave society engenders. On the ship, Delano sees a Spanish sailor tie a knot made of various individual knots. The sailor says that he is making a knot for someone to undo and he then throws it to Delano, telling him to cut it. Finally, a slave intervenes and throws the knot into the ocean. This whole scene suggests that what is happening on the San Dominick is infinitely more complex and convoluted than Delano is able to recognize. The knot highlights the layers of dependence and oppression that everyone onboard is “tied up” in, as slave-owners metaphorically (and sometimes physically) tie their slaves. A slave revolt then reverses this relationship, creating new “knots.” This alternation of various forms of oppression creates a seemingly unsolvable “knot” in which victims and perpetrators, and causes and consequences, are not easily identifiable. The sailor’s demand that Delano cut the knot mirrors the slave’s decision to throw it into the ocean: both of them think that, instead of untying the knot, which would require much patience and energy, it is easier to simply destroy it, thus erasing the convoluted past of injustice. However, this does not actually solve the root of the problem, but simply leads to new cycles of violence. Delano’s cluelessness throughout this whole scene suggests that he will neither be able to untie the knot nor to cut it—and, therefore, that the “knot” of racism, slavery and injustice will remain active unless someone actually decides to tackle the problem head-on.

The Knot Quotes in Benito Cereno

The Benito Cereno quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Knot. 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

At last, puzzled to comprehend the meaning of such a knot, Captain Delano addressed the knotter:—

“What are you knotting there, my man?”

“The knot,” was the brief reply, without looking up.

“So it seems; but what is it for?”

“For some one else to undo,” muttered back the old man, plying his fingers harder than ever, the knot being now nearly completed.

While Captain Delano stood watching him, suddenly the old man threw the knot towards him, saying in broken English,—the first heard in the ship,—something to this effect—“Undo it, cut it, quick.”

Related Characters: Captain Amasa Delano (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Knot
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Knot Symbol Timeline in Benito Cereno

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Knot appears in Benito Cereno. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Benito Cereno
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
...are not intelligent enough. Delano then notices an old, wrinkled Spanish sailor working on a knot. Delano realizes that the knot is in fact a combination of various kinds of nautical... (full context)
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
...Delano in Spanish that the sailor is a bit slow-minded but innocuous. He retrieves the knot from Delano and throws it overboard, after muttering something to himself. (full context)