Benito Cereno


Herman Melville

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Themes and Colors
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Theme Icon
Violence and Slavery Theme Icon
Leadership and Authority Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Benito Cereno, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Racism and Prejudice

Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno, based on a real-life event, follows Captain Amasa Delano’s discovery of a ship on which a slave revolt has taken place. Through Delano’s confused perspective, Melville shows that prejudice and racist assumptions about the world can blind people to reality. On the San Dominick, a Spanish slave ship, Delano meets the captain, Don Benito Cereno, a moody, cryptic character who is always accompanied by his…

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Morality vs. Self-Righteousness

Benito Cereno shows that being a moral person requires more effort than simply being kind and compassionate. Beyond individual actions, morality involves recognizing the structures of power and injustice that affect different people unequally. As a respected ship captain, Amasa Delano believes that he is fair and kind because he treats white and black people with equal generosity. However, Delano’s conviction that he is a good person leads him to believe that he is morally…

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Violence and Slavery

What constitutes violence? When is it acceptable to use it? Are there conditions in which violence is justified and others in which it is not? Melville examines these issues in Benito Cereno, focusing on the topic of slavery. Although slavery is legal in the world of the novella, it involves the total dehumanization of its victims, who are treated as objects of trade. Babo’s slave revolt on the San Dominick can be justified…

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Leadership and Authority

In Benito Cereno, Melville argues that authority based on hierarchy and order alone will never lead to a stable society. As a respected ship captain, Amasa Delano believes that maintaining discipline should be any leader’s primary concern. However, Delano does not realize that, on the San Dominick and, more generally, in the American slave society he finds himself in, maintaining the status quo involves sustaining a fragile system of oppression in which a large…

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