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 superior to others and that he is therefore meant to be protected from harm. This attitude keeps him from truly understanding other people’s plights and from recognizing the injustice that others suffer from—in particular, the horrors of being a slave. By contrast, by being the victim of a slave rebellion, Don Benito Cereno has experienced first-hand the dangerous consequences that injustice and moral indifference can lead to, as it has encouraged slaves to revolt. Affected by this experience, Cereno argues that it is only by recognizing the oppression of others that people can prove fully human and moral—and, Melville suggests, that society will be able to truly progress.
Amasa Delano’s understanding of morality is based on the respect of rules. Delano believes he is a good person because he has good manners and treats individuals with empathy. He proves dedicated to protecting society’s formal rules. After the capture of the black slaves on the San Dominick, Delano keeps white sailors from killing the rebel slaves out of revenge. This highlights his belief that the rules of justice should be respected by all, and that even black slaves should be protected from extra-legal executions. This portrays him as an impartial judge and an advocate of racial equality.
However, Delano’s conduct toward black people is driven by feelings of superiority and condescension. “At home, he had often taken rare satisfaction in sitting in his door, watching some free man of color at his work or play. If on a voyage he chanced to have a black sailor, invariably he was on chatty, and half-gamesome terms with him. In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.” The narrator’s conclusion that Delano behaves with black people as with dogs is deeply ironic, as it suggests that Delano’s courteous, “genial” attitude is nothing but a façade for racism, which will never allow him to see black people as full human beings. Instead of determining his moral worth, Delano’s courteousness and abidance to the law merely conceal his morally skewed beliefs.
By focusing so much on the respect of rules, Delano remains blind to large-scale injustice and to his own participation in a system of oppression. From this perspective, instead of being morally admirable, Delano proves deluded and self-righteous. Delano trusts that his own morality is a protection against injustice. When he wonders if Cereno is trying to kill him, he concludes that this must be impossible because he is too morally admirable: “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.” By believing that he cannot possibly be harmed, Delano suggests that terrible things happen only to people who deserve it. This denies the possibility of injustice. Delano’s elevated sense of his own moral worth is narrowly self-centered, because it keeps him from realizing that part of what allows him to live a safe, peaceful life is a matter of power and privilege: for example, as a white man, he will never risk being enslaved by others.
In other words, Delano’s focus on himself as a moral person worthy of protection denies the possibility that others, who might behave just as kindly and morally as him, might simply be less fortunate. His ignorance of other people’s suffering is precisely what allows his conscience to be “clean”: it is convenient for Delano to trust that the world in which his own people are in power is a just one, and to ignore the plight of black slaves. In this way, his views on morality are self-serving and allow him to have an inflated vision of his moral worth.
At the end of the novella, Melville shows that it is only by moving away from narrowly personal experience and re-evaluating one’s position in the world, in relation to oppressed human beings, that one can be fully human and moral. It is Cereno who unveils the problem at the heart of Benito Cereno. After Delano’s men regain control over the San Dominick, Delano does not understand why Cereno is still depressed: “‘But the past is passed; why moralize upon it? […] You are saved,’ cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; ‘you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?’” Cereno’s answer is terse and ambiguous: “The negro,” he replies. Having experienced a slave rebellion, Cereno knows through personal experience that black people are neither foolish nor passive. His comment, then, is not meant as a racist attack against black people’s dignity, but, rather, as a denunciation of the terrible situation in which black people find themselves in—which, unlike Delano, he now recognizes as deeply disturbing. Through Cereno, Melville argues that ignoring the plight of others only leads to disaster, such as what Cereno has experienced on his ship. Against Delano, Cereno insists that the only way for people to prove truly moral is for them to recognize structural injustice and oppression, instead of convincing themselves that they are “saved” physically and morally—an attitude that only encourages passivity, not the righting of wrongs.
Therefore, while Delano prefers to forget about violence and cruelty, Cereno suggests that it is everyone’s human responsibility to learn from the past in order to build the future. Humans can only lead a full, moral life if they address past wrongs and tackle present injustice.
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness ThemeTracker
Morality vs. Self-Righteousness Quotes in Benito Cereno
Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.
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.”
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.
At home, he had often taken rare satisfaction in sitting in his door, watching some free man of color at his work or play. If on a voyage he chanced to have a black sailor, invariably he was on chatty, and half-gamesome terms with him. In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.
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!
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.
“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.”