The characterizations carry much of the weight of Melville's themes. Critics have pondered the most puzzling of the three major characters. How does the discovery of consummate evil aboard the San Dominick affect Amasa Delano, the innocent of the triad? A good-hearted and earnest optimist, the captain cannot let himself dwell on the implications of doom that permeate the air. Set against the tempo of his vivacity are the fey languor and intermittent paroxysms of Don Benito, a failing grandee who appears to depend on the support of a body servant. Thus Melville establishes the energetic, unfailingly altruistic American as a foil of the Spaniard, who represents the dying vigor of the Old World. His point of view obscured by flagrant racial mythology about the natural propensities of black servants, Captain Delano represents the naivete of the New World, which, in 1799, had yet to face its comeuppance for building an economy on imported slave labor.
Offsetting these white characters is the unassuming form of Babo, small, but quick to control a living tableau acted out for the benefit of Captain Delano, whom he hopes to depose from the Bachelor's Delight. At Babo's death, the most memorable part of him, his head, "that hive of subtlety," remains attuned to the comings and goings of the plaza, a disembodied intelligence overseeing the demise of a New World much indebted to blacks for its economic rise. Just as the impaled skeletal remains of Aranda haunted the Spaniards, the skull of Babo presides over a society that has yet to perceive the wages of its sin.
A key to the overriding charade in the novel is the matter of appearances. To Captain Delano, who spends twelve hours observing the microcosm of the San Dominick, the figurehead appears to be cloaked for repairs; Cereno appears to be armed with a ceremonial sword and scabbard, and Babo appears to support his master like a crutch. At the electric moment when Delano perceives the true nature of the Cereno-Babo relationship, the drawn knife threatens not only Cereno, but the American as well, who, in his shortsightedness, fails to comprehend the nearness of danger. In the same fashion, America as a whole overlooks the lurking menace of its dependence on slavery.
The irony of Delano as central intelligence is that he naively encourages Cereno to embrace blue skies, sunshine, and gentle winds so as to overleap his past encounter with evil. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Delano anticipates a paradise to come. Cereno, more sophisticated than his American counterpart, speaks his coming to knowledge in one damning phrase, "the negro," his nemesis and ultimate burden for the criminal act of trading in flesh. Acquiescent to his irredeemable status, he retires to the care of Infelez, whose name means "unlucky," the monk who tends him at Mount Agonia, or "Mount Agony," the only home he will know in his remaining three months and the cemetery where he will spend eternity.